DCPS's response to the demand for a plan to fix middle schools? We'll get back to you

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she would have a plan to improve middle schools by December 15. But all she's come up with is a promise to focus on improving those schools next year.

Eliot-Hine MS. Photo by DCPS.

Recently a lot of attention has been focused on the deficiencies of most DCPS middle schools. Even Henderson has acknowledged that DCPS hasn't succeeded in making them attractive, with many families leaving the school system after elementary school.

At a DC Council hearing on November 15, Councilmember David Catania called on Henderson to come up with a plan for improving middle schools within a month. Yesterday, Chancellor Henderson responded with a letter. A similar letter addressed to the "DCPS community" appeared on the DCPS website.

Henderson wrote that DCPS has operated "with a sense of urgency in addressing the needs of our schools." But the only commitment she made is that DCPS will "focus on improving our middle grades in FY 2015, and will then move on to improving our high schools in FY 2016 (the 2015-2016 school year)."

If you think that response is disappointing, you're not alone.

Many parents have called for greater vertical integration between middle schools and the elementary and high schools in their feeder patterns. Henderson said they, too, will have to wait—until fall 2016. In her letter to Catania, she said that she would first focus on making sure there's "horizontal alignment," ensuring that all schools within a grade range offer the same kinds of programs at a similar level of quality. But why can't DCPS focus on horizontal and vertical alignment at the same time?

Conspicuously absent from the letter is any acknowledgement of existing plans, like the Ward 6 Middle School Plan and the Ward 5 Great Schools Initiative. Does this mean DCPS is changing course on its commitments?

For now, you can give feedback via a survey form on the DCPS budget, as Henderson suggested in her letter to the community. The letter also promised that DCPS will hold focus groups on the middle grades in the future.

Is this enough to persuade DCPS families to keep their children in the system beyond elementary grades? What do you think?

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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Sandra, I had similar disappointment after seeing this. Has your experience with CHPSPO been like this - DCPS, despite the degrees and experience, relies on parents to identify potential programs and demand changes?

by Andrew Rowe on Dec 19, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

DCPS's response that they will get back to us is not really bad response. It seems pretty logical to me.

We need better middle schools. We also need to improve high schools, elementary schools, schools in low income neighborhoods, teaching, attendance, graduation rates, facilities and a whole bunch of other things.

One of biggest problems DCPS has faced over the years is Council Members, Mayors, School Board Members and even Congress suggesting all kinds of solutions and pushing new ideas to fix the schools. DCPS is not part of a larger state system, which would help insulate it from the shifting whims of the latest education advocates, and its in the nation's capital, which jacks up the profile of anyone offering "solutions".

How do you pick the best suggestions? I'm guessing Henderson has a general idea of what she wants to do and doesn't really see much value in things like a nonbinding "sense of the Council" resolution saying all DC middle school students should have access to schools as strong as Deal, or Catania asking Henderson to come up with a new plan to improve middle schools in a month.

It must be hard for Henderson to run a system with all these competing voices telling her what to focus on.

I'm glad the Chancellor is responding to Catania, in a timely manner, by basically saying I'm not going to drop everything else I'm working on so I can immediately address the middle school question. That's how an effective Chancellor should respond.

Sure we all need to think about how we can improve middle schools, but if we are going to make serious systemic changes it probably makes sense to take the time to do it right.

by turtleshell on Dec 19, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport


That's the issue. We shouldn't BE starting from ground zero. We've ALREADY given inputs, come up with a plan with widespread community buy in, etc.

Sandra referenced it in her post, but the Ward 6 Middle School plan was approved in 2010. Now it's not perfect (what is), but it was the result of 1000s of man-hours of work, of meetings, of often heated disagreement between parents and other stakeholders.

And then...nothing. Not even a peep. So it's disingenuous of the Chancellor to say, "hey! We'd love to get your input!". My input is to go look at the input you gave us last time that you are now ignoring.

This stuff takes time. It takes even longer when you don't even start.

And yes, I DO expect the Chancellor to drop everything and get working on middle schools. My kid is going to one next year. I don't have more time to wait.

by Tim Krepp on Dec 19, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

@turtleshell Your point about all the stakeholders swirling around is well taken, but that should be seen also as an asset to DCPS, a source of ideas.

Where I disagree is in the urgency on middle schools. Parents are making decisions right now about where to send their kids for next school year and some may be deciding where to live, with current and future school options in mind.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 19, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Tim Krepp I swear I drafted my post before I read yours. Thanks for making my point.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 19, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure exactly what you want. Did you want the Chancellor to just come up with a plan on her own over the course of a couple days and then present that in her letter? And then start implementing it tomorrow?

If the only thing you got out of her letter was that they only made a commitment to look into things in FY15, I'm not sure you read the letter. I think it gives a pretty good outline of the things they hope to include in the coming budget and the ways in which they are going to solicit input from the public on it.

Many parents have called for greater vertical integration between middle schools and the elementary and high schools in their feeder patterns. Henderson said they, too, will have to wait—until fall 2016.

Where does she say this - it seems like you are inferring that it must wait until after the elementary/middle/high school work. But that's not at all what the letter says - it says they are working on it now!

There's plenty of criticism to dole out, but jeez, I expect a lot better from the smart people on this site. Pretty easy for Catania to look good as he bashes DCPS considering he doesn't actually have to run it.

by MLD on Dec 19, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

I have mixed feelings, I agree the Chancellor is not invoking a sense that change can really happen, but also know that whatever is proposed will have some much controversy that if they have not figured out how to justify it, it will die. Fundamentally 2016 is most realistic because the school redistricting will affect all of the middle schools in important ways and who knows what the long term impact will be.

by DC Parent on Dec 19, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

@Andrew Rowe - while developing the Ward 6 MS plan, I found DCPS helpful, knowledgeable, and collaborative. Many of those folks are now gone, which perhaps explains the institutional amnesia. I don't know why MS was put in back burner, given this is the source of hemorrhaging from DCPS. I appreciate the 'team player' approach the Chancellor seems to have followed w/ the charter schools, but wish she'd been more aggressive about fighting to keep students in DCPS.

@turtleshell - you're right, it would have been crazy to announce a plan a month after the hearing and w/out any parent engagement. It's crazy that there has been no overall plan and unbelievably disappointing to receive the message that the plans that DCPS and community worked so hard on for years are being ignored. Pretty much kills my confidence in the fact that any plan, regardless of how many years it takes to draft, will ever be implemented.

@tim krep and @Ward 1 guy - yep!

@MLD - personally, I could care less about horizontal or vertical or diagonal. What I care about is that there be coordination among ES and MS (and HS) principals. In the current structure, there seems to be little of it in academic alignment/continuity, and building relationships among the communities. Who can blame them, though? The incentives just aren't there. Message is: perform (on testing) or we won't renew your (year to year) contract.

@ DC Parent - good point. I know this will sound obnoxious, so please forgive me, but what would you suggest was the excuse last year? Or the year before? There are (and have been) thousands of children that need good middle schools now. Sorry to repeat myself, but why walk away from perfectly good plans?

by Sandra Moscoso on Dec 19, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

@Sandra at my most cynical, when you ask why not last year or the year before... I think because they are afraid of the outcome of the redistricting. It may sound crazy but the fear is palpable in and around Deal because their kids might possibly have to attend Hardy, the rest of the city be dammed. Those parents can make a lot of noise which has helped Deal, not so much the rest of us. Plus how many parents in Ward 5 or Ward 6 will commit to using DCPS and not flee to the first charter or private we can find. I also think that fundamentally there is an underlying crisis that the middle class parents that have moved into the city really are not willing to have their kids go to title one schools. Too often you hear how they tried it in PK and left by first grade if they make it that far. Not sure how you get parents to look past their race and class prejudices and DCPS to actually face the fact that too many elementary are not cutting it. Overtime the administration holds off not rocking the boat until Deal and Wilson are near exploding and the rest of us make due. We just don't have the same political clout.

by DC Parent on Dec 19, 2013 10:04 pm • linkreport

@DC Parent - sigh. I hope you're wrong (and terrified that you may be right). Criticism will come regardless of what DCPS does or doesn't do, so might as well do the right thing.

by Sandra Moscoso on Dec 19, 2013 10:41 pm • linkreport

Few school systems have a fix for student teen years as this would require discipline and family involvement which are both tabooed. Instead teens and tweens are encourage to be independent, code for keep secrets from their families, and to BYOD meaning they can cheat while in school and certainly while doing their homework. Not one actor in this continual tragedy is taking any responsibility for their role and fixing it. That would require discipline and family involvement, again tabooed.

by AndrewJ on Dec 20, 2013 7:06 am • linkreport

@ turtleshell yes it must be "hard" for Henderson to sort through all the suggestions and preferences of stakeholders. And it is important to hear the priorities of stakeholders but doesn't she have staff????? Is there no one on board at DCPS who is an experienced, expert, professional who knows all there is to know about middle school education who can provide expertise and best practices from other districts that face similar challenges to DC? Couldn't that team be working full time on the issue while other things are going on at central office?

She sounds like me when I tell my kids, "Wait! I can only do one thing at a time and you are all talking at once". Where are her expert teams of education policy experts?

As a parent of a kid in DCPS I would have been much happier had Henderson replied to Catania with maybe not a full plan but the details of the superstars who are working on it and their stellar credentials. That would have given me at least some confidence.

by Rtimberg on Dec 20, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

The Post thinks that the new deputy chief of college and career readiness will take a step towards addressing the middle school problems: Emily Durso, former interim D.C. education superintendent, named to new DCPS role. Anyone have thoughts on that?

by Jessica Christy on Jan 14, 2014 9:17 pm • linkreport

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