Greater Greater Education

Posts by Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 

Some DCPS schools have to cope with an influx of midyear transfers

Thousands of DC students switch schools midyear, especially at some high schools that are part of the DC Public School system. That has negative consequences both for the students who switch and the schools they enter.


Photo of students from Shutterstock.

A recent report from DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that over 92% of DC students remain in the same school throughout the year, based on data from 2011 through 2014. Some have hailed that as proof that the system is fundamentally stable.

But that 8% of students who move midyear is more significant than it sounds, and DCPS schools take in a disproportionate number of new students as compared to charters. In fact, many students who transfer to DCPS midyear come from charter schools. Most of the new arrivals, however, come from other DCPS schools or other states.

Students who switch schools midyear are often already at risk, and transferring only exacerbates their difficulties. They're more likely to have low test scores and to qualify for special education than the DC population as a whole, according to the report. They're also disproportionately low-income, African-American, and male.

Schools that take in a lot of students midyear also face challenges. If a school has established clear routines and rules, late arrivals won't be familiar with them. Some may bring behavior problems that caused them to leave their previous school.

Teachers need to devote extra effort to bringing new students up to speed on what the rest of the class has been learning. Other students at the school can suffer as a result.

Clearly, there are powerful incentives for schools to deny admission to students after the school year has begun. But it's also obvious that it would be a bad idea to deprive thousands of kids of any education whatsoever.

Besides, in DC, only charters have the option of turning midyear applicants away. Neighborhood DCPS schools are legally required to take all comers, whenever they arrive.

DCPS has a net gain of students while charters have a net loss

According to the report, over 6,000 students entered or exited DC schools or changed schools within DC at least once during the 2013-14 school year. Both sectors lost students during the course of the school year, but charter schools were much less likely to replace them with new arrivals. By June, DCPS experienced a net gain of 2% of its enrollment, while charter sector enrollment had declined by 5%.

Some have charged that much of the churn in DCPS is caused by students leaving charter schools midyear, voluntarily or involuntarily. The report shows that many more students do leave charters for DCPS midyear than vice versa.

In fact, over the three years studied, the number of students going from charters to DCPS was more than 12 times the number who have moved in the opposite direction. And over 30% of charters' decline in enrollment each year was due to students transferring to DCPS.

But it's also clear that students arriving from charters are only a fraction of the students entering DCPS schools midyear. More students switch schools within DCPS. For the three years covered by the report, 717 students on average switched from one DCPS school to another each year, while an average of 584 entered the system from charters.

And the number of students who entered DCPS from beyond DC's borders is greater than the number of transfers from charters and other DCPS schools put together: 1,783 a year, on average.

High school students move more than others

It's also clear that there's more movement at the high school level than in other grades. Students in 9th grade had the highest rate of churn in 2013-14, with 12.4% switching schools. At 10th grade, the figure was 8.7%. The only other grade level with a higher rate was preschool for three-year-olds.

That's in line with another study that found 30% of DC students switch high schools at least once. And high school is a particularly bad time to switch: a student's chances of graduating sink by 10 percentage points each time he transfers, according to the study.

A few DCPS high schools have the highest influx of midyear transfers, according to data gathered by the Washington Post. Cardozo High School, which takes in many immigrant students, had a 30% increase in enrollment during the year. Its net gain, after offsetting the increase with students who withdrew, was 18.4% of its student body.

Other high schools, including some application-only DCPS schools, were comparatively stable, losing or gaining less than 1% of their population. Meanwhile, 16 high schools, all of them charters, had a net loss of between 3 and 22.5%.

At Roosevelt High School, which had a net gain of 8.4%, there were 487 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. By May, 47 had withdrawn, but 73 others had arrived.

New students may arrive with vastly different needs. At Roosevelt, the newcomers included a 17-year-old from Guatemala who was in school for the first time since 6th grade, a 9th-grader who had left a charter after she was caught with marijuana, and an 18-year-old who had dropped out of another DCPS high school after moving into a group foster home near Roosevelt.

A change in school funding may help but won't solve the problem

Clearly, officials need to take steps to reduce student mobility in DC. One possibility now under discussion is to change the way schools receive compensation. Currently, charter schools receive a set amount for each student enrolled on October 5th. If they gain or lose students after that date, they neither take in or lose additional money.

A system that compensates charters more accurately for the number of students enrolled throughout the year might give them an incentive to retain students. But it wouldn't help reduce the far greater inflow of students to DCPS from other sources. And it's not clear charters would be willing to admit a larger share of the students who arrive midyear even if they got compensated for them, given the disruption such transfers can cause.

There may be policy changes that could reduce the amount of transferring within DCPS, but it's not clear officials can do anything about the movement across state, and even international, lines. It would help, however, if DC could at least share data about students and their movements with Maryland and Virginia.

That would allow schools here to determine the backgrounds and needs of students who enter from those states, and it would enable DC officials to understand what happens to the many students who transfer to those states' schools from DC. That kind of data sharing is a possibility that OSSE is currently exploring, according to the report.

As the report concludes, we need more information about the underlying causes of student movement from school to school before we can try to reduce it. But even once we identify them, those causes may be hard to address.

Some have suggested, for example, that a system of school choice is part of the problem, because it's led to a cavalier attitude about moving from one school to another. And given that students who transfer midyear are disproportionately at-risk and low-income, poverty and housing insecurity may also be driving a lot of the mobility.

So it's likely that student mobility will be a fact of life at many DCPS schools for the foreseeable future. It would make sense to develop specific programs to help integrate new students at schools that receive large numbers of midyear transfers, as Cardozo has done for immigrant students.

And when we're comparing one school's level of achievement to another's, we should take into account whether a school has been acquiring additional challenging, and possibly disruptive, students—or whether it's been losing them.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

What's behind the low standardized test scores in one high-priced DC neighborhood

Generally, housing prices in DC correlate with neighborhood school test scores. But Garrison Elementary in Logan Circle is a striking exception: it's a school with math and reading proficiency rates in the mid-20s in an area where the median sale price for a three-bedroom home last year was over a million dollars.


Photo of Garrison Elementary from DCPS website.

Garrison's principal, Collin Hill, says that he, like others, was a little surprised that prices within the school's boundaries were so high. But he also says his school's test scores don't tell the whole story, and that Garrison is on an upward trajectory.

In 2012, DC Public Schools announced it was planning to close Garrison, located at 1200 S Street NW, because of low enrollment. Built for 350 students, the school had only 228.

But parents at the school mounted a massive effort to convince DCPS to reverse its decision, promising to boost enrollment to 344 by 2016. As a result, DCPS not only agreed to keep the school open but also pledged to modernize the dilapidated building.

That pledge has yet to be fulfilled, as DC officials have repeatedly postponed the funding for Garrison's renovation. And while enrollment has increased, last year it was still only 244. For next year, DCPS has projected a figure of 260.

Test scores at the school have actually declined over the past several years. Proficiency rates in 2011-12 were 51% for math and 45% for reading. They dipped to 33% and 31%, respectively, in 2012-13. For 2013-14, they were 23% and 25%.

The connection between gentrification and test scores can be complex

Generally, of course, schools in affluent neighborhoods have high test scores. In areas where housing prices have long been high, that has a lot to do with the fact that schools enroll affluent kids, who tend to score better than low-income kids on standardized tests.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the reasons for the correlation between scores and housing prices can be more complex. Scores may rise as affluent families begin sending their kids to a low-performing neighborhood school, and those rising scores in turn attract more affluent families. Ideally, scores of low-income kids at the school also increase as the school improves.

Logan Circle, the neighborhood where Garrison is located, is a gentrification poster child. Longtime Washingtonians may remember it as a rough area they did their best to avoid 20 or 30 years ago. In the past few years, it's become a bustling downtown mecca where it can be impossible to snag a table at a restaurant—or a condo, if you don't have $900,000.

Of course, many of the people paying high prices for homes around Logan Circle aren't sending their kids to Garrison. They may not have school-age kids, or they may be in a position to afford a private school. Some may figure they'll luck out in the lottery for charter schools or DCPS schools in other neighborhoods.

Still, according to the DCPS website, 48% of Garrison's students live within the school's boundaries. For a DCPS school, that's a respectable figure. While some schools draw over 80% of their students from within their boundaries, even many with high test scores draw far fewer. John Eaton—a high-performing school in affluent Cleveland Park—has only 45% in-boundary students.

Multiple factors may explain low scores at Garrison

But the wealthier neighborhood families who send their kids to Garrison aren't generally sticking around long enough for their kids to have a positive effect on the school's test scores. As at many other schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, affluent residents have tended to send their kids there for preschool and kindergarten and then peel off for other schools. DCPS testing doesn't begin until 3rd grade, by which time classes are predominantly filled with lower-income kids.

The uncertainty about Garrison's future two years ago may have exacerbated that trend among families who could muster the resources to find another school.

Principal Hill also says that at a small school like his, a small number of weak students in a given year can pull average scores down significantly.

And scores may well improve in the future. Hill says he's been laying the groundwork for that kind of improvement, but it takes time to see results.

Hill took over the school in 2012, shortly before DCPS announced plans to close it, with a mandate to increase in-boundary enrollment. He set in motion a number of changes. For one thing, he says, the school's previous administration focused its efforts on the grades that were tested instead of building a strong foundation in basic skills in lower grades.

Hill has changed that approach, and he says it's paying off. All but two of last year's kindergarteners ended the year with reading skills at grade level, he says. And on measures of reading comprehension for students below 3rd grade, Garrison scored among the top ten schools in the district. That was true for both the lowest-performing kids and those who were just below where they should have been.

There's also been almost a complete turnover in teaching staff since Hill took over. While some of that was "natural turnover," Hill says, some of it has reflected improvements he wanted to make. And he's introduced a new math curriculum, a writing initiative that has seen good results at other DCPS schools, and a calmer school culture.

Test scores aren't everything

More fundamentally, Hill says test scores aren't the full measure of a school. If neighborhood residents come visit Garrison, he says, they'll find a "community where people feel welcomed and valued." He cites his own experience as a parent some years ago at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill.

"When our kids went to Maury," he says, "the test scores were not phenomenal. But when my wife walked in, she said it felt like a friendly, supportive place."

Clearly, that's what a number of neighborhood parents have experienced at Garrison and one reason they fought so hard to keep it open. One parent who had a negative reaction to Garrison's former principal had the opposite reaction to Hill.

"He's smart, engaged, well-spoken, and aware of the challenges he faces," she wrote in a post for Greater Greater Education two years ago.

Garrison may well get a respite from a focus on test scores for a while. Because DC gave students new, more rigorous tests this past school year, scores coming out this fall won't be comparable to those from past years. As a result, they may be de-emphasized—or perhaps even not made public.

That could help draw even more neighborhood families to Garrison, and possibly encourage them to stay longer. But Garrison, like most DCPS elementary schools, suffers from a feeder pattern problem: no matter how good the elementary school gets, families may not want to stick around and risk being funneled to a middle school and high school they lack confidence in.

Currently, the destination school for Garrison students is Cardozo Education Campus, which houses 6th through 12th grades. Formerly a low-performing high school with a rough reputation, Cardozo reopened two years ago after one of DCPS's typically stunning renovations. The new building also absorbed what had previously been a stand-alone middle school, Shaw at Garnet-Patterson.

It's not clear how many Garrison parents will be willing to send their 6th-graders on to Cardozo. The new school boundary plan that DC has adopted calls for reviving a separate Shaw middle school that would serve as the destination for Garrison students. There's no word, though, on when or if that school will actually be built.

But more and more residents of Logan Circle, like residents of Capitol Hill and other gentrifying areas, may well decide that a convenient, welcoming neighborhood elementary school that is on the upswing is worth something, even without the promise of a high-quality feeder pattern. Maybe even a million bucks.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

It's more expensive to live in a good school district, with a few exceptions

Generally speaking, higher test scores at a DC Public School elementary school correlate with higher housing costs. But there are a few "bargain" neighborhoods, and one outlier school that's surrounded by pricey housing despite low scores.


All images from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

The median price of a typical three-bedroom home within the attendance zone of a top-scoring DCPS elementary school is over $800,000, according to District Measured, a blog produced by DC's Office of Revenue Analysis. At those schools, largely in Northwest DC, 80% or more students score proficient or advanced in reading.

At the next tier down, schools where 60 to 80% of students are proficient or advanced, housing prices aren't much lower: median sale prices vary from the high $600,000s to over $1 million.

If you want to pay less than that, you may have to go to a neighborhood where the zoned school has reading proficiency rates below 60%.

In addition to a graph that correlates reading test scores and median sale prices, the ORA has created two maps. The first one shows school zones according to school rankings, and you can filter it by median home prices.

Click here for interactive version.

The second map shows home sale prices. You can filter it by school rankings.


Click here for interactive version.

ORA used the school boundaries that will go into effect this coming fall. Those new boundaries only apply to students entering the DCPS system. Students who are currently enrolled at a school can stay there even if the boundaries change.

In creating the interactive maps, ORA divided schools into five tiers based on the federal government's system of tracking school performance. The federal categories are primarily based on students' scores on DC's standardized tests, factoring in the number of students who score proficient or advanced and the growth of students from one year to the next.

The maps show that there's a range of housing prices attached to schools within a given category, outside of the highest tier. Both Nalle and School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens are in tier two, for example. But the median home price in Nalle's zone in Ward 7 is $150,500, while in Francis-Stevens' zone, in Ward 2, it's $1,375,000.

Garrison Elementary, in Logan Circle, is the biggest outlier on the graph and maps. The school is in the next-to-last tier, four, with a reading proficiency rate in the mid-20s. But the median home price in its zone is over a million dollars. That's above the median price in the zone for John Eaton, a tier one school located in well-to-do Cleveland Park.

Of course, median home prices don't just reflect the desirability of a neighborhood school. Some residents either no longer have school-age kids or don't plan to. And in DC, even those who are concerned about school quality know they're not necessarily limited to the school they're zoned for.

Almost half the public school students in DC attend charter schools, and admission to them is determined by lottery rather than location. Even within the DCPS system, many students attend a school other than the one they're zoned for—40% did so in 2012, according to ORA. Overall, only about 25% of DC students attend their assigned school.

Still, there's value to having a guaranteed seat at a high-performing elementary school. That's reflected in home prices in DC as in Montgomery County and elsewhere. If you filter ORA's school performance map for increasingly lower-priced housing, you can see the available area shrink and the high-performing zones decrease.

By the time you get to a median price of under $500,000, the map is a ribbon along the eastern edge of the District, where most of the schools fall into the lowest three tiers.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

A redeveloped mixed-income neighborhood revives a closed DCPS school

At a time of alleged cost overruns and mismanagement on school construction projects and delays in long-promised renovations, does it make sense to spend $28 million to reopen a dilapidated DC Public School? It might, if the school holds the promise of providing a high-quality education to a permanently diverse group of students.


Architect's rendition of the renovated Van Ness Elementary by Dariush Vaziri of Dariush Watercolors. Final design is subject to change.

A year ago, some parents and community activists feared DCPS might not follow through on a pledge to reopen a shuttered elementary school in the redeveloped Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. But the school will welcome its first crop of preschoolers and kindergarteners this August.

Construction is now in progress at Van Ness Elementary—which is nowhere near the Van Ness Metro station, but rather in Southeast DC near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park. The building will house two classes of three-year-olds and two of four-year-olds this coming school year, along with at least one class of kindergarteners. The school will add a grade each year until it reaches 5th grade.

DCPS closed Van Ness in 2006, after the housing projects that supplied most of its students were razed. But the school system held onto the building, anticipating that families would move into the area once it had been redeveloped with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.

That's what happened. And about five years ago a group of parents, eager to have a neighborhood school, started pressing DCPS to renovate and reopen Van Ness. While the parents didn't get everything they asked for, the school seems to be on track for success.

Late hiring, but "amazing" teachers

One thing parents wanted was the appointment of a principal a year in advance of the school's opening, to allow time for recruiting teachers and general planning. But DCPS appointed Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, formerly an assistant principal at Seaton Elementary, as the head of school only this past May. (Although she doesn't have the title "principal," Robinson-Rivers says her role is essentially the same.)

That could have been a problem. By late spring, many teachers on the job market have already accepted other positions. But Robinson-Rivers had previously worked for DCPS as its director of teacher retention and recognition, a job that put her in contact with some of the best educators in the system. As a result, she was able to hire a group of teachers she calls "amazing."

"Many of them reached out right away," she says, "because they were excited about Van Ness, but also because they knew me and they knew the extent to which I really value teachers."

The Van Ness faculty will include three members who have won Rubinstein Awards for Highly Effective Educators within DCPS, including Robinson-Rivers herself. Another won a Milken Educator Award, given to top educators across the country, this past school year. All of them have extensive early childhood experience, some of them specifically with the curriculum Van Ness will be using, The Creative Curriculum.

In addition to a principal planning year, the parents who pushed for Van Ness's reopening also wanted work on the two-phase renovation to be done only during the summers, to avoid disruption. But for the first phase, some construction will in fact be ongoing after school opens.

Robinson-Rivers says the construction won't be disruptive because it will be confined to a separate wing from where students have classes. Given the interest many young children have in construction, she says the ongoing work might even be a "teaching tool."

While the building appears somewhat forbidding now, at least from the outside, Robinson-Rivers says the plans indicate the finished product will be "beautiful."

Competition for school renovation funds

There's been a lot of controversy about school construction lately. After hearing complaints about inequities at a DC Council budget hearing several months ago, education committee chair David Grosso proposed new guidelines to bring more fairness to the process of allocating modernization funds.

More recently, DC auditor Kathy Patterson issued a scathing report charging that the District government has failed to provide basic financial management for its spending on school construction in recent years. And because DC needs to start paying down its debt load, fewer construction dollars will be available in the future, putting some promised renovation projects in jeopardy.

At a time like this, when many existing schools are in serious and long-standing disrepair, it might seem foolhardy to spend $28 million to reopen Van Ness. But there's clearly demand for Van Ness's seats, at least at the preschool level.

Generally, DCPS doesn't guarantee families preschool slots at their neighborhood schools, and many preschool programs at schools near Van Ness have long waitlists. At one of those schools, Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill, some parents urged preschool applicants to consider Van Ness as an alternative.

Van Ness currently has 58 names on its waitlist for its three-year-old classes and 21 for its four-year-old ones. While there are still kindergarten spaces available, Robinson-Rivers says that may change as the opening of school draws nearer. And she predicts the school will continue to attract older students once parents are able to see it in action.

Aside from considerations of demand, the cost of the Van Ness renovation is relatively modest. DC has budgeted $78 million to renovate Lafayette Elementary in Ward 4 and just under $43 million to renovate Murch in Ward 3.

And compared to the hundreds of millions DC has spent renovating or constructing new high schools, several of which stand half-empty, the amount DC is spending on Van Ness is small potatoes. The ongoing renovation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown is now budgeted at $178 million, or over $1,000 about $639 per square foot.

DC may have made its school construction decisions in an arbitrary and inefficient way in the past, but that history shouldn't be invoked to prevent the revival of a defunct school in the midst of a newly vibrant, eminently walkable community.

The promise of lasting diversity

Beyond those considerations, Van Ness holds the promise of becoming a truly diverse high-quality neighborhood school. While the school doesn't have figures on the incomes of families enrolled for next year, a spokesperson said the student body is about equally divided between black and white children.

In some gentrifying neighborhoods, low-income and minority elementary students have been displaced by an influx of affluent ones. That's a shame, because all students—and especially low-income ones—benefit from attending socioeconomically diverse schools.

But that kind of "flip" from entirely low-income to entirely affluent is unlikely to happen at Van Ness because Capitol Riverfront was planned as a mixed-income community, with around 10 to 15% of its housing units reserved as affordable housing. That means a significant number of low-income students will continue to live in the neighborhood and attend Van Ness as a matter of right.

Perhaps the real question is what will happen to Van Ness's students in the upper elementary grades and beyond. The middle school that its students are zoned for, Jefferson, isn't in high demand. In fact, it's one of the schools that saw its long-planned renovations delayed as a result of recent budget cuts.

At most elementary schools in the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, families start to peel off in the older grades rather than stay in a feeder pattern that sends their kids to middle schools they don't have confidence in, including Jefferson. Unless DCPS can figure out how to improve Jefferson within the next five years, that may happen at Van Ness too.

But at least families in Capitol Riverfront will get the high-quality neighborhood school they fought for. And those outside the neighborhood should be able to snag some spaces as well, especially as the school expands in future years.

Van Ness was one of a handful of DCPS schools where in-boundary parents were guaranteed a preschool slot this year, as long as they chose it in the first round of the school lottery. Even so, slightly over half the students enrolled come from beyond the school's boundaries.

Robinson-Rivers herself is one example: although she doesn't live in Capitol Riverfront, she entered the school lottery and, without pulling any strings, managed to find a spot for her own four-year-old in Van Ness's preK program.

Update: The original version of this post said that the renovation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts would cost over $1,000 per square foot. DC Auditor Kathy Patterson has informed us that the correct cost per square foot is $638.64. The Mayor's 2016 Capital Improvement Plan used the $1,000 figure, but planned additional square footage has reduced the cost per square foot.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

To keep its best principals, DCPS needs to give them more autonomy

After 35 years as a teacher and principal in DC Public Schools, during which he managed to turn around two struggling schools, Patrick Pope resigned, becoming part of a wave of high turnover among DCPS principals in recent years. He's now principal of a charter school. If DCPS administrators want to retain successful school leaders like Pope, they need to trust their judgment and allow them greater autonomy.


Photo of hands from Shutterstock.

In 2013 and 2014, DCPS replaced about two dozen principals a year. Although there's no official count yet for this year, the Washington Teachers Union estimates the figure will be at least as high. That means about 25% of DCPS schools have been changing principals every year, compared to a turnover rate in Montgomery County of between 5 and 7%.

As DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has recognized, it's hard for reforms to take root in a school when there's churn at the top. And a strong school leader is a crucial ingredient in any turnaround effort.

No doubt there are a variety of reasons DCPS principals have departed, but some of those who have gone—like Pope—have been highly regarded. And, like Pope, some of those have chosen to leave voluntarily. Pope is unusual in that he's willing to discuss his reasons.

As principal of Hardy Middle School in upper Georgetown for many years, Pope brought in an arts focus and saw test scores rise. Ousted from Hardy under controversial circumstances by former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Pope later adopted a similar approach at Savoy Elementary in Ward 8 and won national acclaim.

But after a little over three years at Savoy, Pope said in an interview, he decided it was "time to move." He resigned at the end of the 2013-14 school year. In January of this year, he accepted a position as principal of Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy Middle School, part of the Friendship charter school network.

While Pope is circumspect about the details of his decision to leave DCPS, he says he didn't have "the autonomy to put staff and resources where they needed to be." Over the course of his career at DCPS, he says he saw a decrease in principals' autonomy and a movement towards greater centralized control.

"They will say the words autonomy," he says of DCPS administrators, "but the model is, you can have autonomy when you get to a certain level of student performance measures."

But principals need autonomy in order to increase those measures in the first place, Pope says. And he argues that teachers and administrators at the school level are often in the best position to figure out what students need to succeed.

The arts as a way to get kids engaged in school

Part of Pope's own formula for success has been bringing the arts into the school curriculum. The arts, he says, "is an easy way to get kids engaged," giving them "the opportunity to feel school is a positive, challenging place, where their particular talents will be tapped and grown."

The narrow, basic-skills-focused curriculum that currently prevails in many schools, especially those serving disadvantaged populations, doesn't serve that purpose, Pope says: "Kids don't come to school to be told how poorly they read and how poorly they do in math."

At Hardy, Pope was charged with creating a program that would help spur middle school enrollment—a problem DCPS is still grappling with. Not only did he ensure that all students were engaged in the arts, he says the school also developed "a terrific athletic program and great math and science. Our kids went to the best high schools and did well."

But the school failed to draw students from the surrounding affluent area, instead attracting many from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Rhee decided that a change in school leadership was necessary, citing what she said was a confusing application process that gave neighborhood families the false impression that Hardy was a school they didn't have a right to attend. In addition, some neighborhood residents didn't care for Hardy's arts focus and didn't warm to Pope personally.

But there was no influx of neighborhood kids after his removal. Enrollment has declined from a peak of 521 in 2009-10, Pope's last year at Hardy, to 386 in 2014-15. And while the school has apparently managed to draw more students from within its boundaries in recent years, they still make up only 15% of the student body, according to the DCPS website.

Pope says he tried to reach out to neighborhood residents, but he believed a lot of families in the area would send their children to private schools "no matter what we did." For the school to grow, he realized, it "had to be attractive programmatically to families from all over the city."

While the application to Hardy asked for a letter of recommendation and some evidence of experience or interest in the arts, Pope says it was more in the nature of a "handshake," ensuring that families would see themselves as partners with the school in educating their children. Asked if he would have rejected an in-boundary family, he says he doesn't know because "it never came to that."

Transforming Savoy from the "saddest school" to a place of joy

At his next principal post at Savoy, Pope didn't have the benefit of that handshake. As at other neighborhood schools, parents didn't have to take any affirmative steps to get their kids admitted or commit to any engagement in their children's education.

Pope told the Washington Post that when he arrived at Savoy in 2011, "it was the saddest school I'd ever been in." Students were unruly, teachers were burnt-out, and test scores were abysmal. Still, Pope managed to turn things around.

With the help of a federal grant of about $450,000, Pope made sure all students in 1st through 5th grade took instrumental music and a daily movement or dance class. He also integrated the arts into other classes. Savoy became, according to the Post, a "vibrant, even joyful" place. As at Hardy, Pope won the respect and enthusiasm of parents, teachers, and students.

Savoy also became one of eight schools nationwide chosen to participate in the Turnaround Arts Initiative of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Artists like Yo-Yo Ma visited, and Michelle Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the program.

And test scores, which had been falling, began to rise. By 2014, the proficiency rate was 26% in reading and 31% in math. That may not sound impressive, but two years before the rates had been 19% and 16%, respectively.

Now, as principal of Friendship's Tech Prep Academy Middle School, Pope is preparing to work his magic again, turning its STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) into a "STEAM" program with the addition of the Arts.

At Friendship, as at Hardy, Pope will have the benefit of a parent body that has affirmatively chosen the school. But Pope has shown he's one of those rare leaders who can accomplish the tougher job of turning around a school where parents haven't given him that figurative handshake from the beginning. While Pope says he's confident that Savoy will continue on its upward trajectory under new leadership, DCPS can't afford to lose principals like him.

In an effort to reduce turnover, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently announced that some principals would be eligible for three-year rather than one-year contracts. That's certainly a step in the right direction.

But as Pope's experience shows, a longer contract may not be enough to retain visionary school leaders. It wasn't that DCPS wanted to get rid of Pope. Pope wanted to leave DCPS, essentially because the bureaucracy didn't allow him the freedom to do what he thought was necessary for his school's success.

Inevitably, some principals in the system will need more top-down guidance, even control, than others. But if DCPS administrators want to turn around their lowest-performing schools, they need to figure out a way to distinguish between principals who need to be reined in and those who need the freedom to run.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Here's how standardized tests are impeding learning in DC

Standardized tests, which have proliferated in classrooms in DC and elsewhere in recent years, have led teachers to concentrate on reading and math at the expense of subjects like social studies and science. And while the tests have value, they generally don't improve instruction or boost learning.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

Testing not only takes significant amounts of time away from instruction, it also influences what gets taught. Standardized tests, which factor into the evaluation of schools and teachers, focus primarily on reading and math skills. Partly as a result, that's what most elementary schools now focus on as well, to the near exclusion of other subjects.

According to a national survey, in 2012 elementary school teachers spent only about 18 minutes a day on social studies and 21 minutes a day on science. Testing isn't the only reason for that: in 2000, before the passage of the federal law that spurred much of the testing done today, the corresponding figure was a mere 27 minutes for each subject. But high-stakes standardized tests have exacerbated the problem.

DC is no exception to that trend. Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the DC State Board of Education from Ward 3 who was elected last fall, made testing and the narrowing of the curriculum her main campaign issues. Since taking office in January, she's visited almost 30 elementary classes in a variety of DC schools.

"My overwhelming impression is that most of our kids around the city are getting a very, very narrow curriculum," she says. She fears students aren't acquiring the knowledge about science and social studies that will allow them to succeed in middle school, high school, and beyond.

The SBOE recently called on DC's State Superintendent of Education to investigate how much time schools are devoting to subjects that aren't tested or tested less than reading and math.

Educators say many elementary schools teach only reading and math

In March, the SBOE heard from a panel of award-winning teachers who echoed Wattenberg's observations. A DCPS middle school science teacher, Sarah Riggen, said it's difficult to instruct students at the middle school level when they've never encountered science in elementary school.

"We're asking our students to do these very complex tasks," she said, "but it's a little bit unrealistic if we continue to put science on the back burner in the lower grades."

"Testing is the curriculum" now in many schools, says former DCPS principal Patrick Pope, now principal at Friendship Technology Prep Middle School, a DC charter. Pope, who spent 35 years in the DCPS system, says the curriculum was much broader years ago, before the advent of high-stakes testing.

"You have teachers and administrators whose jobs rise and fall on school performance as measured on reading and math tests given for three to four days in the spring," he said. "And for schools that serve traditionally underachieving populations, the approach has been to double down on math and reading instruction."

Unlike many charter schools serving low-income kids, DCPS has developed a curriculum that covers a broad range of content beginning in kindergarten. But, says Pope, teachers who are under pressure to raise test scores may choose to focus only on those aspects of the curriculum that seem likely to do that.

Practicing reading skills isn't enough to improve comprehension

To some, the narrow focus makes sense: if kids are struggling with reading, then why not just have them practice reading? But reading comprehension is highly dependent on having background knowledge and vocabulary about what you're reading.

So the only way to truly improve reading comprehension is to systematically provide kids with knowledge, the opposite of what elementary schools have been doing. By the time many kids—especially low-income kids—get to middle or high school, they lack so much knowledge that grade-level material is far beyond their reach.

Students are also more likely to become engaged in school when the curriculum includes subjects beyond reading and math. Pope, who brought an arts focus to an underperforming elementary school in Ward 8, says that experience showed him "you can expect better testing results when you build rich programming that engages kids, and you couple that with the best reading and math instruction you can find."

All kids benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum, but poor kids, who are less likely to acquire knowledge at home, need it the most. And they're the ones least likely to get it.

"I would love to see more schools say, you know what these kids need to do to close the achievement gap, they need to go bird-watching," Mike Mangiaracina, an award-winning DCPS math teacher, told the SBOE in March. Mangiaracina has organized a bird-watching group at Brent Elementary.

Some tests boost learning, but standardized ones don't

There's nothing inherently wrong with testing. Not only can tests show teachers what students aren't understanding, they can actually help students retain information.

But that's only the case if students are taking tests—preferably frequent, low-stakes tests—that actually reflect the content teachers have covered. Standardized tests don't generally test content, because they're designed to be given in many different school districts that are all teaching different things.

Instead, they test skills. A standardized reading test, for example, gives students a randomly selected passage and then asks questions to assess how well they understood it.

Another problem is that the results of high-stakes standardized tests given in the spring don't become available until the following school year, when it's too late for teachers to use them to guide instruction.

DCPS has devised its own tests, called unit assessments, that it says are based on the units of study in its curriculum. One DCPS parent, Mike Showalter, said that teachers he's spoken with at several schools say the tests are poorly written and don't actually match what's in the curriculum. The teachers called the tests "awful" and "a huge waste of instruction time," according to Showalter.

DCPS guidelines allow 90 minutes for the tests, but a spokesperson said that "feedback from schools suggested that most students finished in less than an hour." And while schools can administer the tests as many as six times a year, the spokesperson said "the vast majority" of schools only give half that number.

DCPS tests don't focus on what teachers have covered

DCPS officials allowed me a glimpse of a few unit assessments, and based on what I saw, they don't test content directly. Instead, they're constructed like standardized tests, giving students a passage to read and asking them questions about it. While the passages are thematically related to the content of the unit, the tests focus primarily on measuring skills.

For example, the test corresponding to a 2nd-grade unit on Canada and Mexico consisted of a passage about a boy and his grandfather, who was born in Cuba and had moved to Miami. One question asked where the grandfather had been born. Neither the passage nor the questions had anything to do with Canada or Mexico.

Why not have the unit tests ask students questions about what they've actually learned? One reason may be that the current format is a better predictor of how students will perform on the standardized PARCC tests given at the end of the year, which have a similar format. But other standardized tests that are given throughout the year already serve that purpose.

Another possible reason is that DCPS administrators feel it's more important to test comprehension or analytical skills as opposed to what they see as rote memorization of facts. When I asked DCPS's director of early literacy, Jennifer Jump, why the unit test I saw didn't ask anything about Canada or Mexico, she explained that if, say, a unit covered World War II, you wouldn't want to just ask students a fact-based question like when the war began.

Perhaps not. It would probably be better to ask them, for example, what factors led to the outbreak of World War II. But in order to answer that question well, they would need to know some factual information about World War II, including when it began.

In other words, divorcing skills from content is a mistake. You can't develop analytical skills unless you're also developing knowledge that gives you something to analyze. At a certain point kids will have acquired enough knowledge and vocabulary that they can understand texts about things they're not directly familiar with, but that point arrives at different moments for different students.

So, for example, if students have learned about World War II, and you test their comprehension or analytical skills by giving them a passage about the War in Vietnam, they may or may not do well. It will probably depend on how much they happen to know about the War in Vietnam, or how much general knowledge they've been able to acquire that will help them understand the passage. But their performance won't necessarily reflect how much they've learned in class about World War II.

If DCPS administrators had designed the unit tests to directly cover the content in the units of study, they could have encouraged teachers to teach that content instead of focusing on skills. The tests might have helped reinforce students' knowledge.

And they could have relieved teachers of the burden of creating their own tests to find out what their students have learned. Instead, DCPS more or less replicated the many standardized tests schools are already giving.

In fact, DCPS allows schools to substitute standardized tests called ANet, which about a quarter of DCPS schools use, for the unit tests. While that may cut down on the number of tests students have to take, it doesn't do anything to promote the teaching of content.

Standardized tests have their place. We need some way of comparing different schools and students and pointing up inequities in our education system.

And ideally, the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests will actually lead schools to broaden their curricula beyond reading and math. To prepare for the old multiple choice tests, teachers could coach their students in strategies like eliminating answers that were clearly wrong. To do well on the new tests, students need to acquire broad general knowledge.

But it's not clear how many teachers and administrators understand that. And we shouldn't count on any standardized tests, no matter how well constructed, to do something they weren't designed to accomplish: improve teaching and learning.

At this point, we need to figure out how to make sure they don't prevent teaching and learning from taking place.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

If you can't get kids to a mental health clinic, bring the clinic to a school

Teachers at high-poverty schools often struggle with behavior problems caused by students' mental health issues. One solution is to provide mental health services in schools, as a company formed by two clinical psychologists is now doing in DC.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

Education reformers have tended to focus on what goes on inside classrooms, saying that poverty is no excuse for low expectations. Others have countered that teachers can't be held responsible for solving social ills that inevitably spill over into schools. Some schools, including the KIPP DC charter network, are trying to find a middle ground.

Poor families tend to experience more than their share of violence, mental illness, addiction, housing insecurity, and other challenges. That leads to a high degree of stress, which in turn can cause a host of behavioral and cognitive problems in children. While not all students in high-poverty schools have suffered trauma, the outbursts of a few can disrupt learning for all.

At one KIPP DC elementary school in Ward 7, Quest Academy, some kids "have experienced more trauma by age nine than some of us experience over a lifetime," according to the school's founding principal, Cherese Brauer. The Quest community has an even higher rate of poverty-related ills like substance abuse and violence than the school she previously worked at in Anacostia, she said.

While many schools have social workers and even psychologists on staff, they're often occupied with testing and compliance with special education requirements. They may have neither the time nor the training to deal with traumatized kids. Teachers usually don't have that kind of training either.

Recently, though, schools across the country have started to adopt a trauma-informed approach to discipline that seeks to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Locally, DC Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the council's education committee, is convening a public roundtable on trauma-informed schools and support services on June 23.

Psychologists provide therapy and training in schools

Two years ago, realizing their schools needed help with mental health challenges, KIPP DC administrators contracted with a new company called InSite Solutions. The founders, Aaron Rakow and Megan McCormick King, are pediatric clinical psychologists who met while working at Children's National Medical Center.

Both Rakow and King felt a mission to serve disadvantaged kids and wanted to remove the barriers that kept many poor families from getting help at Children's. Those included transportation, difficulty following through on a recommended plan of action, and—most fundamentally—the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health problems. Their goal was, in essence, to build mental health clinics inside schools.

At KIPP DC campuses, Rakow and King train teachers and principals in techniques designed to prevent behavioral problems from arising. They also teach them how to recognize the root causes of problematic behavior and respond appropriately.

Teachers may not understand, for example, "what anxiety looks like in a six-year-old," says Brauer, whose school worked with InSite Solutions this past year. "He's not just going to say, 'I'm anxious.'"

In addition, Rakow and King train school social workers to work with at-risk kids in group settings. For students with the greatest needs, they provide psychotherapy at the school. A psychiatrist visits each school once a week to provide and oversee medication, if needed. Schools can also use the services of an autism specialist.

Involving and educating parents

InSite Solutions also works closely with parents, involving them in decisions about how to respond to their children's behavior. Many parents also come to weekly drop-in hours to get advice on how to manage things like bedtimes and struggles over eating.

"They'll say, 'the school thinks I'm a bad parent, but I just don't know what to do,'" says King. In many cases, they're simply replicating the same approach to parenting their own parents used.

King and Rakow say the fact that they're providing services in schools has been enormously helpful in removing the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental and behavioral problems. "It just became a normal part of the day," says King.

Engaging parents has been particularly important at the Quest campus, which until this school year housed a different charter school, Arts and Technology Academy. Faced with closure for underperformance, ATA chose to have KIPP DC take over the school. It was a decision that didn't sit well with many parents.

"There was no welcoming committee here," says Brauer. "They were grieving the loss of the school."

Brauer says she and her staff also had to transform the school culture into one of high expectations. There were disciplinary issues galore: kids walking out of the building or even trying to jump out a window, and one kid who called 911 after he had punched someone else in the face.

Now, at the end of the school year, Brauer credits InSite Solutions for a marked improvement. "We've gone from two to three disciplinary incidents a day to maybe two to three a month, and I'm probably overestimating that," she says.

Not only are children less stressed, teachers no longer feel they have to shoulder these problems alone, without adequate training.

"I am undergoing an education myself," Brauer says. "Everyone is getting an education."

Families pay nothing for the services they receive at the schools, and InSite Solutions charges KIPP DC a surprisingly modest fee: $270,000 a year for all 16 campuses, or under $17,000 per campus. King and Rakow say they keep costs low by employing five senior graduate students in clinical psychology, who receive a small stipend but gain valuable experience and training.

Still, King and Rakow are each personally following about 350 students spread across the KIPP DC network. It sounds like a lot to handle, but they're eager to take on more schools and reach more kids.

And there's certainly no shortage of kids, families, and teachers in DC who need their help.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

How one DC charter school is "changing everything" to give kids knowledge

For decades, elementary schools have focused on building skills at the expense of instilling knowledge. One DC charter school network, Center City, is in the forefront of a movement to reverse that approach.


Photo of students from Shutterstock.

Most elementary schools in the US teach reading by focusing on skills like "finding the main idea" or "making predictions." Especially in high-poverty urban schools, where kids often struggle with reading, teachers spend hours every day on these skills and don't teach history or science in any systematic way.

But to understand what you're reading, you need a certain amount of relevant background knowledge and vocabulary. Just try finding the main idea of this abstract of an article in a scientific journal. Unless you're well versed in cellular biology, chances are you'll be stumped.

That's what it's like for many kids who try to tackle high school level material after spending years practicing reading comprehension skills on simple stories. And low-income kids, who are far less likely to acquire knowledge at home, start out at a disadvantage and fall farther behind with each passing year.

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by DC and dozens of states, aimed to correct this situation. The authors of the standards included language about the need to build knowledge systematically starting in elementary school, by implementing a broad and coherent curriculum.

But few have noticed that fundamental aspect of the Common Core, which doesn't actually require schools to focus on any particular content. In fact, many have blamed the Common Core for the very thing it was trying to remedy: the narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and math.

Some schools are undertaking the shift

Still, some schools and school districts, including DC Public Schools, have undertaken the challenging shift from a focus on skills to one on building knowledge. One is Center City, a DC network of charter schools with six preschool-through-8th-grade campuses primarily serving low-income students.

Center City is "light years ahead of most schools around the country" in implementing the new approach, according to Silas Kulkarni. Kulkarni is on the staff of Student Achievement Partners, a group that supports teachers in adapting to the new demands of the Common Core.

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called "ANet" (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

"Whatever ANet's assessing in the next nine weeks, that's what I'm teaching," says Center City's director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn't collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then a classroom teacher an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school borrows from free resources available on state websites like EngageNY and Louisiana Believes has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they'll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Kids find acquiring knowledge more engaging than practicing skills

One criticism often leveled at the Common Core is that it's unrealistic to expect young children to handle the kind of "complex text" the standards call for. But as a visit to Center City demonstrates, kids not only can handle complex ideas, they actually enjoy them.

For one thing, reading isn't the only way for kids to get information. Before asking students to read a text on a given subject, teachers can orally introduce ideas and vocabulary that are beyond kids' reading levels.

In one 1st grade class at Center City's Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

"Magma!" they chorused, drawing on knowledge they'd gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for "fire"—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

That's another advantage of a knowledge-based approach: if it's done well, kids find it far more engaging than spending hours practicing finding the main idea. Schools with challenging populations may feel they have to establish order before they can shift to focusing on knowledge, but that could be a mistake.

If kids are excited about learning, "the behavior problems fall away," says Samantha Flaherty, Center City's curriculum manager.

Adopting a curriculum is only half the battle

But adopting a curriculum is only half of what a school needs to make the shift successfully. It establishes what you teach, but just as important is how you teach it.

Providing a teacher with a script about, say, different kinds of rock relieves her of the burden of acquiring all that knowledge herself. But if she just reads the script in a monotone, "the kids will go crazy after ten minutes," says Flaherty. Each teacher has to own the material, teaching it in a way that is both engaging and suited to her own style.

Another challenge is weaning teachers from a focus on data and test scores. Skills alone don't mean much, but it's easier for teachers to measure whether kids are acquiring them than whether they're building knowledge.

And the new Common Core tests that DC and other schools across the country have switched to this year will continue to measure skills, not knowledge. But because the new tests call for greater analytical abilities, kids will only score well if they've acquired enough knowledge to become good general readers. For low-income kids, that could take years.

Williams has a laid-back attitude toward testing. "I tell teachers, don't chase the test," he says. "If you have a strong curriculum, the test will take care of itself."

That's a sentiment you won't hear from many school leaders these days, unfortunately. And at schools where there's pressure to increase test scores, teachers will have an even harder time adjusting to a focus on knowledge.

"People are just beginning to realize that we need to change everything," says Flaherty. "It's not for the faint of heart."

But building knowledge is the only way to make elementary education meaningful for all kids, and it's our best chance of narrowing the achievement gap.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Can DCPS stem the middle school exodus?

Students have been leaving DC Public Schools in droves after the elementary grades because of a dearth of appealing middle school options. A series of graphs from DC's Office of Revenue Analysis shows what's been happening and suggests that things could change in the future.


All graphs from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Looking at the DCPS cohort that entered kindergarten in 2006 and is now in 8th grade, there's been a dramatic drop: from about 4,000 in kindergarten to a little over half that number in 6th grade. Much of that decline occurred between 5th and 6th grade, the first year of middle school.

While a number of DCPS elementary schools have improved in recent years, parents have complained that the system's middle schools suffer from low achievement, discipline and safety issues, and a limited range of academic and extracurricular offerings.

Only one DCPS middle school, Alice Deal in Ward 3, has proved widely attractive. And with an enrollment of 1,300, Deal is overcrowded.

Drop in elementary enrollments after 4th grade

At some elementary schools, parents begin leaving after 4th grade for private schools, other DCPS elementary schools that feed into Deal, or charter schools, many of which start their middle schools at 5th grade. Some leave the District altogether.

At Ross Elementary School in Dupont Circle last year, for example, the number of students fell from 19 in 4th grade to nine in 5th. In the previous three years, only one of the 47 students graduating from 5th grade went on to the middle school that Ross feeds into.

On Capitol Hill, where some parents have made a concerted effort to retain students in neighborhood schools, enrollment can drop as much as 50% between preschool and 5th grade.

And a Washington Post poll last year found that only 24% of District residents would choose to send their children to a DCPS middle school. Among white and college-educated parents, only 20% would make that choice.

During last year's mayoral campaign, both leading candidates made improving middle schools a key issue, with Muriel Bowser adopting (at least for a while) the slogan, Deal for All.

And DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has focused on middle schools this school year, ensuring a standard baseline of academic offerings that includes algebra, foreign language, art, music, and physical education. She pledged more of an emphasis on students' social and emotional needs as well.

Henderson also promised more field trips, and recently she and Bowser unveiled a plan to offer middle school students who are taking a foreign language the opportunity to travel abroad.

Will DCPS's efforts result in more middle school students?

It's too soon to know if any of those efforts will bear fruit. The current DCPS 6th grade cohort started out smaller than the 8th grade one, but its decline has been less precipitous. So the number of students remaining in DCPS at 6th grade is about the same in both cohorts.

The DCPS cohort now in 4th grade shows the least attrition of all. Although it started out smaller than the cohort of current 8th graders, it's now about the same size that cohort was in 4th grade.

It's hard to say how many of these students DCPS can hold onto. A wider array of courses and more field trips, even international ones, may not be enough to do the trick.

Mixed results on middle school improvements

There have been some bright spots. One middle school east of the Anacostia River, Kelly Miller, has made dramatic improvements under a dynamic principal.

And the new Brookland Middle School, which opens this fall with an arts focus and a project-based learning approach, drew more applicants than expected in the school lottery. That may be a vote of confidence in the school's incoming principal, who is transferring from the well-respected Janney Elementary School in Ward 3.

The interest in Brookland is particularly encouraging because DCPS delayed the school's opening by a year, partly out of concern that it wouldn't attract enough students.

But Hardy Middle School north of Georgetown is still struggling to draw neighborhood students, even after DCPS installed a school leader who seems to inspire confidence.

And Ward 6 families are disappointed that long-promised renovations at two of the neighborhood's middle schools, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, won't be happening for several more years. Those schools have also been slow to implement a plan to adopt an International Baccalaureate curriculum that could draw neighborhood students.

It can be hard to turn a struggling school around, and even harder to change public perceptions. The experience at Brookland suggests that DCPS might have more success with brand new middle schools, and the plan for new school boundaries and feeder patterns calls for the construction of several.

But DCPS has been spending hundreds of millions building and renovating buildings, particularly high schools, and it's not clear how much more money will be available for such projects.

Some DC parents who have taken the plunge into what seems like a less desirable middle school have been pleasantly surprised. One Capitol Hill mother who passed up a well-regarded charter school for her daughter in favor of Eliot-Hine told the Post that her concerns about safety were unfounded and that she and her daughter are happy with the school.

"I feel like we wasted a lot of time and effort fretting for a year on the pros and cons of the school we considered," she wrote in an e-mail. "We could've focused that energy on [Eliot-Hine]!"

If more parents were willing to give their neighborhood middle schools a chance, the pace of change might well speed up. And then we could turn our attention to an even thornier problem: improving the quality of DCPS high schools.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

New data could help poor kids gain access to nearby charters

A new report showing where students at each DC charter school live could breathe new life into an old idea: changing the law to allow charters to give an admissions preference to neighborhood residents. The new data could help officials pinpoint situations where a neighborhood preference would help rather than harm low-income students.

In the past, some have objected that giving charters the option of a neighborhood preference would exclude disadvantaged students from high-performing schools in gentrifying neighborhoods. Now the DC Public Charter School Board has mapped the geographic distribution of students at every charter campus in DC, revealing which schools attract students who live nearby and which draw them from all over.

Students at almost half the charter schools in DC have an average commute of one to two miles. But the distance students travel can vary widely from school to school.

Those at the Brightwood campus of the Center City charter network have the shortest median commute, at half a mile. (On the maps below, the red dot indicates the school and the blue dots indicate students.)


Map from DC PCSB.

Those at Washington Latin Middle School have a median commute of 4.7 miles and come from all over DC.


Map from DC PCSB.

Within DC's traditional public school system, the vast majority of schools are required to admit all students who live within certain geographic boundaries. As a result, over 60% of DC Public School students live within a mile of their schools.

But DC law bars charter schools from giving a preference to neighborhood residents. They must take all applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. If they have more applicants than spaces available, a random lottery determines who gets in.

If a charter were able to use a neighborhood preference, neighborhood residents would still need to enter the school lottery to apply, but they would get bumped ahead of applicants from outside the neighborhood. Those outside the neighborhood could still gain admission, especially if the school applied neighborhood preference to only a percentage of its seats.

At the same time, neighborhood preference wouldn't guarantee admission to those who live nearby. If a school got more applications from neighborhood residents than it could accommodate, some would lose out.

Task force recommended against neighborhood preference

In 2012, the DC Council appointed a task force to study changing the law to allow a neighborhood preference for charters. At the time, some charged that those in favor of the idea were catering to white parents in gentrifying neighborhoods who wanted easier access to high-performing charters, like E.L. Haynes in Petworth.

The task force recommended against neighborhood preference, in part because its members wanted to guard against that possibility. None favored requiring charters to give a preference to neighborhood residents. And the majority feared that even allowing some charters to adopt a voluntary neighborhood preference could shut disadvantaged students out of high-performing schools.

Only one member of the task force, the Deputy Mayor for Education, thought a charter should be allowed to opt for a neighborhood preference, "provided that safeguards are put into place to ensure that doing so does not adversely impact students who live in under-served neighborhoods."

It's not clear why the rest of the task force didn't support that view, but some charter leaders have expressed fears that even a voluntary neighborhood preference could be a slippery slope leading to a loss of autonomy. At the same time, charter leaders at some schools located in low-income neighborhoods, like KIPP DC and Eagle Academy, have argued they should be able to give a preference to nearby families.

Recently there have been signs that opposition to voluntary neighborhood preference is softening. Leaders of some 30 charter schools have signed a document saying they're willing to consider the idea, as long as it's on an "absolutely voluntary basis."

Data could help protect disadvantaged students

Now, with the new data in the PCSB report, it's also possible to determine exactly which charters are drawing students from disadvantaged areas beyond their own neighborhood or ward. Officials could use that data to decide which schools should be allowed a neighborhood preference and which shouldn't.

There's no bill pending before the DC Council that would change the law on neighborhood preference. But the PCSB's executive director Scott Pearson told the Washington Post that the new report could "offer useful information" to District leaders on the issue.

When I asked a PCSB spokesperson to elaborate on that statement, she directed me to Pearson's remarks on a recent Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.

On the show, Pearson suggested that with a new mayor and new DC Council members, it might be time to take another look at neighborhood preference. "I hear from parents and I hear from many charter schools," Pearson said. "They would love a neighborhood preference. But I want to make sure as we do, that we keep in mind the least advantaged children in the city and make sure that this isn't hurting them."

Neighborhood preference would likely be limited to low-income areas

It can be frustrating for parents to live near a desirable charter school and not be able to get their child admitted. More generally, parents say the lottery system is too unpredictable and gives them only a chance, not a choice.

But a neighborhood preference along the lines envisioned by Pearson would provide predictability only for a subset of parents: those in low-income neighborhoods where there's a charter school. For schools located in gentrifying areas, a neighborhood preference could result in excluding low-income students from areas with low-performing neighborhood schools.

If the DC Council passed legislation with safeguards to ensure that kind of exclusion doesn't happen, those schools wouldn't be eligible for neighborhood preference. And it's not clear they would want the option in any event.

One example is Two Rivers, which has the longest waitlist of any school in the District, with over 1,300 names, and employs an expeditionary learning approach that appeals to many middle-class parents. The school is in NoMa but draws students from all over the District.


Map from DC PCSB.

The school's executive director, Jessica Wodatch, says she wouldn't want a neighborhood preference because it would exclude many disadvantaged students, and the school is committed to serving a diverse population.

On the other hand, she thinks neighborhood preference would have been "a good idea" at the campus Two Rivers is opening this fall in Trinidad, which she says is surrounded by low-income residents who lack access to a high-quality school. Two Rivers has made an effort to recruit neighborhood families, but, given the number of applicants from all over, it's possible few neighborhood children will end up being admitted.

Wodatch says she would support giving the option of neighborhood preference to charters that take over shuttered DCPS buildings, as Two Rivers is doing in Trinidad. That's a position the 2012 task force endorsed as well.

But if a school like the new Two Rivers campus adopted a neighborhood preference, middle-class families might well move into the neighborhood to benefit from it. And that could have the effect of pushing out disadvantaged students, the very thing the task force wanted to avoid. So, as the task force recommended, a neighborhood preference would probably need to be time-limited to protect the interests of low-income families.

It makes sense that a low-income family that wants their child to go to a KIPP school should be able to send her to the one around the corner rather than the one several miles away. It's also important to ensure that some charter schools have diverse populations, especially when the student bodies of many traditional public schools reflect the homogeneity of their neighborhoods.

But if DC officials want to keep more affluent families in the District, they'll need to figure out a way to make high-quality school pathways more convenient and predictable for them as well.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.