Catania, you had me at "Middle Schools"

The ongoing review of DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns has captured the attention of the entire DC education community. One unexpected and vitally important development is Councilmember David Catania's new focus on middle schools.

Stuart-Hobson MS by DCPS.

While some are optimistic about the boundary review process, there's also a lot of anxiety about whether it will yield any benefit if there are not enough quality seats to go around.

At a recent DC Council Education Committee hearing, parents and others identified DCPS's middle schools as a key part of the problem. Catania, chair of the committee, called on DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson to come up with a plan for improving middle schools within a month.

And yesterday Councilmember Muriel Bowser introduced a non-binding resolution calling the dearth of high-quality DCPS middle schools "unsustainable and unjust." The resolution calls for all middle-school students to have access to the kinds of offerings available at Deal Middle School in Ward 3.

In Ward 6, where I live, most schools see a 25% to 50% drop in enrollment between preschool and 5th grade. While there's no hard data accessible on where they go, I know some parents enroll their 5th graders as out-of-boundary students at elementary schools with more desirable feeder patterns—like Hyde-Addison, which leads to Hardy Middle School and Wilson High School. Some move their 5th graders from DCPS into charters or private schools, which often start their middle-school track at 5th grade.

Ward 6 parents and principals have been trying to address this issue since 2009, when the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization (CHPSPO) surveyed the community. (Disclosure: I serve as Secretary of CHPSPO.) Based on the survey results, parents and principals drafted a plan for strengthening middle schools on Capitol Hill.

DCPS worked hard to get community input, and in July 2010 then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee approved the bulk of the plan and extended it from Capitol Hill to all of Ward 6. Today, a few elements of the plan have been implemented, including the expansion of Capitol Hill Montessori@Logan, which serves grades PK3-6, into its own building. However, DCPS has been slow to implement elements that would actually strengthen existing middle schools, and its efforts have been underfunded and not well coordinated.

Three Ward 6 middle schools

Ward 6 has three middle schools: Stuart-Hobson, Eliot-Hine, and Jefferson. (In addition, Walker-Jones Education Campus serves grades PK3 through 8th.) The plan called for renovations at both Stuart-Hobson and Eliot-Hine. Funding to modernize Stuart-Hobson came through only after parents engaged in a lot of politicking, number-crunching, and fundraising. The project remains incomplete, with parents once again leaning hard on the city to finish its full scope. And plans to renovate Eliot-Hine MS have been delayed by several years.

Under the Ward 6 plan, both Eliot-Hine and Jefferson were to adopt the Middle Years International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, designed to stimulate critical and analytical thinking. Both schools feed into Eastern High School, which has also applied to be an IB school. Generally it takes several years for a school to be approved by the International Baccalaureate Organization.

While the process is moving forward, it has been slow to take off. Although the IB Organization approved Jefferson in 2010, the school didn't hire an IB Coordinator until fall 2012. As with other parts of the Ward 6 plan, parents and principals have been left to try to implement it largely on their own, without clear coordination from DCPS's central office.

Progress has also been stunted by the the DCPS budget crisis every spring. And when the DCPS budget is frozen, funds for things like IB teacher training can be held up. Even when the plan is working, middle school principals are not communicating its successes to elementary school communities.

That's part of a broader problem. Throughout DCPS, there does not seem to be much deliberate, strategic coordination among principals and schools within a feeder pattern. On a recent visit to my child's school, Catania brought up this issue, which CHPSPO families have been raising with DCPS for years.

Under DCPS' "cluster" structure, Instructional Superintendents appear to be aligned by grades rather than feeder patterns. For the most part, each superintendent oversees a group of elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools. That structure does not lend itself to collaboration between principals at feeder and destination schools. Add on high-stakes testing, and it's obvious that principals will focus on the health of their individual schools rather than where their students are headed.

Need for clear feeder patterns

Many DCPS elementary schools are in high demand. But without healthy middle schools and clear, predictable paths for students to move as a cohort through high school, DCPS' ability to keep students in the system is limited. It's ironic that DCPS—which, unlike the charter school system, is centrally run—does not have a competitive advantage when it comes to feeder patterns.

Improving middle schools won't be easy, and some factors lie outside Henderson's control. During the committee hearing, she mentioned the misalignment of grades created by charters starting enrollment at 5th grade. She also described the challenge of equalizing offerings like libraries and foreign language at all middle schools. With limited funds, that's even more difficult than developing specialized programs like IB at a few schools.

Still, when Catania's deadline arrives less than a month from now, I hope to see a comprehensive strategy for change. For Ward 6, a good place to start is the 2010 middle school plan that has already been developed by the school system in collaboration with the community.

Sandra Moscoso runs the World Bank Finances Program by day and works on community efforts around education, active transportation, and open government by night. Sandra lives in small, quaint, Washington, DC, where she tries to get a little biking in with her husband and two children. 


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I heard that Catania is exploring a run for mayor. That's the last thing DC needs. His penchant for throwing temper tantrums, stomping his feet and screaming when he doesn't get his way, would certainly turn DC back into a laughingstock.

by Dave on Dec 4, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

There are two kinds of data that education policymakers could use to make smart decisions about middle schools: enrollment patterns and performance data based on test score growth (value added).

Obviously they figured out that Alice Deal is popular (enrollment patterns) but what is the right policy response? It really depends on whether parents prefer Deal because of the neighborhood, the peer group of high SES students who attend the school, or something else. Is Deal popular because it has amazing educators or in spite of its staff? Is the physical plant especially appealing?

And do parents even choose schools on a basis that taxpayers who fund the schools care about, like learning? Which schools (DCPS or charter) in mixed and lower SES neighborhoods are producing greater gains in achievement given the students they serve?

Until we answer these questions using hard data we'll continue passing empty resolutions saying we need 50 more Alice Deals without knowing what about a popular school should or can be replicated.

by Steven Glazerman on Dec 4, 2013 2:06 pm • linkreport

I have a child at Deal and there are reasons it will be hard to replicate in the rest of the city, not the least is the extraordinary wealth in terms of cash and social capital of many of the families and their attendant investment in the school. They also have kids coming from solid elementary schools. That said what can be replicated are teachers that expect a lot, collaborate and connected curriculum. For example They are studying the ancient world in humanities and reading Gilgamesh in their ELA classes. There are other connections they make between the disciplines the make education coherent and rigorous.

On another level I think there needs to be a connection between the upper elementary grades and middle schools. What do the middle school teachers expect kids to be able to do, what are the coming into middle school without. That is a hard conversation, but it is necessary. I like Cantania's agenda for the schools but I also think a lot more needs to happen within DCPS that is hard to legislate.

by DC Parent on Dec 4, 2013 9:50 pm • linkreport

@ Dave - I hear you. I've seen thoughtful, respectful Catania at community meetings and while addressing public witnesses and dismissive and almost vicious Catania while addressing public officials and even on one on one interactions with individuals/citizens. I like seeing more of the first guy.

@Steven - Amen to the data piece. On Deal, it's probably obvious that this was the model the Capitol Hill community looked to when thinking about Eliot-Hine and Jefferson. We interviewed Deal's former principal to understand what she did to make the school so successful. IB is/was attractive because it requires accreditation and evaluation of rigor that external to DCPS.

@DC Parent - Yes! The ES/MS connection seems so obvious and crucial. Makes sense that it doesn't, since the incentives seem really narrow. From my perspective, the incentives today look like: Test well to survive. Let the parent worry about the next.

by Sandra Moscoso on Dec 5, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

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