Greater Greater Education

Catania says empowering parents is key to improving schools

DC Councilmember David Catania answered questions Monday night from Greater Greater Education contributors and readers. In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, he called for empowering parents, improving middle school options, and generally addressing DC's education issues with a fierce sense of urgency.

Left to right: Natalie Wexler, David Catania, Ken Archer. Photo from David Catania's office.

Drawing on an impressive fund of knowledge acquired during the 102 visits to DC schools he's undertaken as chair of the DC Council's education committee, Catania balanced his criticism with praise. He said he's seen impressive principals and teachers during his visits, and impressive results across both the DCPS and charter sectors. But he also believes there's much that needs to be improved.

If you weren't able to join us, you can read the Storify version here, or view the videos of the event at the end of this post. Or read on for an account of the highlights.

Catania spoke of a tendency towards "silo-ization" in the DC government's approach to education, with social services being treated as largely separate from education. He pointed out that at some schools a significant proportion of families are homeless and the rest are receiving government assistance.

"The most efficient way to defeat poverty that has ever been constructed is education," he said. "And when you have the inequality that exists in our city, I don't think the current pace of change is acceptable."

He mentioned his bill to increase funding for "at risk" students as one way to speed change. He said he also hopes to see a rise in the basic amount of money DCPS spends per student, as a study commissioned by the city has recommended. That study also recommended additional funds for at-risk students, but the recommendation was less far-reaching than Catania's.

And he pointed to his proposal to provide college tuition aid to DC students whose families make below $215,000. That bill, scaled down somewhat from the original proposal, passed a committee vote unanimously yesterday. Catania said a similar program in Washington State has increased the graduation rate for low-income students from 59% to 78%. That figure went up to 90%, he said, at Tacoma schools that had a college counselor in place.

Need for more communication

One theme that emerged from Catania's comments was the need for greater communication between sectors and individuals. He urged that principals at feeder schools talk with their counterparts at destination schools, to ensure that students at one school are prepared to go to the next.

And he said that DCPS should be talking to successful charter schools to learn from their experience. He interpreted DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson's comments about middle schools at a recent DC Council hearing as supportive of that view.

According to the Washington Post, Henderson said that "perhaps the city should figure out how to funnel children to charter schools in the middle grades, arguing that 'they know how to do middle school really well.'" The Post also reported that Catania had "bristled" at that suggestion and declared that he was "not going to outsource middle schools to charters."

Asked whether he thought Henderson had seriously meant to suggest such a thing, Catania implied that the apparent conflict between himself and the Chancellor had been exaggerated. "I think she meant we should explore more how to use charter schools, perhaps," he said Monday night.

But he added that Henderson didn't seem to have a plan to improve DCPS middle schools, which, with the exception of Deal MS in Ward 3, have had difficulty attracting families. In the absence of a plan, Catania said, her remarks "left people with the impression that she was abandoning middle schools."

Catania said he expects to receive a middle school plan from Henderson on December 15, and he understands it will be a "work in progress." One way of improving middle schools, he said, would be to equalize their offerings. He noted that students at Deal have higher-level math options than students at the far less popular Hardy Middle School, not far away.

Although he recently announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a mayoral bid, Catania deflected questions about what he would do as mayor. Asked what he would look for in a chancellor, Catania said it was "really premature to start doing personnel."

Truancy and preschool absenteeism

On truancy, Catania said that tightening up sanctions has led to improvements in younger grades, but it's still a problem at the high school level. He predicted that his bill to end social promotion before high school would ultimately reduce truancy by ensuring that students who reach 9th grade would function at grade level and therefore be less likely to become disengaged.

He also noted that absenteeism is a huge problem at the pre-K level, and school attendance for 3- and 4-year-olds isn't required by law. Noting that there are waiting lists for many pre-K programs, Catania suggested that families who miss a certain number of days of pre-K should be required to give up their preschool slots.

Catania also talked about the need to foster effective parent organizations across the District, and described a recent event at which parents heading established organizations gave tips to representatives of emerging parent groups in Ward 8. His office is now creating an "online toolkit" that will help parents organize and maintain PTAs.

While he said he didn't believe that DC should return to having an elected school board with authority to make operational decisions, he defended his aggressive oversight of education from his perch as chair of the education committee. He criticized those, such as the Post's editorial board, who he said see the Council's involvement in education as representing "nothing but mischief."

"I have a different point of view," he said to the audience. "I think we represent you. And if you're not getting your middle school, then you have to prevail upon me to do my job, and on the other 12 to do their job."

Once PTAs are organized across the District, he said, "then you spring to life, and you start saying 'we demand this.' But nothing short of really intense community pressure is going to move the direction of the system."

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Natalie Wexler is the editor of Greater Greater Education and a member of the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution, an organization that promotes the teaching of analytical writing. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 


Add a comment »

Middle Schools cannot improve without the elementary schools improving. Deal is a desirable school for a lot of reasons, but importantly because it provides a lot rigor because most of the students are ready for it. Latin and Basis also seem to meet this need. Hardy and Stuart Hobson may be closer to this model but they still do not have enough prepared elementary schools. If I had my druthers I would create partnerships between the middle schools and the 4th and 5th grade teachers to see if we can do more to make sure these students are prepared for the next step in work.

by DC Parent on Dec 12, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

It's good that Catania recognizes the Mayor's and Chancellor's failure to focus on rectifying the graduation gap between young women and African American young men with effective intervention. (YouTube Part 3). When the Executive and DCPS know that young men graduate at a rate 16-26% below young women it’s hard to make excuses. These are some of the very students on a fast track to the prison pipeline. Anyone who has spent an hour or two in the public pews at the Moultrie Courthouse sees the evidence of this failure. The cynic in me suspects that these political policy omissions are practically intentional and reflect other federal and local DeeCee policies that are disproportionately devastating to #BlackMenAndBoys.

When it costs $30-$50k to incarcerate those who get ensnared in our prison system — because their parents and schools have failed to give them proper guidance and hope for success and happiness as law abiding citizens — it's better to make the investment on the front end to prevent outcomes that have disastrous life long effects. For that kind of money, we could give them a Deerfield Academy quality education. Incarceration clearly has no personal beneficial effect; prisons and jails don’t provide much if any reasonable and effective guidance judging from the recidivism rates of former offenders, who more often than not graduate from low level to high level crimes in jail/prison after being educated by felons. Perhaps DCPS should take some advice from felons about how to engage and inspire young #BlackMenAndBoys. Even a military academy type of boarding school would prepare these students better for their futures; it would remove them from the harmful environments where they learned criminal behavior and isolate them in an arena where the focus of everyone around them is learning and success without the distraction of social pathologies.

For the 2013-2014 school year: Boarding $50,110; Day: $35,920

by @ShawingtonTimes on Dec 12, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

Catania is correct: this is an anti-poverty agenda as poverty is the number one indicator of school success.

A major investment in EARLY READING needs to be made for high poverty communities. I was told that Montgomery
County has a three tiered strategy for investing money in high poverty schools: there is a per kid addition for poverty, there an additional zone per child when you live in a high poverty zone, and a third investment when a school hits a certain threshold.

This acknowledges the reality: we need smaller classrooms, we need extended learning, we need parent involvement and parent education (lots of parents didn't have the chance to gain exposure to the theories of brain development in early childhood) and we need long term, intensive reading interventions for kids who enter school with gaps in language-readiness.

Helping children succeed is not either or -- it's both and.

Having spent five years now working with high need kids in Wards 7 and 8, like Catania I am both impressed and distressed. We do need as sense of urgency and an acceptance that helping kids thrive cannot be done on the cheap.

by Rene Wallis on Dec 13, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

Real progress at DCPS will happen when the parents who don't care and their prodigy are pushed out. No, I don't think they can be changed.

This is why Charters have been a savior to DC - parents who care have to do something to get in and stay in, a self selection process that by its nature pushes out those who don't care.

by Dad on Dec 13, 2013 7:50 pm • linkreport


Neill Franklin: 50% of Bmore young #BlackMenAndBoys are lured from high schools and middle schools by drug dealers:

Schools need to make a better pitch to young #BlackMenAndBoys, and everyone else, about the benefits of staying in school and empowering themselves.

by @ShawingtonTimes on Dec 15, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us