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. 

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.

Get ready for a serious drop in test scores

Students in DC have been far more likely to score in the proficient category on local standardized tests than on tougher national assessments. This year, as schools switch to a local test that's more like the one given nationwide, proficiency rates here will probably drop by 30 points or more.

Photo of child from Shutterstock.

For years, DC students have taken a set of standardized tests called the DC CAS in 3rd through 8th grade, and also in 10th. DC education officials have chosen a particular score on each test, called a cut or cut-off score, that determines proficiency. DC students who score above that number are supposedly performing on their grade level.

While the proficiency rate has been inching up, last year only 54% of DC students were proficient in math and just under half in reading.

Dismal as those figures are, they're far better than DC's scores on another test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Representative samples of students throughout the United States take the NAEP in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade every two years. The NAEP is a rigorous test, and education experts consider it cheat-proof.

According to a new national report comparing last year's state test scores to the 2013 NAEP scores, DC has the third largest gap in the country in 8th grade math, just behind Georgia and Texas. The proficiency rate on the DC CAS was 46 percentage points higher than the analogous rate on the NAEP.

In other words, according to DC, about 65% of 8th graders performed on grade level in math last year. According to the NAEP, only 19% of them did.

While the 8th grade math gap is the most egregious, the DC CAS proficiency rate is well below the NAEP rate in other areas as well. In 8th grade reading, the gap is 37 percentage points. In 4th grade math and reading, the gaps are 31 and 27 points.

DC is not alone in having state proficiency rates that are far higher than those on the NAEP. Over half of the discrepancies are more than 30 percentage points. The gaps in Maryland ranged from 22 to 41 percentage points, and in Virginia from 27 to 34.

With the switch to Common Core tests, DC's own scores will drop

In DC and many states this year, education authorities have switched from the old local tests to more rigorous tests that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Instead of taking the DC CAS this month, students are taking tests developed by a consortium called PARCC.

While scores on the PARCC tests won't be available until the fall, they're likely to be as low as those on the NAEP. The two tests are far from identical, but both require students to follow multiple steps and give answers at each step. Both also require students to cite evidence from texts in support of their answers and to demonstrate writing skills.

On the old local tests, students could score proficient without being able to do these things. In addition, the reading passages on the PARCC tests are more difficult than those on the DC CAS.

If the new PARCC scores do mirror DC's past performance on the NAEP, the District will have, for example, a 23% proficiency rate in 4th grade reading instead of its current 50% rate.

It's possible that plummeting scores will spark outrage here, as they did in New York two years ago after that state made an early switch to rigorous Common Core-aligned tests. And the drop in test scores there happened even at some previously high-performing charter schools.

New York's state tests are now so rigorous that fewer students scored proficient on them than on the NAEP. Complaining that the new tests are unrealistically difficult, many parents in the state have refused to allow their children—possibly as many as 150,000 of themto be tested.

But some argue that relatively easy state tests have been dishonest, portraying students as having mastered skills and subjects they really haven't. One group striving to close the so-called honesty gap points to Kentucky, which in 2010 became the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards.

After Kentucky toughened its state tests and raised cut scores, proficiency rates dropped by as much as 30 percentage points. But as teachers and students adapted to the new standards, scores on the state tests rose. In 8th grade math, the gap between proficiency rates on state tests and the NAEP narrowed from 32 percentage points in 2011 to 15 in 2014.

Even so, Kentucky has its own opt-out movement. While it's smaller than the one in New York and some other areas, it's significant enough that the state superintendent felt the need to tell school districts not to honor parents' requests to withdraw their children from testing.

How to deal with the test score decline

No doubt the DC CAS, like other local tests, did set the bar too low, even after its supposed alignment to the Common Core two years ago. One charter school leader has said the test was so easy it was a waste of time.

But a drastic switch to a regime where less than a quarter of students score proficient will be a shock to the system. The new tests will also probably make the achievement gap between low- and higher-income students even more apparent.

One thing we can do to soften the blow is to place less emphasis on proficiency rates when evaluating whether schools are doing a good job. Schools with affluent populations start out with kids who are likely to do well on standardized tests and shouldn't necessarily get the credit for their high scores. It makes more sense to focus on how much test scores have grown at a school rather than whether scores rise to a uniform standard.

We also need to remember that change takes time. Low-income students generally score lower on rigorous tests, especially in subjects other than math, largely because they lack background knowledge and vocabulary when compared to their more affluent peers.

To remedy that situation, schools need to begin inculcating knowledge about subjects like history and science as early as possible, in an age-appropriate way. For too long, elementary schools have concentrated on reading and math skills to the near exclusion of all else.

Some elementary schools in DC are beginning to focus on expanding knowledge. But that's a radical departure for most teachers and administrators, and we may not see results on a large scale for years.

It's probably already too late for many older students in DC to clear the new proficiency bar. But if elementary-level teachers and administrators are able to move away from a narrow focus on basic skills and give our youngest disadvantaged kids some of the knowledge their middle-class peers often acquire at home, we can still give them a fighting chance.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said students take the NAEP test every four years. It's every two.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

A new charter school for foster kids aims to provide stability

Monument Academy, an innovative charter boarding school designed to serve children in foster care, opens in DC in August. The school will try to provide the stable family environment kids in the foster system often lack.

Photo of student from Shutterstock.

The school will open with 40 fifth-graders, divided into two classes. It will add one grade a year through eighth grade and eventually serve 160 students, with hopes of expanding through high school. During the week, students will live in groups of about ten, along with two house parents, in a home-like setting on school grounds.

Some have criticized the charter sector for not doing enough to serve children who are at-risk, pointing to the fact that, as compared to the traditional public school sector, fewer charter schools have high concentrations of at-risk students. But Monument Academy, like a few other charters, is taking on the education of at-risk students as its core mission.

If it's successful, Monument could address the root causes of many of the difficulties schools with lots of at-risk students face: dysfunctional home environments and a lack of mental health services.

School co-founder and CEO Emily Bloomfield first conceived the idea for Monument after an incident within her own family. Relatives suddenly found themselves responsible for two grandchildren, aged five and six, both of whom had learning and emotional challenges. The grandparents were overwhelmed, and Bloomfield realized there was no institution that could help them.

She also began researching what generally happens to children in foster care and discovered that outcomes were "dismal." A three-state study showed that by age 24, only 6% of foster care alumni had a two- or four-year college degree, and nearly a quarter hadn't earned a high school diploma or GED. Nearly 40% had been homeless since leaving foster care.

Those figures roughly match the situation in DC, where the Children and Family Services Agency (CFSA) serves about 1,000 kids in foster care, along with another 2,000 receiving services in their homes. Bloomfield cites figures from 2012 showing that 65% of those in the foster care system here drop out of high school, and only 4% get a four-year degree.

Bloomfield has experience with education and charter schools, having served on the Santa Monica school board before moving from California to DC in 2007. In 2010, she began a four-year stint on the DC Public Charter School Board, the agency that authorizes charter schools here. Shortly after her term expired, Bloomfield submitted an application to found Monument Academy.

Family-style model

DC already has one charter boarding school, SEED, but Monument's model will be different. Rather than having kids live in dormitories as they do at SEED, Monument will have them live family-style, with house parents.

Unlike SEED, Monument is specifically targeting children who haven't had "the experience of consistency and stability," Bloomfield said. The school wants to provide them with that, along with the social-emotional and life skills that will ultimately enable them to live independently.

Children will stay at the school in four-bedroom apartments from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon, returning to their families or caregivers for the weekend. Every morning, students will prepare breakfast with their house parents, set a personal goal for the day, and engage in some physical activity.

After school and afternoon extracurricular activities, they'll return for dinner, followed by homework, communal activities, a reflection on the goal they set in the morning, and lights out at 9 p.m.

Preparing for students who have experienced trauma

Not all children at the school will be in the foster care system, but all will come from backgrounds of trauma and stress. In addition to providing each class of 20 students with two teachers and the half-time services of a special education teacher, Monument will employ three social workers for each grade level.

Supervising the social workers will be Dr. Melissa Smith, the school's director of well-being, who was in foster care herself as a child and has also been a foster parent. A child psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical Center, Dr. Matthew Biel, will visit the school weekly to provide support for both students and faculty.

Monument will also try to engage the families or guardians of its students, visiting their homes and inviting them to the campus for family events. Families will also have regular contact with teachers and house parents when dropping children off at school on Sundays and picking them up on Fridays.

Bloomfield says the school is committed to not suspending or expelling students, an experience many children at Monument are likely to have had before. While extreme behavior might call for a transfer to a more therapeutic setting, in cases of run-of-the-mill defiance the school will use techniques like restorative justice to try to get at the behavior's underlying causes.

To plan for the school, Bloomfield and other Monument staff visited the Milton Hershey School in rural Pennsylvania, a free private boarding school for low-income children in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Hershey School, established in 1909 by the founder of the chocolate company, has an endowment of over $9 billion. Among its amenities are four swimming pools, an ice hockey rink, and an equestrian program.

Monument Academy won't have the resources to duplicate the entire Hershey experience. But the school is borrowing essential aspects of the model, including the house parent system, and Bloomfield says the staff here will make do with what they have.

"We don't need an ice rink," she says. "We have a rec center across the street. And we have all of Washington, DC."

More funding than the average charter

Still, the school will have more resources than the average DC charter. In addition to the usual allocation of about $12,000 per student, Monument will get about $25,000 to cover the costs of boarding, as does SEED.

Monument students are also likely to fall into the at-risk category, which triggers another $2,000 per pupil. And Bloomfield anticipates that at least half will qualify for special education funding, which can be as much as $30,000 per student.

Bloomfield says public funding will cover most of the school's costs, but she hopes to raise about $5 million to complete renovations and additions to the building, a former DC Public School building in Northeast DC.

The school has already enrolled about 30 students. They've been referred by the CFSA, school social workers, organizations that work with the homeless, and others in the community who knew good candidates.

Monument is attacking a daunting modern problem by reinventing an old institution: the orphanage. And it may be taking on an even greater challenge than the well-resourced Hershey School, which targets low-income students generally rather than at-risk ones and refuses admission to students with "serious behavioral problems."

It's too soon to know whether Monument's approach will work. But judging from the thought and planning that's going into launching the school, it stands a good chance of success.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Many schools that need renovations may not be getting them

The Bowser administration wants to postpone or eliminate funding for needed improvements at dozens of schools. At the same time, the budget for renovating the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown has ballooned to $178 million.

Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

Mayor Muriel Bowser's proposed budget for capital improvements would delay or abandon promised renovations at 20 or possibly more schools. At some of those schools, mice roam the classrooms, bathroom stalls lack doors, and halls are dim and dingy. One has no walls between classes.

DC Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the education committee has proposed new guidelines for funding school renovations. He's asking for community input through an online survey that ends tomorrow.

While the budget would cut or delay many future renovations, it also seeks increases for projects that are already in progress or about to begin, including an additional $30 million for Ellington. That would bring the total cost of the renovation to about $300,000 for each of the 600 students at the application-only high school. Officials have explained that it's costly to create a "world-class performing arts space" while respecting the historic nature of the 19th-century building.

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has criticized the way school renovations are scheduled, saying it has more to do with "how loudly your community screams" than with objective criteria. Now Councilmember David Grosso, who is reviewing Bowser's proposed budget as chair of the Education Committee, is trying to bring some rationality to the process.

"I can't in good conscience urge my colleagues to pass this capital budget as is," Grosso said at a committee hearing two weeks ago.

The Washington Post has put the number of renovation projects that are delayed at "more than a dozen" or "nearly twenty." But education activist Matthew Frumin says that the total number of projects that are either delayed or eliminated is 45.

Proposed criteria for renovations

Grosso would prioritize schools that haven't recently been modernized and are in bad condition. He would also look at the size of a school's current and potential enrollment.

Grosso has posted a survey online, asking the public to weigh in on his proposed priorities and also suggest others. The deadline for responding is Friday.

Grosso would also ask how well a school's facilities "support teaching and learning." That criterion apparently refers to architectural features like the open-classroom layout at Orr Elementary School in Ward 8.

Decades ago, DCPS tore down the walls at some elementary schools, in accordance with a then-fashionable theory that it would improve learning. Not only has that theory come into question, some also argue that schools without interior walls are unsafe because teachers and students have nowhere to hide in the event of an intrusion.

Orr may be the most egregious example of a school that has long been in need of modernization. In addition to the lack of walls, families and students say the building is infested with mice, the playground is dangerous, and parts of the ceiling are falling down.

A year ago, then-Councilmember Bowser signed a pledge promising "to fight for Orr's modernization to begin immediately" and "to hold accountable those who further delay modernizing the school."

Dismay in Ward 6 and elsewhere

Bowser's proposed delays in funding have upset other school communities as well. The budget would push back renovations of two Ward 6 middle schools, Jefferson and Eliot-Hine, from 2016 to 2019. Many parents in Ward 6 abandon neighborhood schools after elementary school, and activists have seen improving local middle schools as crucial to keeping those students in the feeder pattern.

The delay "undermines years of work," according to Joe Weedon, the Ward 6 representative to DC's State Board of Education. Weedon tweeted a photo of a girl's bathroom at Eliot-Hine that showed general disrepair and stalls without doors.

The Ward 3 SBOE member, Ruth Wattenberg, tweeted a photo that showed a bathroom at Murch Elementary School in Ward 3 doubling as the nurse's office. The budget would also delay funds to renovate Murch, which has long been overcrowded.

Cost overruns and high school spending

According to Frumin, the increases in funding for current renovation projects show that DC either underestimated construction costs or that those costs are rising—or both. But, he says, the Bowser administration hasn't increased cost estimates for renovations it's planning to delay.

If history is any guide, future costs will climb as well. And Frumin says the District may not be able to borrow enough money to pay those additional costs. Current law limits the amount DC can use to repay loans and interest to 12% of total expenditures, he says. Even the funding levels in the proposed budget would bring payments close to that limit, with 11.8% going to service debt beginning in fiscal year 2019.

Even if Grosso is able to reinstate some delayed renovations, Frumin says, the cap on debt payments means DC won't be able to fund future renovations unless it changes the law or finds money elsewhere in the budget so that it doesn't have to borrow money to finance them.

One problem is that over the past several years DC has spent huge amounts of money renovating high schools, many of which are under-enrolled.

Ellington isn't under-enrolled, and it's undoubtedly a valuable institution that has incubated significant artists. Still, it's hard to justify spending vast amounts of money renovating the school at a time when needs are dire elsewhere.

Nor does it make sense for Ellington to remain in the building that currently houses it. That building, just north of Georgetown, used to be a neighborhood high school called Western.

If it became a neighborhood school again, it could draw off some of the students currently assigned to Wilson High School and relieve the serious overcrowding there, while still allowing space for out-of-boundary students at both schools. And presumably it would cost less to equip an old, historic building to function as an ordinary high school than to turn it into a world-class performing arts space.

Ellington, meanwhile, could move to a more central and accessible location. That would make sense for a school that draws its student body from across the District. Observers have made these suggestions before, and it's not clear why authorities haven't taken them seriously.

Grosso's proposed criteria for deciding which schools to modernize make sense, but they may not be enough to make people think twice about the Ellington renovation. If he truly wants to bring rationality to the decision-making process, he'll figure out a way to avoid such a huge waste of needed funds before it's too late.

Correction: The original version of this post said the proposed budget delays funds for Murch Elementary School. In fact, renovation funds for Murch have been delayed for years, but the proposed budget fully funds a renovation at Murch that is slated to begin next year.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DC schools may be too quick to expel and suspend students

School leaders in DC generally agree that suspensions and expulsions should be used as a last resort when disciplining students. Still, many schools are too quick to invoke those measures, according to a recent report.

Photo of student from Shutterstock.

During the 2012-13 school year, 13% of DC students—about 10,000—were suspended at least once. African-American students were almost six times as likely to be disciplined as white students. Hispanic students were more than twice as likely.

Those racial disparities mirror national trends, which have led to concerns about equity and what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out and end up incarcerated.

Last year the federal government issued guidelines urging "strong due process protections" for all students before suspending or expelling them. And a recent report by a DC-based organization argues that traditional public and charter schools here don't always provide those protections.

The report, produced by the Council for Court Excellence, found that almost all school administrators interviewed believed that exclusions from school should be a last resort. At the same time, most charter schools provide that certain offenses, including some non-violent ones, will result in automatic expulsion.

The report recommends that students facing expulsions or suspensions of over ten days have the right to a hearing before an impartial officer, to have counsel representation, and to appeal the decision. Students who are suspended for even a short time should be able to keep up with the instruction their classmates are getting, the report says.

DC Public Schools has a disciplinary code that provides for these protections, but some say it's not clear schools routinely abide by it. For example, the report cites evidence that DCPS has been evading the rules by invoking emergency procedures when a case isn't really an emergency.

Charter disciplinary codes vary

Each charter school in DC has its own disciplinary code, and the report says many don't provide adequate protections for students. Only 37%, for example, provide for a hearing by an impartial officer rather than someone affiliated with the school.

One charter failed to provide any hearing at all for a student who was expelled for a non-violent offense, according to Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, director of legal services at Advocates for Justice and Education, a group that represents students in disciplinary proceedings. The school provided a hearing only after AJE got involved, by which point the student had missed five months of instruction.

At the hearing, the school gave the student's mother, who didn't understand English, a document in Spanish that mistakenly said the student had been suspended rather than expelled. Ultimately, the school reversed its decision.

Despite reports that charter schools have been expelling fewer students recently, Hiligh-Thomas says her organization continues to see quite a few such cases. "I wouldn't put a whole lot of weight on self-reporting of charter schools," she said.

Alternative schools

When DCPS imposes an expulsion or long-term suspension, it can send the student to an alternative school called CHOICE Academy if the student is in sixth grade or above. There's no equivalent school available to charters, and students who are expelled or suspended often end up in the DCPS system. The report recommends establishing an alternative school for the charter sector.

In fact, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools is trying to bring a school like that to DC. Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of DCACPS and a member of the committee that produced the CCE report, said the group has identified a charter operator that would be "a wonderful fit." The challenge at this point is finding the money to fund the school's start-up.

But to be a solution to the discipline problem, an alternative school needs to be well-run. Parents have complained that DCPS's CHOICE Academy isn't safe and doesn't offer rehabilitation or even actual instruction. One parent described it as a "holding cell," according to a report by DC's school ombudsman.

Reform advocates want a restorative justice approach

Ultimately, the authors of the CCE report and other reform advocates want schools to adopt methods of disciplining students that don't involve excluding them from school. One such method is restorative justice, which uses techniques like "restorative circles" to bring together perpetrators and victims of misbehavior, and sometimes their families as well.

The idea is to get kids to think about the underlying causes of their behavior, and to impose consequences for misconduct that allow students to remain in school while prompting them to change their ways.

Some school systems have apparently had good results with restorative justice, and DCACPS offers training in the approach to charter administrators in DC.

But some charter leaders are skeptical. Eva Moskowitz, the outspoken leader of New York's Success Academies charter network, recently scoffed at the introduction of "restorative circles" into the city's traditional public schools, dismissing the term as "edu-babble."

"Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community," Moskowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

She argued that suspensions are necessary to ensure the orderly environment that allows students to learn. And they prepare students for the real world, she said. There, "when you assault your co-worker or curse out your boss, you don't get a 'restorative circle,' you get fired."

Hiligh-Thomas, on the other hand, compares schools to families. "We don't have the right to kick our kids out of our home when they're not compliant with our rules," she says. "We have to teach them discipline with love."

Schools do have a legitimate interest in keeping disruptive students from interfering with the education of others. But disruptive students also have a right to an education, and excluding them from school makes it unlikely they're going to get it.

And suspension doesn't seem to change kids' behavior. Teachers and administrators have told me the same kids get suspended over and over again.

Restorative justice and other alternative techniques are worth trying, as long as they don't amount to a free pass for kids who violate the rules. But the question is whether harried school administrators will voluntarily move from the quick fix of excluding disruptive students to methods that involve more time, effort, and patience.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

What's behind the budget cuts at Wilson High School

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has defended her plan to cut Wilson High School's budget by over 10% per student next year, citing a DC law that requires DCPS to redirect funds to at-risk students. But most of the cut isn't required by that law.

Photo of desk and scissors from Shutterstock.

DCPS plans to spend $8,300 on each student at Wilson, the lowest amount it has allocated to any school on a per-pupil basis for next year.

Designed to accommodate 1550 students, Wilson will serve almost 1800 next year, according to DCPS projections. That's an increase of 170 students over this year's enrollment. Nonetheless, DCPS wants to cut the school's budget by about $300,000.

The Wilson community has protested that class sizes, already high, could climb to 40, and that the cut will hurt the school's efforts to support its lower-income students. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has argued that the planned cut could "dramatically shake" the confidence parents across the District have begun to feel in the relatively high-performing school.

While Wilson is located in Ward 3, its attendance zone extends into other wards. And 43% of its students live outside that zone.

At some other schools, the overall per-pupil spending will be almost twice what DCPS has allocated to Wilson. This interactive graphic, produced by a new coalition of DC education advocates with the help of Code for DC, shows the range of budget allocations for all DCPS schools.

Henderson's justification for the cut in funds

Henderson has argued that Wilson is losing funds because it has a lower concentration of at-risk students than many other DCPS schools. Two years ago, the DC Council passed legislation providing that DC schools spend an additional $2,000 on each at-risk student, a category that includes those who are homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

DCPS projects that Wilson will have 582 at-risk students next year, a number that makes up 31% of its student body. That's a large increase over this year's figure of 343, and 582 is greater than the total number of students at some other high schools. But at many DCPS schools, 70% or more students are at-risk.

As an example of how the new at-risk allocations will affect Wilson, Henderson cited a DCPS program that awards money for projects proposed by individual schools. Beginning next year, the funding for that program will be tied to the number of at-risk students a school has, a change that Henderson said will result in a loss of $140,000 at Wilson.

DCPS chose to fund other priorities rather than Wilson

But that explains only a fraction of the cut to Wilson's budget. The remainder does have something to do with at-risk funding, but the connection is indirect.

Last year, DCPS officials said they didn't have time to allocate the $40 million they got in at-risk funds in direct proportion to the number of at-risk students at each school, as the law required. Instead, they pooled the money and used it to fund priorities they had already set for the current school year, such as improving middle schools. They argued those priorities primarily benefited schools with high at-risk populations.

For next year, the DCPS budget does distribute at-risk funding proportionally. But school officials didn't want to pull the plug on initiatives they started last year with the at-risk funds they had pooled. So, Henderson explained in a letter to Cheh, they "identified acceptable cuts elsewhere" in order to continue to fund them. They also wanted to focus on schools with at-risk students and the priority DCPS has set for this year, high schools.

In a heated exchange with Cheh at a DC Council hearing yesterday, Henderson elaborated on her view of what the at-risk legislation requires. (The exchange begins at about an hour and 12 minutes into the hearing.)

"Those funds were to be distributed proportionally," Henderson told Cheh. "It didn't say what number do you have, it's what proportion. I don't know how we distribute proportionally and not have loss at schools that have lower proportions. That's the law."

But in fact, the legislation says nothing about targeting schools with high proportions of at-risk students. It requires DCPS to direct at-risk funds "to schools proportionally based upon the number of at-risk students within each school's projected student count." And in apparent accordance with that reading of the law, DCPS did allocate at-risk funds to Wilson for next year based on the number of at-risk students it's projected to have.

DCPS eliminated Wilson's per-pupil funding minimum

What DCPS chose to cut was Wilson's "per-pupil funding minimum," or PPFM. DCPS came up with the PPFM three years ago to make sure schools with larger enrollments weren't getting shortchanged. The problem stems from the fact that DCPS doesn't allocate money to individual schools on a per-pupil basis. Instead, it gives each school funds for a certain set of staff positions.

DCPS generally funds those positions at the same amount, regardless of how many students attend the school. At large schools, costs like the principal's salary are spread over a greater number of students, resulting in lower funding per pupil than at small schools. To offset that effect, DCPS decided to ensure that per-pupil funding at larger schools wouldn't fall below about $9,000.

But, Henderson said, that policy cost the school system about $9 million this year, including $3 million at Wilson alone. Many of the schools receiving PPFM funds have relatively low concentrations of at-risk students. So DCPS officials decided to cut the PPFM payments for all schools other than Wilson. There, it eliminated the PPFM altogether.

That $3 million PPFM cut explains why Wilson's funding for next year is so low. As the budget data tool shows, the funds Wilson will get in other categories, including at-risk, have actually increased.

Henderson says the cuts at Wilson will be "mostly" offset by new investments that all high schools will get next year, such as a new athletics and extracurricular coordinator. But Wilson parents say that change will actually result in the elimination of one of two current staff positions, and that the overall effect of the new investments on Wilson's budget is nil.

Overcrowding at Wilson is the basic problem

The basic problem is that Wilson has too many students, while other neighborhood high schools are underenrolled. In her letter, Henderson also outlined several plans for decreasing Wilson's population next year.

For example, she pointed to over 100 out-of-bounds students there who have more than ten unexcused absences. DCPS will start enforcing an existing policy that would send such students back to their zoned schools, she said.

But Wilson parent leaders say measures like that won't make up for the cuts. And education activist Matt Frumin, a former Wilson parent, argues that enforcing the attendance policy could have harsh results. DCPS defines "unexcused absence" to include instances when a student is late, perhaps because she had to accompany a younger sibling to another school.

As a longer-term solution, Henderson pointed to the new school boundary plan that will shrink Wilson's attendance zone. But because most students are grandfathered in to their current feeder patterns, the effect on Wilson's population is years away. And Frumin, who was a member of the committee that drew up the new boundaries, says the changes will prevent Wilson's overcrowding from getting worse but won't solve the problem.

Frumin and others arguing on Wilson's behalf are asking that the school get an additional $900,000 next year. Henderson says she's already cut her administrative budget by $15 million, and there's no way to find money for Wilson without inflicting harm on other schools.

No one, including advocates for Wilson, wants that to happen. It's possible that the DC Council will appropriate additional money for the school. But one way or another, DCPS should at least treat Wilson the way it's treating other large schools that have benefited from the PPFM in the past: by reducing that allotment rather than eliminating it entirely.

Henderson may be right in feeling that schools with higher proportions of at-risk students need additional help. But she's mistaken in claiming that the law requires her to divert as much funding as she has from Wilson. And that claim doesn't accord with the clearly discretionary decision-making process she described in her letter to Cheh.

Even as a matter of policy, depriving Wilson of the funds it needs to succeed, and to help its nearly 600 at-risk students succeed, doesn't make sense.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

More families are waitlisted at neighborhood preschools

In some parts of DC, it's getting harder to snare a seat at your neighborhood preschool. The map below shows how the number of preschool applicants at many DC Public Schools has been increasing in recent years.

All graphics by DC Office of Revenue Analysis. Click for an interactive version.

DC residents are guaranteed a slot at their neighborhood DC Public School beginning in kindergarten, but only a few schools guarantee admission to preschool. All DCPS elementary schools offer preschool for four-year-olds, and most also offer it for three-year-olds.

Eventually, DCPS plans to guarantee preschool slots for neighborhood children at all its high-poverty schools, but for this coming school year that policy is in place at only five schools. Generally, families need to apply for preschool slots through the school lottery.

The graphic above, published on District, Measured, shows that most DCPS preschool programs have recently gotten more popular. The green circles on the map indicate schools that saw an increase in the number of preschool applications from in-boundary families, while the red ones indicate schools where such applications decreased. DC's Office of Revenue Analysis produces the District, Measured blog.

After the first round of this year's school lottery, almost 7,000 students found themselves on waitlists for at least one DCPS school. Many of those are students in kindergarten or above, applying for slots at schools other than the neighborhood one they have a right to attend.

But those waitlists are including more and more families who weren't able to get preschool spots at their neighborhood schools. The graphic below shows which schools have the most in-boundary families on their preschool waitlists. The larger and darker the circle, the longer the waitlist.

Click for interactive version.

Preschool waitlists for in-boundary families aren't a new phenomenon. In fact, 14 schools have waitlisted in-boundary preschool applicants during each of the past three years. But this year, as the table below shows, 11 more DCPS schools joined their ranks.

Click for interactive version.

Have you been waitlisted for your neighborhood DCPS preschool program? Let us know in the comments.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

School waitlist data can tell us what families want

Charter and traditional public schools with the longest waitlists for the coming school year are clustered west of the Anacostia River, with bilingual programs generally leading the pack. But there's also a marked difference in demand for some schools that have similar test scores.

Earlier this month the District announced the results of the lottery that determines admission to many public schools, along with waitlists for each participating school. Families need to enter the lottery in order to apply to almost all charter schools and some DC Public Schools.

Students who want to go to their zoned DCPS school don't need to enter the lottery. But the lottery is the route for those who want to go to DCPS schools as out-of-bounds students or to an application-only DCPS school. Most families who want to send their children to a DCPS preschool program also need to use the lottery.

The size of the circles on the map correspond to the size of their waitlists. Click on map for an interactive version. All charts from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Families can list up to 12 choices. This year the vast majority were matched with one of them in the lottery's first round. But if families didn't get their first choice, they were waitlisted at any schools they placed higher than the one they were matched with.

Now that the lottery results are in, more than 8,500 students are on waitlists for charter schools, and almost 7,000 are on waitlists for at least one DCPS school. Families matched in the first round have until May 1 to enroll. Those who didn't get matched in the first round or who didn't participate can enter a second round until May 8.

Both DCPS and the Public Charter School Board have created tools to help families find schools that still have space available.

DC's Office of Revenue Analysis has published a series of interactive graphics illustrating the waitlist data on its blog, District, Measured.

Waitlist data roughly reflects demand

Roughly speaking, the waitlist data shows where the demand is for schools, both geographically and in terms of specialized programs. One caveat is that it doesn't reflect demand for neighborhood schools from those who live within a school's boundaries. If a lot of "by-right" students want to attend their neighborhood school, the school simply has to squeeze them all in.

With that caveat, the map above shows that demand is generally strongest for schools west of the Anacostia River. East of the river, there's more demand for charters than DCPS schools.

Click on graph to break down data by grade or ward.

For at least the second year in a row, Two Rivers, a charter school in NoMa, has the longest waitlist, with 1,381 names. The school will open a second campus this fall with 178 spaces in preschool through first grade. That campus, in a less central location at 820 26th Street NE, has a waitlist of 183.

The bar graph above also reveals how strong the demand continues to be for dual-language programs. With the exception of Two Rivers, the schools with the four longest waitlists are all bilingual.

Schools with similar test scores aren't always equally popular

Perhaps the most intriguing of ORA's graphics is the one that plots waitlist numbers against reading proficiency scores on DC's standardized tests.

Click on graph for an interactive version.

Generally speaking, the schools with the highest scores also have the highest demand. But there are exceptions that show families don't make decisions about schools just on the basis of test scores.

For example, Bancroft Elementary in Mt. Pleasant and Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary in Congress Heights have similar unimpressive reading proficiency rates: 31% for Bancroft and 32% for King. But Bancroft's waitlist has 460 names on it, while King has no waitlist at all.

Why the discrepancy? The Washington City Paper's Aaron Wiener opined that it's "surely because Bancroft feeds into well-regarded Deal Middle School and Wilson High School, while King feeds into lower-performing Hart Middle School and Ballou High School."

But there are almost certainly other factors at work as well. For one thing, while Congress Heights, in Ward 8, may be on the rise, it hasn't yet seen anything like the gentrification that's been going on in Mt. Pleasant for decades. And it's in a far less central location.

And the reason for the low reading score at Bancroft may be that 55% of the school's students are English language learners. The school's math proficiency rate is 56%—more than twice the 25% math proficiency rate at King.

And if Wiener is right about the importance of feeder patterns, the discrepancy between the waitlists of two other schools with similar scores doesn't make sense. In that case, the one with the longer waitlist is the one that doesn't feed into Deal and Wilson.

Shepherd Elementary—which feeds into Deal—and Capitol Hill Montessori both have respectable 73% reading proficiency scores. But the waitlist at Shepherd is 394, while the waitlist at Capitol Hill Montessori, which feeds into lesser-regarded Eliot-Hine Middle School, is 716. It seems that the demand for a particular educational approach, like Montessori, can trump a less desirable feeder pattern.

And then there's Brent and Ludlow-Taylor elementary schools, both in Ward 6. Both have high proficiency rates of 77% in reading, but Brent's waitlist is 880, and Ludlow-Taylor's is 413. The schools are of similar size and have similar facilities, and neither feeds into Deal.

One explanation for the difference in waitlists may be that middle-class parents tend to choose schools where there's already a critical mass of families like them. Brent, for example, is 64% white, and only 6% of its students are on welfare, homeless, or otherwise at-risk. Ludlow-Taylor, on the other hand, is 21% white and has 32% of its students in the at-risk category.

Of course, the difference in waitlists doesn't mean Brent is a better school. In fact, it seems Ludlow-Taylor is doing an amazing job with a more challenging population. And the bottom line is that a whole lot of families who want to go to either of these schools are going to be disappointed.

Meanwhile, there are many DCPS schools operating below capacity. The real trick is to figure out how to make enough schools desirable so that we no longer have hundreds of students being turned away from schools they want to attend.

Correction: Originally, this post said that Capitol Hill Montessori fed into Eliot-Hine, relying on information from the DCPS website. In fact, the school goes through 8th grade, so it doesn't feed into any middle school. Nor does it feed into any high school, because it's a District-wide school rather than a neighborhood school. When they leave Capitol Hill Montessori, students have a right to attend the high school their home address is zoned for, or they can apply to another high school.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Volunteer tutors aren't the answer to DC's reading crisis

Some observers are pinning their hopes on volunteer tutors as a low-cost way of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. But there are limits to what volunteer tutors can do.

Photo of child reading from Shutterstock.

A leading nonprofit tutoring organization deploys minimally trained volunteers to teach reading comprehension as a set of skills. The problem is that to understand what they're reading, kids need background knowledge, not just skills.

A study released last month concluded that Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work one-on-one with struggling readers, boosts students' abilities. The program is active in eight states and the District, where it provides tutoring in 16 schools. Fewer than half of DC students score proficient in reading on standardized tests.

Reading Partners, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, will probably soon be expanding its efforts in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that as part of an initiative targeting male students of color, the District will recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with Reading Partners and several other tutoring nonprofits in DC Public Schools.

Reading Partners is a well-run organization staffed by dedicated individuals. But after spending a year as a Reading Partners tutor and educating myself about reading comprehension, I've concluded that its approach in that area is fundamentally mistaken. The approach assumes that reading comprehension is a skill like hitting a baseball, which you can learn by practicing certain strategies repeatedly. If you practice keeping your eye on the ball over and over, for example, you'll get better at hitting it.

Reading Partners tutors, who receive minimal training, work with students on comprehension skills like "finding the main idea" and "making inferences." At the beginning of each 45-minute session, the tutor picks up a packet containing two or three books at the child's reading level and a worksheet that focuses on the skill of the day.

The child chooses one of the books to read, and the tutor guides the child in practicing the skill. Children come to the reading center twice a week, and often miss regular class time in order to do so.

Because Reading Partners only works with students reading below grade level, a fourth-grader might be reading books on a second-grade level. Some of the books are fiction and some non-fiction, but the focus is on learning skills rather than on the books' content.

The books cover a random variety of subjects, and there's no effort to coordinate them with what children are learning in class. The theory is that once a child gets good at "finding the main idea," she'll be able to find the main idea in whatever text is put in front of her.

Reading comprehension isn't a skill

The problem is that reading comprehension is, in fact, not a skill like hitting a baseball. It's very dependent on how much you already know about the subject you're reading about. To see what it's like to read about something you're unfamiliar with, try parsing this summary of a technical scientific article.

Generally speaking, low-income children start out in school with a lot less background knowledge and vocabulary than more affluent children. That makes it harder for them to understand what they're reading.

So if we want to close the achievement gap, we need to spend time giving low-income kids as much knowledge as we possibly can. Giving them comprehension strategies rather than knowledge in elementary school means that by the time they get to high school, they'll be hopelessly behind.

Why, then, did a study conclude that Reading Partners was able to raise student achievement? It did give students a bump, but the effect was not all that dramatic. As compared to a control group that was getting other kinds of reading help, the Reading Partners group made about one-and-a-half to two months more progress. They also spent about the equivalent of an extra month working on reading, so the additional bump is even smaller than it appears.

And studies have shown that teaching kids reading strategies can boost comprehension, but only up to a point. Kids who get 50 sessions receive no more benefit than kids who get six.

Beyond that, we need to look at how the researchers measured progress. They used an assessment that, like all standardized tests, treats reading comprehension as a skill. Let's say a fourth-grader reading at a second-grade level manages to find the main idea in a third-grade-level text. That counts as progress. But when that student gets to ninth grade and is expected to, say, read a text about the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, will he be able to find the main idea? Only if he acquires a lot of background knowledge in the interim.

Having tutored both elementary and high school students in high-poverty schools, I'm skeptical that he will. I have learned never to assume background knowledge on the part of students. When I've asked the fourth- or fifth-graders I've tutored through Reading Partners to find DC on a map of the United States, they've had no idea where to begin. And the high school students I tutored in the past had huge gaps in their knowledge. Among other things, they had barely heard of the Supreme Court and didn't know the meaning of words like "admirable."

Part of the problem is that many elementary schools focus on skills rather than knowledge. While DCPS elementary schools theoretically focus on knowledge, they apparently aren't using methods that ensure kids will absorb it. And that continues to be a problem in later grades.

Kids want and need knowledge, not just skills

Aside from the fact that a skills-based approach doesn't give students what they need, it's also boring. One student I tutored, who I'll call Keisha, was so resistant to coming to Reading Partners that she would sometimes enter a state of near catatonia, not answering questions or making eye contact. Eventually, she just refused to come.

While levels of enthusiasm vary, I personally know of several kids who were clearly unhappy to be at Reading Partners. And tutoring is unlikely to work if a student isn't motivated.

Meanwhile, kids are hungry for actual knowledge. One boy I tutored wanted to know if you could get poisoned by eating a poisonous snake. Another asked his tutor if a hyena was more like a cat or a dog. These are good questions, and tutors can do their best to answer them. But giving kids that kind of information isn't the purpose of the program.

In any event, kids don't absorb and retain knowledge from hearing random facts once or twice. They need to spend several weeks on a topic, not only reading about it but also listening to their teacher talk about it in a way that may be beyond their reading level but within their ability to comprehend. They should also be writing about it.

Volunteer tutors might be useful in some areas. Math is one possibility. Tutors may also be able to help very young children learn the basic skill of reading, or decoding, as opposed to reading comprehension. Reading Partners also uses volunteers to do that kind of tutoring, and next week I plan to start working with a student who needs that sort of help.

I suspect it would also be effective to use volunteer tutors to meet with kids after school and help them understand what they're supposed to be learning in class—assuming the kids are learning actual content and not just comprehension strategies. That's the kind of tutoring wealthier kids often get. But it's hard to see how you could get minimally trained volunteers to engage in that kind of tutoring on a large enough scale to make a dent in the problem.

Any tutoring program that relies on volunteers would do best to focus on giving young children the basic skills necessary to decode text. And schools and school districts, like DCPS, should ensure that classroom teachers are supplying kids with the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand it.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DC is giving low-income babies and toddlers the kind of childcare they need

The District has led the nation in making public preschool available to all children from the age of three. Now it's beginning to focus on improving child care for low-income children during the crucial years before three.

Photo of baby from Shutterstock.

Last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an initiative that promises to boost the quality of child care for some of the District's youngest, and poorest, children. Currently, about 750 babies and toddlers in DC benefit from the high standards set by the federal Early Head Start program. Soon another 400 will join them.

The expansion will be fueled by about $2.7 million in government funding this year. DC is providing $1.8 million of the money, with another $900,000 coming from the federal government. The federal award will continue for five years, although it's possible the annual allocation will change.

Congress created the Early Head Start program in 1994, prompted by research showing that much of a child's brain development occurs before age three, when regular Head Start programs begin.

Research has also shown that poverty has significant effects on the cognitive capabilities of infants and toddlers. One frequently cited study found that by the time low-income children reach age three, they've heard 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers. Recently, another study found that Latino children, especially those in immigrant families, start out with the same language and cognitive abilities as their white counterparts but lag significantly behind by age two.

The stress of living in poverty may even have an effect on the size of children's brains. Researchers have found that even one-month-old infants from poor families have smaller brains than wealthier babies.

These effects seem to be preventable and reversible, especially if young children engage in a lot of verbal interaction with adults. Some programs have attacked the early literacy gap through home visits designed to get low-income parents to speak to their young children more, and more encouragingly, or to read books to them.

Children and families benefit from Early Head Start

But another approach is to make sure infants and toddlers get verbal stimulation and emotional support at high-quality day care centers, where they may spend as much as ten hours a day. One study found that children who participated in Early Head Start performed better on measures of cognitive and socio-emotional development than a randomly selected control group.

Because Early Head Start also educates and engages parents, it can have an effect at home as well. The same study found that parents with children in the program did better on measures of parenting skills and were more likely to be employed.

But the program's reach has been limited. In 2010, Early Head Start served fewer than 4% of the children who were eligible nationwide. The situation has been somewhat better in DC. A spokesperson for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) estimated that Early Head Start here is now serving about 750 of the 5,600 who are eligible, or 13%. With the addition of 400 new slots, that will rise to 21%.

DC's grant is part of a $500 million Early Head Start expansion that Congress approved last year. Rather than expanding the programs of the large childcare providers currently certified as Early Head Start providers, DC chose to use the funds to create the Early Learning Quality Improvement Network (QIN). OSSE chose three large centers to serve as "hubs" for networks of smaller child-care providers.

The hubs will train and coach teachers at the smaller organizations, which include 14 childcare centers, located in all wards but Ward 3, and 12 home-based centers in Wards 1 and 4. And the smaller centers will use the hubs to offer families services like health care and help with literacy and nutrition. DC government agencies offering those services will partner with the hubs to provide them.

Help for small childcare centers

In the past, it's been difficult for smaller childcare providers to qualify for Early Head Start because they often lack the wherewithal to engage in the rigorous application process, according to HyeSook Chung, executive director of DC Action for Children. But the hub structure should enable them to offer their enrollees the high quality of care and comprehensive services that the larger centers in the program have been able to provide.

One of the centers in the QIN is Jubilee Jumpstart, which serves children from birth to age five. Located in an affordable housing site in Adams Morgan, it serves a total of 50 children, including 34 under the age of three.

Dee Dee Wright, the organization's executive director, says a coach from its assigned hub, United Planning Organization, has already begun visiting classrooms and helping staff improve their interaction with children.

Southeast Children's Fund, which operates two child care centers in Ward 8, is also participating in the initiative. Robert Gundling, deputy operating officer, said the centers serve a total of 106 children between six weeks and three years old.

While both Wright and Gundling said they're looking forward to having family service workers assigned to their families and to the coaching their teachers will receive, their centers may not need as much help as some others. Both already use well-regarded early childhood curricula that help foster social and language development. But if a center isn't already using a good curriculum, the QIN will provide one.

Clearly, the QIN will still leave out many low-income babies and toddlers. But at this point DC has chosen to focus on improving quality rather than simply expanding the number of daycare slots available. That makes sense, given what we now know about the importance of a child's experiences before age three.

Ultimately, though, we'll need to focus on scale as well as quality. Because high-quality childcare requires a high ratio of staff to children, that will take money. And of course, even excellent care doesn't guarantee that a baby or toddler will stay on a pathway to middle class, which Bowser has identified as the goal. Excellent schools and continuing social services are necessary as well.

But the QIN is at least a promising baby step in the direction of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.