Greater Greater Education

Posts by Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

In DC's confusing thicket of school choice, there's a guide for those who need help the most

Families in DC have an abundance of school options. But many low-income families don't have access to the information they need to make good choices.

Photo of trees from Shutterstock.

Some argue that school choice will ultimately result in a better education system, as families gravitate to schools that perform well. The best schools will flourish, according to this view, and competition will force the lower-performing schools to improve. But for that system to work fairly, all families need the same opportunity to make an informed choice.

With DC's school lottery opening this week, many parents are beginning to consider their options for next school year. And there's no shortage of them: nearly half of DC students opt to attend a DC Public School other than the one they're assigned to, and 45% of DC students are enrolled in a charter school.

There's plenty of information about all of these options available online: DC Public Schools offers profiles for each of its schools, and the Public Charter School Board uses an evaluation system to place charter schools in one of three tiers.

In addition, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education publishes equity reports that allow people to compare DCPS and charter schools on a variety of measures. And the lottery website, MySchoolDC, consolidates information about schools and how to apply to them.

Wealthier parents often hire private consultants to help them navigate the thicket of choices. Many middle-class families at least consult a website like, which rates schools in various cities and displays comments from parents.

Parents with few resources face obstacles

Parents with fewer resources and limited access to the Internet may be just as overwhelmed, but they're less likely to have help. In fact, they're often not even aware they have choices. If they do, they may not know where to begin in evaluating them. They may not realize they can visit a school and ask questions, and they may not have the time for that in any event.

And for parents coming to DC from places where kids just go to their neighborhood schools, it can be particularly confusing. "People were talking about the lottery, charter versus [traditional] public, out-of-boundary versus in-boundary," says Dominique Small, who moved to the District from North Carolina a couple of years ago. "I was like, what?"

Help for low-income parents

For parents like Small, an organization called DC School Reform Now can be a godsend. For the past three years, DCSRN has targeted its efforts on low-income parents in Wards 7 and 8. Its staff guides them through the school choice process from beginning to end, helping them find a school that matches their needs and priorities.

DCSRN recruits families at several DCPS and charter schools, where it focuses on transitions from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. The staff also finds parents through preschools, homeless shelters, and community organizations.

The organization holds "movie nights" at these partner organizations, when it screens some of its 15 videos showing what various schools are like. These Virtual School Tours, which are also available on DCSRN's website, include interviews with principals, teachers, parents, and students. There are also scenes of classrooms, arrival and dismissal, lunch periods and recess, and transitions between classrooms.

DCSRN uses other kinds of outreach as well. Its executive director, David Pickens, personally knocks on doors in public housing projects where low-income families live.

Once a family signs up, they're assigned to one of DCSRN's Parent Advocates, who begin by asking what the family's priorities are. Usually, says Parent Advocate Erika Harrell, the top considerations are academics and transportation. Amenities like before- and after-care can also be important.

Parent Advocates then help families come up with a list of schools and fill out applications, usually over the phone. They remind them of deadlines, and DCSRN staff even transports parents to schools when it comes time to enroll. DC requires that parents complete the enrollment process in person.

Still, it's not always easy to connect students with high-quality schools. Families who sign up for DCSRN sometimes slip away, often because the phone number they gave was non-working or got disconnected. Harrell says last year she started with a caseload of 130 families and was able to get 85 to enter the lottery.

Overall, DSCRN recruited 769 families last year, but the number of students who actually enrolled in what it defines as a quality school was only 115. That's not just because of attrition; some students simply didn't get matched with a school they wanted.

And many families didn't get matched with a Parent Advocate in the first place, because DCSRN doesn't have enough funds to hire more than two or three, each of whom has a caseload of about 100 families.

School choice is here to stay, so we need to make it fair

Opponents of a school system based on choice argue that competition won't actually make all schools better. When families leave their struggling neighborhood schools, they drain resources and make it harder for those schools to improve. From that perspective, DCSRN is part of the problem.

While Pickens acknowledges that argument has some validity, he says DCSRN's focus is on getting each individual child the best possible education. And sometimes, he says, DCSRN is able to tell families their neighborhood school is actually better than it used to be and urge them to consider it. Generally, DCSRN doesn't favor charter schools over DCPS schools, or vice versa.

In the abstract, it may be debatable whether school choice is the best way to improve education. But the fact is, in DC, a system of choice is here to stay. And the only way to ensure that it's equitable is to try to provide busy families who have limited resources the same information that wealthier parents have.

If it hadn't been for DCSRN, says Dominique Small, "I probably would still be at my neighborhood school, and very disappointed." Instead, her two kids are at J.O. Wilson Elementary, which she says is "everything I was looking for, and then some."

Parent Advocate Erika Harrell's only frustration is that she can't reach more parents who need her help. "When I tell people what I do," she says, "they always say the same thing: Where were you when my kids were in school, because I would have loved to have had some help with this."

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Wilson's principal gets the axe even though test scores are up. Here's a likely explanation

Wilson High School is the largest and most sought-after neighborhood high school in DC. On Friday, its principal announced that DC Public Schools had decided not to renew his contract for next year because standardized test scores at the school were unsatisfactory. How do these two facts fit together?

Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

Wilson's principal, Pete Cahall, recently made headlines when he came out at the school's Pride Day event. Now he's in the news for another reason: he sent a letter to the DC Council announcing he'd been fired. Although he said he wasn't going to fight the decision, he listed what he saw as his accomplishments at the schoolincluding raising test scores.

DCPS evaluates principals based on a number of factors in addition to test scores. And in accordance with its general policy of silence on personnel decisions, the agency hasn't explained why Cahall was fired. But let's assume Cahall's explanation is accurate. Given that Wilson's test scores are the highest of any DCPS high school that doesn't require students to submit applications, many may be wondering where Cahall fell short.

Wilson's achievement gap

Most likely, the answer is that he failed to significantly boost scores for low-income and minority students at the school. For the 2012-13 school year, proficiency rates on DC's standardized tests, the DC CAS, were 90% for white students and only about 47% for black students. There are marked disparities in proficiency rates between whites and Hispanic, special education, and low-income students as well.

As a result, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has classified Wilson as a Focus school under federal guidelines. Focus schools are schools that have large achievement gaps between specific groups of students and get special monitoring and professional development. There are 20 DCPS schools in that category, but Wilson is the only high school. Deal Middle School, Wilson's main feeder school, is not in the Focus category.

Wilson, located in Ward 3, has more affluent and white students than any other neighborhood high school in DC. But it's still pretty diverse. Its enrollment is 46% black, 17% Hispanic, and 31% low-income. Students who live outside its boundaries make up 46% of its student body.

In his letter to the DC Council, Cahall pointed out that scores for Wilson's African-American students increased last year: the proficiency rates for that group went up from 45% to 58% in math and from 49% to 61% in reading, according to the DCPS website. (Last year's scores for low-income students at Wilson aren't available yet.)

Perhaps DCPS just didn't think that progress was enough. But it's also possible that other factors entered into its decision. While many commenters on the DC Urban Moms and Dads forum expressed disappointment at Cahall's departure, others had complaints. Some didn't like the way he handled a robbery spree at the school last month, and several felt he wasn't moving the school forward academically.

Two Wilsons

While the specifics of Cahall's firing aren't entirely clear, many have observed that for years there have essentially been two Wilsons: one for affluent white students, most of whom live within the school's boundaries, and another for low-income minority students, many of whom come from other parts of the District.

The first group can get a pretty good education at Wilson, but the others often don't get the attention they need. Maybe DCPS hopes that firing Cahall will move the school in the direction of making the Wilson experience the same for students at all income levels. Is that possible?

One way to measure how much a school does for its students is to look at how much its students have improved on test scores. DCPS and other government agencies tend to emphasize proficiency rates, which measure the number of students who score above a certain "cut score." But if students come in at a fairly high level of proficiency, it doesn't make sense to give the school credit for that.

Growth percentiles, on the other hand, compare test scores at the school against those for students with similar levels of prior achievement across the city. If a school has a median growth percentile of 60, that means that on average, its students grew as well or better than 60% of their academic peers. You can find measures of student growth for all DCPS and DC charter schools in the school equity reports available through the LearnDC website maintained by DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Growth measures at Wilson and elsewhere

The growth percentiles for low-income students at Wilson haven't been all that impressive. The average for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years was 43 for both math and reading, below the city average of 49. (The overall growth percentiles at Wilson were 53 for reading and 48 for math.)

Some other non-selective DCPS high schools had better growth percentiles for their low-income students, even though their overall proficiency rates are far lower than Wilson's. In math, Ballou's low-income growth percentile was 50 and Cardozo's was 52. In reading, Coolidge's figure was 46 and Eastern's was 49.

None of these figures is stellar, but one charter high school does far better than that: the growth percentiles for low-income students at Thurgood Marshall Academy were 86 for math and 73 for reading.

Of course, it isn't always fair to compare charter and DCPS schools. Charter schools have more freedom to experiment and don't have to take in new students mid-year, which can be disruptive. And to some extent, students at charters are a self-selected group since their parents were motivated enough to apply.

But virtually all low-income students at Wilson had to apply as well since they're largely from outside the school's boundaries. So they, too, are a self-selected group.

Socioeconomic integration may not be enough to help poor kids

Some have argued that low-income students do better at schools with a significant proportion of more affluent students. But Wilson's growth percentiles suggest that merely putting them in the same building with wealthier peers isn't enough. And Thurgood Marshall, with its far higher growth figures, is 80% low-income.

One advantage to a school that has a large proportion of low-income kids is that it can focus on the remediation that many of its students need. That may be more challenging at a more diverse school where kids come in at different levels.

Of course, test scores don't measure everything. No doubt there are other advantages to a socioeconomically diverse school like Wilson. Theoretically, kids of all backgrounds learn to interact with students who come from circumstances different from their own, even if the subgroups don't mingle all that much.

But Wilson needs to figure out a way to do better by its low-income and minority students. Whether or not Cahall was on his way to doing that is now a moot point, but it should be a top priority for his successor.

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The DC Council's education committee may disappear after Catania's departure

Does the DC Council need an education committee? That question has come up for debate as the committee's chair, former mayoral candidate David Catania, prepares to step off the council.

Photo from office of David Catania.

The famously aggressive, apparently indefatigable Catania made the education committee a force to be reckoned with during the two years he was at its helm. Some applauded his efforts to light a fire under DC's education officials, while others complained he was micromanaging the schools, and even that he was a bully.

Now some have suggested that DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson is thinking of abolishing the committee. Education activists are urging him to keep it and appoint a new chair, arguing that education issues will languish without it. Mendelson has said he doesn't know what he's going to do and is talking about the issue with other councilmembers.

The council had an education committee until 2006, when Vincent Gray, then the incoming council chair, abolished it. Gray argued that having education matters come before the full council would allow all members to participate. But it also gave Gray himself more influence over a hot political issue that could serve as a springboard to the mayor's office.

Shortly after voters elected Mendelson council chair in late 2012, he decided to revive the education committee and make Catania its chair. At the time, Mendelson said those moves would be "very good in intensifying our work in public education."

So why is Mendelson now thinking about doing away with the committee? Unlike Gray, he doesn't seem to have mayoral ambitions, and he hasn't demonstrated a keen interest in education, so it's unlikely that he wants to claim the limelight for himself. Perhaps he feels the committee's work actually became too intense.

Catania as committee chair

Catania got a lot done: among other things, he visited 150 schools, helped procure funds for school renovations, proposed a tuition-assistance program for graduates of DC high schools, revived the moribund office of school ombudsman, and introduced a sweeping package of seven bills that he drafted with the help of a law firm.

Not all of those bills passed, but Catania had notable achievements with legislation that increased funding for at-risk students and overhauled the special education system.

On the other hand, some of his proposals duplicated initiatives that the Gray administration was already working on, and others seemed to be at cross purposes with them.

And in his rush to shake things up with his bills, it sometimes appeared that Catania hadn't thought through their implications. For example, his proposed DC Promise college scholarship program threatened to jeopardize an existing federal scholarship program for DC students.

Aside from the sheer volume of things Catania did, his manner was a problem. While his supporters praised his aggressive style, it didn't always make for smooth relations with the many other cooks in DC's education kitchen.

He and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson began their relationship cordially enough, but it soon became tense. When he questioned her at committee hearings, he sometimes sounded like a litigator cross-examining a hostile witness.

The case for keeping the education committee

Does that mean there shouldn't be an education committee? It's arguable that DC has enough entities overseeing its education system. In addition to DCPS and the Public Charter School Board, there's the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the State Board of Education. So maybe we don't need yet another governing body.

But when the DC Council appropriates funds, it clearly needs to ensure that government agencies spend them responsibly. Education spending is a significant part of the DC budget, so it makes sense that a separate committee should exist to monitor it.

And, with one exception, all of DC's education-related government bodies have members or leaders who the mayor appoints or nominates. The exception is the elected State Board of Education, but its role is only advisory. So the council's education committee is the one DC entity that can serve both as an independent watchdog and a meaningful conduit for public frustration with the state of the District's schools.

Of course, before the schools went under mayoral control in 2007, the local school board served those functionsand the schools failed to improve. Some argue that the whole point of mayoral control was to streamline decision making and centralize accountability. If you have two sources of control, they say, it's not clear who to blame or credit.

That argument may have force in other cities, but DC is an anomaly. Here, there's no state government to oversee the mayor's management of the schools, and a mayoral election once every four years may not be enough to ensure accountability.

Plus, findings in a recent study showed that many DC residents feel mayoral control has reduced the public's voice in education. True, the old school board may have given the public too much of a voice, politicizing questions that should have been left to policymakers and experts and blocking needed reforms. But in the long run, reforms are more likely to work if they have public support and don't just come from the top down.

Some have warned that the council's education committee has been on track to replicate the worst aspects of the old school board. But that doesn't have to be the case. A new, less confrontational but still energetic committee chair could change the dynamic and forge a productive partnership with mayor-elect Muriel Bowser's administration, while at the same time providing a check on unfettered mayoral control.

It looks as though the likely replacement for Catania, should the committee remain in existence, will be Councilmember David Grosso. He's demonstrated an interest in education and a sense of urgency about reform, but he doesn't seem to have Catania's acidic edge. He might be just what DC's complicated and increasingly polarized education landscape needs right now.

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Low-income DC students get a helping hand to make it to college graduation

It's tough for low-income minority students to make it through college, especially if they're first-generation college-goers. But thanks to the efforts of one DC nonprofit and several charter schools, students from the District may have a better chance than most.

Photo of graduation cap from Shutterstock.

More and more DC students are taking the SAT and applying to college, but how many are actually graduating?

Because it often takes low-income students more than four years to get a BA, the six-year rate has become the standard for measuring college completion for that group. DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education has only recently begun to track college graduation rates and won't have the six-year figure available until next spring.

But the DC College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit that offers college support to all DC public school students, says the six-year graduation rate for the students it serves, most of whom are low-income and minority, is 44%.

While that may sound low, it's far better than the 11% national average for low-income first-generation (LIFG) college students, a category that includes many alumni of DC high schools. Overall, the average six-year completion rate at four-year colleges is 59%.

LIFG students can encounter any number of obstacles on the way to a degree. Even those who excelled at their high schools may feel lost academically. Socially, they may feel out of place, especially at elite institutions. And, even more than other students, they may not have a clear idea of the connection between college courses and what they want to do in the future.

The biggest problem, though, is usually financial. Even after cobbling together scholarships and loans, students may find themselves forced to choose between attending class and showing up for jobs that make it possible for them to stay enrolled.

Often, what should be a minor setback ends up derailing a college career. Students may not want to ask for help or may not know who to ask.

But if you're a low-income college student from DC, you have a better than usual chance that someone from home is trying to make sure you stay on track to graduate.

DC-CAP supports students after high school graduation

For many, that person is an adviser from DC-CAP. A group of DC business leaders started the privately funded organization 15 years ago to fill a void in college advising services in DC Public School high schools. Seven Six years ago it began serving charter schools as well. DC-CAP says the college enrollment rate in DC is now about 60% , double what it was when the organization started.

During that same time, the college completion rate has tripled. DC-CAP's college retention advisers, building on relationships that start in 9th grade, keep track of students across the country through email, social media, and phone calls. On campuses that have a lot of DC-CAP students, the organization asks upperclassmen to act as peer mentors and liaisons.

DC-CAP also works with students' families on financial planning and gets regular reports directly from colleges so its advisers can monitor students' progress and intervene when necessary. Also, advisers can check on students during emergencies, as one recently did with students in upstate New York during a massive snowstorm.

Charter schools visit freshmen

But some DC charter high schools that send many low-income students to college go even further. Three schoolsThurgood Marshall Academy, KIPP DC, and SEEDnot only stay in touch remotely but also try to visit all students during their freshman year.

"The visit makes a huge difference," says Tevera Stith, director of the KIPP Through College program, which serves both alumni of KIPP DC's own high school and those who go on to other schools after attending a KIPP middle school. "For some of these kids, they won't have a family member who will visit them."

DC-CAP, which has only four advisers for 7,000 students at 500 colleges, doesn't have the capacity to make those kinds of visits. The charter schools support only a few hundred alumni at any given time.

Of the three charters, Thurgood Marshall has the highest six-year graduation rate, 65%. KIPP DC hasn't yet had a cohort of alumni reach the six-year mark, but Stith says she thinks the rate will be about 45%.

SEED says that 33% of its students who graduated from high school at least five years ago have earned a BA, while another 10% have earned an associate's degree or are currently in college.

Finding the right match

But when a student goes to a college that SEED has identified as having stronger supports for low-income students, the completion rate rises to 54%. Staffers at DC-CAP and the three charter schools all keep lists of institutions where their students have done well, and they emphasize the importance of finding the right fit for each student whether it's an Ivy League university or a community college.

"We have institutions that will take students with less than a 2.0 GPA and be really committed to serving those students and making sure they're retained and graduate," says Tosha Lewis, Vice-President of Retention and Data Management for DC-CAP.

A good college match can help students avoid academic and social difficulties. And the college support staff in DC do their best to connect students with financial aid, sometimes providing funds to cover small but essential expenses. DC-CAP provides students with up to $2,070 a year for five years and has disbursed a total of about $31 28 million since its founding.

Any DC student can also take advantage of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program (DC TAG), which provides up to $10,000 in tuition assistance at public four-year colleges across the country to help make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates. In addition, DC TAG provides up to $2,500 per year towards tuition at private colleges in the DC area, private historically black colleges, and two-year colleges nationwide.

OSSE will provide data on graduation rates and remedial classes

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers DC TAG, is also beginning to focus on college support and retention, according to Dr. Antoinette Mitchell, the assistant superintendent for adult and career education.

OSSE plans to publish a list of colleges where DC students have done well, Mitchell said. And beginning next school year, information about college enrollment and four- and six-year graduation rates for every DC high school will be available on OSSE's LearnDC website, along with information about how many students take the SAT and ACT and the average scores.

OSSE is also planning to begin tracking the number of DC students who need remedial classes when they get to college. While it's clear that many DC high school graduates fall into that category, a hard figure isn't currently available. And it's an important figure to have: generally, only 35% of college students who take remedial classes graduate within six years.

It's unrealistic to expect all of DC's high schools to ensure that the college careers of their low-income graduates will be entirely smooth, and support from the colleges themselves or non-profits like DC-CAP will continue to be vital in helping students cope with financial and social challenges. But it shouldn't be unrealistic to expect that, in the not too distant future, every DC high school will give its college-going graduates the academic skills they need to handle college-level work. After all, that's what high schools are supposed to do.

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The common school lottery website is better than ever, but you may not want to rush to use it

This year the common school lottery, My School DC, will provide families with a centralized waiting list and an interactive map to help them locate schools. The lottery opens December 15th, but families new to the school system may want to hold off entering it until the future of the new boundary plan is settled.

Photo from My School DC.

DC launched the common lottery last year. Families only need to enter the lottery if they want to attend a DC Public School they're not zoned for, a selective DCPS school, a DCPS preschool program, or a participating charter school. They submit an application ranking up to 12 choices, and an algorithm matches them with one of their choices, waitlisting them at any school they ranked higher.

After surveying and speaking with parents across the District this summer, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education decided to incorporate several new features into this year's lottery.

One of those is a tool that helps families find schools that meet their needs. A user can enter her address and see a map of schools that can be filtered by distance, grade level, or type of program. If, for example, you want a dual-language school for a 6th-grader within a mile of your home, you can search for that.

Once you have a list of schools that meet your criteria, you can follow links to find more information, including open house dates, school profiles, and school equity reports

Right now, you can search for your zoned neighborhood schools. But the map will show results based on the new school boundaries adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray in August, and Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser has said she will not adopt that plan in its entirety. That could affect who enters the lottery, because some families may decide they're not happy with their new zoned school and enter the lottery as a result.

Bowser's plans aren't clear

It's not clear how extensive Bowser's changes to the school zoning plan will be. Before the election earlier this month, she called for restarting the entire boundary overhaul process, which went on for many months. More recently she said she only plans some tweaks, but didn't provide details.

As Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith pointed out in a recent interview, the boundary changes won't affect the majority of DCPS students anytime soon. Most changes will arrive in phases, and in the 2015-16 school year the new boundaries will affect only those students who are new to the system.

But if Bowser changes the boundaries after the lottery starts, those people will have submitted applications on the basis of information that is no longer valid. To ensure the lottery assigns people where they really want to go, most likely Bowser will need to restart itwhich could require everyone who has already entered it to resubmit an application.

Smith said she hasn't spoken with Bowser about her intentions. She added that, based on last year's data, "by the time the new administration comes in, we expect that several thousand students will have applied." But she acknowledged that figure could be lower this year because of uncertainty about the future of the boundary plan.

Still, if Bowser plans to change the boundaries, the only way to avoid restarting the lottery would be for her or another DC councilmember to introduce emergency legislation before the lottery opens on December 15, since there's no longer enough time to enact legislation in the usual way. And there is only one opportunity left to do that: at the DC Council's legislative meeting on December 2.

If that happens, and if the emergency legislation gets the nine votes it needs to pass, the lottery would presumably go forward using the old boundaries.

Families trying to choose among the many school options available in DC may want to attend a District-wide school fair called Edfest, to be held at the DC Armory this Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm. More than 180 DCPS and charter schools will be there, and activities will include health screenings, a story time for kids, and an introduction to the My School DC school finder tool.

A central waiting list and more charter participation

Another new feature of the lottery this year will be a centralized waiting list. Rather than having to call individual schools repeatedly to find out where they stand, parents will simply be able to log into the My School DC website or call the lottery hotline at 202-888-6336.

The lottery will also include more charter schools this year. Last year, a dozen or so charters opted to continue to accept applications and run a lottery as individual schools rather than participate in the common lottery.

This year, Smith said, the only charters that have chosen not to participate in the common lottery are those that serve adults; two residential programs; and Ideal Academy, Roots, Tree of Life, and Latin-American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB). Washington Yu Ying, a highly sought-after Mandarin-immersion school, sat out the common lottery last year but has decided to participate this year.

No reason to enter lottery early

There is no advantage to entering the lottery early, according to Sujata Bhat, executive director of My School DC. And once a family applies, they can make changes and resubmit the application anytime before the deadline without any penalty.

The deadline for the high school application lottery, which includes applications to selective DCPS high schools, is February 2. For preschool through 8th grade, the deadline is March 2.

"We do tell people they should probably avoid applying on day one, because the site tends to be slow," Smith said. "After that it's really up to families to decide when they want to apply. They can start the process, then come back and finish it."

And given the uncertainty about DCPS boundaries and whether a new lottery will be necessary, families might want to wait and see exactly what Mayor-elect Bowser has in mind before entering the lottery at all.

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DC test scores have improved for both low-income and more affluent students

Standardized test scores in DC have risen significantly in the seven years since schools came under mayoral control, according to a recent study, and it's not just because of an increase in affluent students. But while math scores have gone up steadily, literacy scores have largely stalled after an early jump.

Photo of standardized test from Shutterstock.

While DC officials have touted increases in test scores as a sign that education reforms are working, critics have argued that DC's changing demographics are behind the improvements. They say an influx of more affluent students has driven up the scores while the gap between those students and lower-income minority students has remained as wide as ever.

But a recent independent study concludes that low-income and minority students have improved their scores as well. Controlling for factors like race and income, it concludes that less than 10% of the increase in overall scores is due to DC's changing demographics.

A division of the American Institutes for Research called CALDER did the report, which is one of a series evaluating the effects of DC's education reform efforts since the school system came under mayoral control in 2007. The statute that abolished DC's local school board and handed control to the mayor also required independent assessments of how the new regime was working.

The report on student achievement concluded that more affluent DC students had larger test score gains than low-income ones, which were defined as students receiving reduced-price lunch. And more affluent black students improved more than low-income ones.

On the other hand, improvements among black and Hispanic students were larger than those for white students, probably because they had more room to grow.

But when researchers controlled for the effects of differences like race and income, they found increases across all categories, especially in math.

Proficiency rates are different from actual test scores

How can that conclusion be squared with claims that scores for poor and minority students have remained stagnant or gotten worse? It depends on whether you look at proficiency rates or actual test scores.

After students take DC's standardized test, the DC CAS, their scores put them in one of four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. Usually what's reported is the "proficiency rate," which is the percentage of students who have scored in the proficient or advanced categories.

The proficiency rate can be useful in highlighting disparities between schools. But it overlooks students who have moved up from below basic to basic, or who have improved their scores but not enough to move up from one category to the next.

The CALDER report was able to capture those changes because researchers looked at actual scores rather than categories. According to Umut Ozek, the report's lead author, that approach provides a more accurate picture of student growth.

A portion of DC students also take another test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), every year. That test found no significant reduction in DC's achievement gap in 2013, but Ozek says the NAEP's samples of racial and economic subgroups are very small, which makes its findings questionable.

Ozek's team also concluded that both DCPS and the charter sector saw roughly similar gains in test scores. Those results remained the same when the team focused just on low-income students in each sector, Ozek said.

There are caveats to reading scores, as well as other research limitations

The report included a number of caveats, including one about gains in literacy scores. About 50% of the increase in reading scores occurred in the first three years the study covered, from the 2006-07 school year to the 2008-09 school year.

Those years were not only the first years the schools were under mayoral control, they were also the first years that students took the DC CAS. And, Ozek says, it's possible the reason for the jump was that teachers and students were adjusting to the new test. When the study team excluded the first year of results from their analysis, the rate of growth became flatter, providing some evidence for the "adjustment hypothesis."

In other words, once teachers figured out what the test was looking for, they were able to better prepare students to take it. But the lack of improvement in later years suggests that teachers and students have hit a wall. The report also cautions that there have been allegations of cheating on the DC CAS.

On the other hand, Ozek says the report's findings are bolstered by similar results on the NAEP tests. The NAEP is widely regarded as cheat-proof and difficult to prepare for.

Other caveats in the report include the fact that test scores provide only an approximation of actual student learning. And to the extent that the scores do show that reform has been working, the study can't tell us which of the various changes since 2007 are responsible for the improvement.

We need a new approach to literacy

One academic connected with the study has argued that the results indicate that DC has generally been heading in the right direction. While that may be true for math, the stagnation in reading scores in both the charter and DCPS sectors is a cause for concern, especially among low-income and minority students.

Generally, it's harder to close the achievement gap in literacy for those students, probably because literacy skills largely rest on the kind of vocabulary and background knowledge that affluent students are more likely to acquire outside of school.

And while math skills are important, students who lack literacy skills are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to learning almost all subjects. Poor reading comprehension can even interfere with students' ability to do math word problems.

It's good to know that scores for low-income and minority students have gone up, even if that increase isn't enough to show up in proficiency rates. But the stagnation in literacy scores is particularly troubling because DCPS has made literacy one of its key areas of focus.

Maybe it's time for both DCPS and the charter sector to try something new when it comes to helping low-income students acquire the reading and writing skills that form the foundation of a meaningful education.

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Residents feel mayoral control has muffled the public's voice in education

Mayoral control of DC's schools may have speeded reform, but many residents feel they have less input into education decisions than they used to, according to a new report. The report also found that people are worried charter school growth is threatening the stability of DC Public Schools.

Photo of man with bullhorn from Shutterstock.

Community members interviewed for the report complained that it was often hard to know who to approach for help in DC's confusing education landscape. They also said communication from education officials is often a one-way process that doesn't allow the public meaningful influence.

"These are things that make it difficult for stakeholders to access the system," said Heather Harding, a lead author of the report, which focused on community and family engagement in education. "I think it would be a shame to squander goodwill on the part of citizens who really want to be involved in education around the city."

In addition, many of those interviewed said they wanted to see greater coordination between the charter sector and DCPS, with charters filling in educational gaps in the overall system rather than competing with traditional public schools.

The report is the product of a research consortium called EdCORE, headed by the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. Harding is EdCORE's executive director.

The 2007 statute that abolished DC's local school board and introduced the era of mayoral controlthe Public Education Reform Amendment Act, or PERAAalso required regular independent reports on how well the new system was working. The report on community engagement is the fifth in a series of reports in response to that mandate, all of which can be viewed on the website of the DC Auditor.

Harding and her team interviewed 14 officials representing all of DC's education agencies as well as staff of the DC Council. They also interviewed 14 stakeholders drawn from community parent groups and other education-focused organizations.

Some say mayoral control reduced public engagement

PERAA abolished the local school board and gave the mayor direct power to appoint the chancellor and control DC Public Schools. The rationale was that the board's political nature made it hard to introduce school reforms. But many of those quoted in the report say that without it, it's hard for parents and others to be engaged in decisions affecting education.

While the officials interviewed said they do want to engage the community, the report says few could point to specifics about how they would do that. And some were ambivalent about how much engagement they want.

One official said that stakeholders "should have a spot at the 'proverbial table.'" But the official then added, "Do I mean that while someone is creating a curriculum or a new school that's opening that a parent should be right at the table while you are writing? No, of course not."

Concerns about charter growth and integration

One thing the report made clear is that those interviewed were wary of the growth of the charter sector. The stakeholders interviewed saw mayoral control as applying only to DC Public Schools and were frustrated that charter schools weren't integrated into an overall system.

One stakeholder, echoing DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, complained that the rapid growth of the charter sector is "cannibalizing" DCPS.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the Public Charter School Board, challenged the report's even-handedness. "We found it surprisingly biased for what we had expected would be a careful and ideologically neutral process," he said.

Harding responded that the samples used in the report, while small, were representative. She said researchers interviewed and considered the views of PCSB officials along with those of officials at DCPS, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the State Board of Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the newly revived Office of the School Ombudsman.

Of the 14 stakeholders interviewed, two identified as charter advocates and two represented DCPS parent groups, Harding said. The remainder were affiliated with ward-level education councils or District-wide groups.

Harding did acknowledge that DCPS stakeholders were probably more heavily represented among those interviewed than those from the charter community, estimating that the split was about 70% to 30%. In the District as a whole, about 45% of public school students attend charters.

One reason for the over-representation of DCPS stakeholders may be that charter school parents are more likely to be active at the school level than in ward or District-level organizations because charter schools operate with more independence than DCPS.

But Harding said that even if members of the parent groups contacted by her team were more focused on DCPS, they also represented the concerns of charter parents. "They would focus on DCPS as an entity," she said, "because it was the thing you could grab on to. But if you asked about charters, they would tell you similar things."

Bright spots include parent home visits and the boundary review process

The report did point to a few bright spots in a generally bleak picture. The model of parent engagement promoted by the Flamboyan Foundation, which includes teacher visits to students' homes, "has been warmly received throughout the city," the report said.

Interviewees also praised the school boundary overhaul process led by Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith. They saw it as an unusual instance of genuine two-way communication between a government agency and the public.

Some also saw the revivals of the DC Council's Committee on Education and the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education as possible pathways for public input. Others, however, warned that neither of these outlets would be enough.

The report refrained from making any recommendations, but it did conclude that the next mayor "would be well advised to articulate a vision that improves transparency on important decisions" and "assures collaboration."

The National Research Council will issue a more comprehensive report on the effects of mayoral control in DC in April of next year, Harding said. The NRC will draw on the EdCORE reports in formulating its own evaluation.

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Will Mayor Bowser pull the plug on a newly detailed school boundary plan?

The DC Public School system has released a detailed plan for implemen­ting the new boundaries and feeder patterns adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray. While the plan answers a lot of questions, one big one is still open: Will Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser scrap the whole thing and start over again as she has promised?

Photo by Chris Phan on Flickr.

The boundary overhaul involved months of public meetings and feedback sessions, where parents and other community members got a chance to ask questions. But when the plan was released, some questions were still unanswered.

The main one, of course, was whether the new mayor would keep the plan in place. Both of the leading candidates vowed to at least delay implementing the plan, and Muriel Bowser said she wanted to start the entire boundary discussion over again. She reiterated that position after her victory.

"I'm not of the belief that [if] anything happens in the next 58 days, it can't be undone or tweaked in the first 100 days," she told the Washington Post.

It may be difficult, though, for the new mayor to completely undo the roll-out. DC's common school lottery, My School DC, will open on December 15th, before Bowser takes office, and it will be premised on the new boundaries. Students who want to attend their zoned school don't have to participate in the lottery, but those who want to attend out-of-boundary or selective DC public schools do.

Last week, DCPS released a series of documents providing some details about how things would change under the plan. Some of those changes would take effect as soon as next fall if the plan remains in place.

Some families may decide to enter the My School DC lottery in December on the assumption the new plan will stay in place, and the program's DC website will soon include a tool to help families find their assigned school under the plan. If Bowser rescinds the plan when she takes office in January, she'll have to decide whether to re-start the lottery.

Exceptions include students who will be grandfathered in and those with older siblings in the system

The new boundaries won't require students who are currently enrolled in their zoned DCPS school to switch schools, so they're unlikely to enter the lottery. Students in 3rd grade or above will also be able to continue in their current feeder patterns if they want, as will younger students with older siblings attending their old zoned school as long as both siblings will overlap there for at least one year.

But under the new plan, students entering the DCPS system for the first time next fall will need to abide by the new boundaries, as will students switching to DCPS from the charter sector.

Details of the new boundary plan

Another aspect of the plan that could have affected the lottery requires that all DCPS schools set aside a certain percentage of their slots for out-of-boundary students. Elementary schools will need to set aside 10% of their seats, middle schools 15%, and high schools 20%. Those out-of-boundary seats are to be filled through the lottery.

It turns out that only one DCPS school is out of compliance with the new policy: Janney Elementary School in Ward 3, where only 7% of students are out-of-boundary. And even at Janney, changes won't go into effect next fall. Because Janney is full to capacity, DCPS says it will work with the school to bump up the out-of-boundary percentage by the required three points in time for the fall of 2016.

The plan also sets up new feeder patterns that will allow students to continue in special programs, such as dual-language or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), when they move from one school to the next. The only change scheduled for next fall is that students at McKinley Middle School will have the right to continue their STEM education at H.D. Woodson High School.

Another change effective next fall applies to students who live over half a mile walking distance from their zoned elementary school. If there's another elementary school that's less than half a mile away from them, those students will get a lottery preference there.

Preschool rights for low-income families

One of the plan's more popular aspects, which Bowser might want to preserve, calls for giving families zoned for high-poverty schools the right to send their children there for preschool. Under the current system, all families must enter the lottery for preschool seats.

Under the new plan, families who live within the boundary for a Title 1 schooldefined under federal law as a school where at least 40% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunchwill get a guaranteed preschool slot. The idea is to give those families more predictability and to allow schools to capture their in-boundary families early, before they attend other preschools where they can find slots.

That part of the plan will begin to take effect next fall, but only as a pilot program in five Title 1 schools. DCPS says that it can't open more preschool classrooms right away because of various requirements about things like preschool staffing and space.

Even though parents at those five Title 1 schools will have a right to preschool seats, they'll still need to enter the My School DC lottery in order to claim them.

Four of the schools DCPS chose for the pilot program are clearly high-poverty, but the fifth, Van Ness Elementary, is not currently open. The school, located near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park, is in an area that used to be home to public housing projects. After those projects were torn down a decade ago, the elementary school that served them closed as well.

But the neighborhood, now known as Capitol Riverfront, has been revitalized as a mixed-income community. A group of parents, most of them middle-income, has successfully prodded DCPS to reopen the school next fall.

While there are a number of low-income families within Van Ness's boundaries, there's no guarantee the student body will meet the 40% low-income threshold and qualify for the guaranteed-preschool program. At the same time, there are numerous other low-income elementary schools in DC that DCPS chose not to include in the pilot.

A DCPS spokesperson did not respond to a question about why Van Ness had been chosen for the program.

While students have been preparing for one thing, Bowser might send them in a new direction

Bowser is probably right that none of the changes to DC's school boundaries will be undoable once she takes office. But another question is whether, after a long process during which many residents made their views heard, it will actually make sense to undo it. A poll taken in September found that 56% of DC residents supported the new boundaries. And according to DCPS, only about 27% of the 23,000 students who currently attend their zoned DCPS will end up in a different attendance zone next fall if the plan goes into effect.

In theory, the details DCPS released last week should help students and their families plan for the future. But if Muriel Bowser takes the school boundary issue back to the drawing board, those affected by the proposed changes will remain in limbo for a while longer.

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DC isn't a state, so why does it have a State Board of Education?

District voters in some wards will be voting tomorrow for members of the DC State Board of Education (SBOE). But this isn't a school board that oversees the DC Public Schools. So what is this board, and is there a point to it? As it happens, many people inside the education world ask and debate those same questions.

Blackboard image from Shutterstock.

At recent forums, candidates for the SBOE have talked about hot issues like school boundaries and feeder patterns, coordination between charter schools and DCPS, and whether there's too much standardized testing.

But unlike a local school board, a state board of education doesn't exercise control over those day-to-day issues. Instead, state boards are responsible for setting broad policy in areas like graduation requirements, curriculum academic standards, and teacher qualifications. DC's state board has that kind of responsibility, but there's still a problem: it doesn't have enough power to ensure its policy decisions get translated into reality.

DC's state board is responsible for advising the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the District's state education agency.

The state superintendent is appointed by the mayor, who can hire and fire him at will. The agency the superintendent heads, OSSE, oversees education throughout the District, including both DCPS and charter schools and ranging from preschool through adult education.

Among other things, OSSE is responsible for standardized testing, compliance with federal law in areas like special education, and administering the federal education grants DC receives. The SBOE is supposed to advise the superintendent in the policies he applies.

By statute, the SBOE is also responsible for approving education policies. It's supposed to do things like set academic standards and decide on teacher qualifications. Like other state boards, DC's SBOE doesn't have the authority to enforce or implement the high-level policies it adopts. Traditionally, that's not a state board's role.

Members say the SBOE does serve an important function in holding hearings and bringing education stakeholders together. According to SBOE Vice President Mary Lord, the policies it adopts affect "what every student in every grade in every classroom is expected to know and be able to do."

Limits on the SBOE's effectiveness

But Lord and three other SBOE members I interviewed also say the structure of DC's government has limited the SBOE's effectiveness.

One problem is that, although the SBOE sometimes has input into policy decisions, it doesn't have the power to suggest new policy initiatives. Instead, members have to wait for OSSE to bring them up. And once that happens, SBOE members can only approve or disapprove them. They can't modify them. That set-up limits their power to shape policy.

Some SBOE members also say OSSE and the SBOE can't effectively exercise state-level functions because in the District, there's no independent state education authority. All of DC's many education officialsexcept for the elected state boardreport to the mayor.

In the case of the state superintendent, that situation creates a conflict of interest: the superintendent is supposed to act as a watchdog over the mayor's handling of education, but he's accountable to the very person he's ostensibly overseeing.

The SBOE is elected rather than appointed by the mayor, so theoretically it could act as a check on the mayor's overarching authority. But that hasn't happened because in many respects the SBOE has to rely on the superintendent to be effective.

How we got a state board

To understand how we ended up with a state board that lacks the kind of authority exercised by other state boards, it helps to know how and why the SBOE came to be.

Like other school districts, DC used to have an elected local school board that oversaw DCPS. But many felt its political nature and control over details impeded educational progress.

In 2007, the DC Council passed legislation handing control of the school system to the mayor and abolishing the local board. The Council also created OSSE, partly because the District needed a state education agency to apply for and administer federal education grants.

Though there was no federal requirement that the Council establish a state board, Councilmembers did so because they wanted to give the public some direct voice in education. The now-defunct local school board carried special emotional weight in DC because for a long time, it was the only elected body in the District.

The SBOE consists of elected representatives from all eight wards and one at-large member. It holds public meetings twice a month, and each member receives an annual stipend of $15,000. Members serve four-year terms, and elections are staggered, with candidates running this year in Wards 1, 3, 5, and 6.

The relationship between the board and OSSE

The first problem is the relationship between the SBOE and OSSE, both structurally and, at times, personally. Board members have complained that OSSE bristles at any suggestion that the SBOE's role is more than advisory. And when the SBOE and OSSE don't see eye-to-eye on priorities, OSSE has the upper hand.

When it passed the legislation setting up the SBOE in 2007, the DC Council said it wanted the SBOE's role to be more than advisory, which is why it gave it the power to approve policies. But in practice, the SBOE's reliance on OSSE has made policy-making difficult when the two agencies disagree.

One example of how this friction affects students is the issue of graduation requirements, which the SBOE is responsible for approving. The SBOE has been working on revising those requirements for years, holding hearings and gathering input from stakeholders. It submitted a draft proposal to OSSE earlier this year but now has to wait until that agency takes action. Some SBOE members say OSSE is dragging its feet.

According to Jack Jacobson, the Ward 2 SBOE member, a previous superintendent asked for the board's help in revising the requirements. But the two subsequent superintendents haven't been as interested. DC's current superintendent, Jacobson says, "has had concerns with the draft proposal, so he hasn't been as willing to work with the board on a final product."

A spokesperson for OSSE responded in an email that the process of revising graduation requirements is one that "should not be rushed."

The state superintendent's subordinate role

The more fundamental problem, SBOE members and others say, is that DC's superintendent is accountable only to the mayor's office. In some states, the superintendent reports to the governor. In others, the state board hires and fires the superintendent.

Board members also point out that DC's governmental structure ranks the superintendent lower than the DCPS chancellor. The chancellor reports directly to the mayor, while the superintendent reports to the deputy mayor for education. That makes it difficult for the superintendent to challenge the DCPS chancellor on issues such as whether schools are making enough progress.

Lord and Jacobson advocate making the superintendent accountable to the SBOE instead of the mayor to give the position real independence. The DC Council considered that option in 2007, but decided it was "unacceptable" to have the SBOE and the superintendent essentially overseeing the mayor.

Perhaps the SBOE doesn't need the power to hire and fire the superintendent, says Monica Warren-Jones, an outgoing member from Ward 6, but it should at least have input into those decisions. She points to the fact that OSSE has been criticized for its administration of federal education grants and says more checks and balances are needed.

Some may worry that giving more power to the SBOE would bring us back to the bad old days when a local school board was micromanaging decisions that should have been left to school officials.

But a state board doesn't get into matters that should be left to school officials, like which textbooks schools should use or what kind of contract a teachers union should have. And it doesn't control school budgets, so it can't decide how many teachers to hire or fire.

Instead, it can promote fundamental change, as the SBOE has tried to do in its now-stalled draft graduation requirements. The most innovative aspect of that proposal would allow DC schools to give students credit for mastery of subject matter rather than time spent sitting in a classroom.

DC's complicated education scene would benefit from an overarching, elected body with real authority over policy-level issues that apply to both the charter and DCPS sectors. While that's what the DC Council had in mind when it set up the SBOE in 2007, we have yet to achieve it.

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DC students flock to afterschool programs, but many low-income students are still left out

A new nationwide survey of parents shows the District has the highest afterschool participation rate in the United States. On the other hand, DC is 49th in the percentage of low-income children enrolled.

Photo of student from Shutterstock.

The survey, conducted by a nonprofit called the Afterschool Alliance, ranked DC second only to California on overall measures of afterschool, including both participation and quality. But DC achieved that rank partly because so many children here participate in an afterschool programs: 35%, the highest proportion in the nation. DC also ranked fourth in average time spent in afterschool, almost nine hours a week.

The percentage of low-income children participating in afterschool, however, is only 20%, putting DC near the bottom of the list in that category.

DC's low-income participation was lower than any of the other jurisdictions that made it into the survey's top ten. In California, which ranked number one overall in the survey, 47% of low-income students participate. In Florida, which ranked third overall, 52% do.

DC also does poorly in the percentage of children left unsupervised after school: 26%, the second-highest percentage in the nation.

In addition, the survey noted that DC has the highest unmet demand for afterschool programs. Two out of three children who are not enrolled in an afterschool program would participate if one were available to them.

Of course, as with many comparisons between the District and the 50 states, the survey's results are skewed by the fact that DC is an entirely urban area with a much higher concentration of low-income residents than most states have. Demand for afterschool programs is higher among low-income and minority families, which probably explains why there's so much unmet demand here.

The survey didn't break down the participants in DC's afterschool programs by racial or demographic category. So it's possible that DC's afterschool participation rate is so high because middle-class and affluent kids are disproportionately enrolled. But it's also possible that most participants are low-income, and DC has so many low-income children that the programs can still only serve 20% of them.

Mixed results on quality

DC also got mixed results on measures of afterschool quality. On the positive side, DC was fifth in the nation when it came to parents satisfied with their program's quality of care, with 95% putting themselves in that category. And while only 53% agreed that their program provided a "high quality of care," that was enough for DC to rank eighth in that category.

But the District ranked dead last in the nation in terms of parents who were satisfied with their program's variety of activities (55%) and its cost (45%). And it did almost as badly when it came to parents who were "extremely satisfied with their afterschool program overall," a category DC ranked 50th in after only 34% responded yes.

The Afterschool Alliance began doing the survey in 2004, but this is the first year that DC has been included. A research firm screened over 30,000 households across the country, with at least 200 interviews conducted in every state and DC. The interviews were done primarily online, with some conducted by phone.

The report on the survey gave credit to two nonprofits for raising awareness of the importance of afterschool programs: the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and the Youth Investment Trust Corporation.

Afterschool funding may be on the rise after a troubled past

The Youth Investment Trust has had its problems in the past. Last year, former DC Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling $350,000 from the organization.

According to the Washington Post, even before that incident there was a general perception that the public-private organization, designed to leverage private contributions for youth services, served as a slush fund for DC politicians.

More recently, the Trust has been putting reforms in place in an effort to regain public confidence. This week, in fact, the Trust is unveiling a new name and a new logo.

That reinvention effort may be paying off. According to the survey, investments in afterschool programs for DC Public Schools decreased from over $11 million in 2011 to about $7 million in 2013. But in 2015, that number will go up to $8 million.

Another factor in declining private funds for afterschool programs may be the availability of other options and a sense that the classroom experience is more fundamental to improving outcomes for children. Many philanthropists and foundations contribute to DC charter schools, as well as to a fund that DCPS has set up to funnel private donations to its programs.

But afterschool programs remain important, especially for low-income and minority students, who generally have less access to enrichment opportunities outside of school than their middle class peers. Some advocates for an extended school day have called for schools to partner with community organizations to provide those additional hours.

Some DC afterschool programs, such as Higher Achievement, have begun to move into that role and already have an impressive record of success with low-income and minority students.

It's fine to celebrate DC's overall ranking as second in the nation for afterschool programs, as Mayor Vincent Gray recently did. But that shouldn't distract us from the fact that many of the kids who need afterschool the most are still left wanting.

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