Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category education

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.

Struggling readers in DC's high schools need help from professional tutors

Many students in DC's high-poverty middle and high schools have reading skills far below their grade level, and they've become disengaged from school as a result. We can get them back on track if we're willing to invest in paid, professional tutors who will work with them intensively.

Photo from Resources for Inner City Children

In Ward 8's three DC Public School middle schools, only about 25% of students read on grade level, and when they leave many are several grade levels below where they should be. The percentage of students reading at grade level in Ward 8's two high schools, Ballou and Anacostia, is even lower, about 17%.

I run an organization that has partnered with DCPS to provide professional, paid tutors to students at Ballou and Anacostia, and about 10% of our freshmen read at the first-grade level or lower.

Currently, struggling readers in DCPS middle and high schools get help in the form of smaller classes, reading circles, and tutoring from fellow students. But from what I've seen, these strategies aren't working.

An expanded volunteer tutor base won't solve the problem

Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a plan to recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with male students of color in DC Public Schools. While that may be a worthy effort, it won't address the difficult problem of students reading far below grade level in high school.

For one thing, Bowser is partnering with tutoring organizations that primarily serve elementary school students. Moreover, middle and high school students who are three years or more behind grade level in reading need experienced, professional tutors who can work with them at least three hours a week.

Improvement won't happen overnight, but a student receiving that kind of consistent, intensive tutoring during school hours could be back on track in two years.

My organization, Resources for Inner City Children (RICH), has seen good results: almost all the low readers we have worked with who attended 80% or more of tutoring sessions made significant reading gains for the first time in years. During the four years we partnered with Anacostia High School, approximately 40% of the 90 students we targeted moved up three or more grade levels in reading.

The vast majority who didn't make significant progress were students who simply stopped coming to school regularly because it just became too hard and discouraging. That's why even intensive, professional tutoring isn't enough. We also need a well-coordinated effort by school administrators and social service workers to re-engage students who have become disaffected.

A truant, dyslexic child can't wait for a bureaucratic process that involves mailing letters, making threats, and scheduling meetings. School personnel need to visit students' homes and tell them a tutor is ready to shepherd them along a path that has become too overwhelming for them to navigate alone.

Professional tutors are expensive, but not having them is even more costly

Of course, all this will cost money. Professional tutoring can be expensive. RICH has been able to pay its tutors well below the market rate, $40 an hour, because the individuals we hire feel a sense of mission for helping low-income students. At that rate, three hours of weekly tutoring over the course of a school year adds up to about $4,000 per student.

It's also very possible that the school system would need to pay more than $40 an hour for professional tutors who meet the need.

One way to lower costs would be to tutor students in pairs or even threesomes that are compatible both socially and in terms of ability level. One model that uses a semi-professional tutor corps has found that one-to-two is an ideal tutor-to-student ratio.

But the cost of not addressing this problem is much more daunting. Consider that only 39% of the freshmen entering at Anacostia in 2010 graduated on time. That number only got up to 50% at Ballou. Nationally, over half of African-American males who drop out of high school have prison records by their early thirties.

And at each of those schools, 29% of students qualify for special education. Individuals in that category are disproportionately represented in the prison population.

Recruiting volunteer tutors to work with younger children is a well-meaning, and low-cost, effort. But if we want to solve the most intractable aspects of DC's reading crisis, we'll need to invest in luring our most disconnected older students back to school and providing them with high-quality professional tutoring once they get there.

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.

DC's attorney general has okayed DCPS's plan to help males of color. But that may not be the end of the story.

DC's attorney general has decided that a District initiative to help boys and young men "of color" doesn't violate laws against sex discrimination. But there are large holes in his argument.

Photo of girl of color from Shutterstock.

In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson unveiled a $20 million initiative called Empowering Males of Color (EMOC). The plan calls for establishing an all-boys college prep high school, recruiting 500 volunteer tutors, and awarding individual schools grants for proposals focused on helping black and Latino male students.

But some weeks later, DC Councilmember Mary Cheh asked DC's attorney general to issue an opinion on the legality of the plan. She said EMOC raised serious questions under the US Constitution and federal and local anti-discrimination statutes, because it seemed to offer educational benefits to boys that wouldn't be available to girls.

Last week, Attorney General Karl Racine said he believes the plan is legal. The Washington Post editorial board and others have applauded that conclusion, and even Cheh seemed to indicate she was content with the result. But that may not be the end of the story.

In an interview, Cheh, who teaches constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, pointed to some major flaws in Racine's analysis. Given my own legal training, I can see some others myself. That doesn't mean Cheh and I are opposed to helping black and Hispanic boys.

In my case, that concern isn't just abstract. As a volunteer tutor in high-poverty DCPS schools, I've gotten to know and become fond of a couple of African-American boys, and my heart aches when I think about what the statistics predict about their future.

But there are girls of color in DC who face risks that are just as severe. There may not be as many of them, it's true. But my conscience—and, perhaps, the law—say that we can't exclude any individual girl from an effort to help the neediest kids.

Under the Constitution, the government can't just say it wants to help boys as opposed to girls. It has to have a really good reason, and it has to show that what it's doing to help boys actually attacks the problem it's trying to solve.

Let's examine Racine's arguments one by one:

Racine says there's an important reason for the discrimination

When deciding whether gender discrimination violates the Constitution's Equal Protection clause, the Supreme Court requires "an exceedingly persuasive justification." Here, Racine cites statistics showing that black and Hispanic males are generally at the bottom of the heap on measures like test scores and graduation rates.

By contrast, black and Hispanic girls are doing better. They're overrepresented at DCPS's selective academic high schools, like Banneker and School Without Walls. And while their overall test scores and graduation rates aren't great, they're not as bad as those of their male counterparts.

(Racine didn't address discrimination against white males because DC has apparently redefined "color" to include white, at least for one aspect of the EMOC initiative. In a letter to Racine, Henderson said the high school will admit male students "regardless of race.")

But, as Cheh points out, Racine isn't comparing the right groups. He's comparing all boys of color to all girls of color. But DC's argument is that it's trying to help at-risk kids, and targeting boys is a good way of doing that because they're more at-risk than their female counterparts. But in that case, Racine should be comparing at-risk boys to at-risk girls. If he did that, Cheh says, "all the differences would fall away."

In that case, there would be no justification for identifying the problem as the low achievement of males of color. DC would need to frame the problem as raising the achievement of all at-risk students, regardless of gender.

Racine says EMOC is "substantially related" to the objective of closing the achievement gap between males of color and other groups

To justify gender discrimination, you also have to prove that the method you're using is likely to help solve the important problem you're attacking. In this case, DC has to show that excluding girls from EMOC is somehow related to raising the achievement of boys.

On the high school, Racine points to the track record of the outside operator DCPS is bringing in to run the school, Urban Prep Academy. Urban Prep operates three all-male charter high schools in Chicago, and it's had a 100% college acceptance rate for its graduates over the past five years. He says it's "reasonable to conclude that Urban Prep's success" is at least partly due to its single-gender model.

Leaving aside questions about whether Urban Prep really has been all that successful, Racine doesn't point to any evidence that its success is due to its exclusion of girls. He just says it's "reasonable" to think that. He doesn't cite any research on the benefits of single-sex education, perhaps because it's been inconclusive.

Even Robert Simmons, the DCPS official in charge of the EMOC initiative, isn't making any claims for the benefits of single-sex education. "The jury's still out," he told the Atlantic. "But the jury currently says it doesn't do any harm."

Racine says the other two prongs of the initiative—tutoring and the grants to schools—"present a closer question," because they could be expanded to include girls "without sacrificing their character or effectiveness." But, he continues, they're "substantially related" to DC's goal because "the problem is severe enough to warrant deploying scarce resources to target with laser-like focus the District's least successful cohort."

But saying the problem is really severe doesn't prove anything about whether DC's policy of excluding girls from the effort will be necessary or even helpful in solving it. Of course, if you see the problem as just raising the achievement of boys of color, it will be, because you're targeting resources to boys. But as I pointed out earlier, it may not be constitutional to frame the problem that way.

Racine says there are "substantially equal" alternatives for girls

Under Title IX and the regulations the Department of Education has crafted to implement it, public schools can be single-sex as long as the excluded gender has an educational option that's pretty much the same, whether coed or single-sex. So DC doesn't have to establish a parallel girls' school, but it has to show there's something open to girls that provides a similar experience to Urban Prep.

Racine says DC meets the "substantially equal requirement" for two reasons. First, he says, DCPS has other application-only, college prep high schools that are open to both girls and boys. Second, he says that all DCPS high schools offer things like AP classes, tutoring, and extended day options.

DCPS hasn't provided specifics about how Urban Prep will choose students, but it's safe to say the criteria won't be the same as those at the highly selective School Without Walls or Banneker high schools. To get in there, students need top grades and test scores. At the event announcing EMOC, Henderson said Urban Prep has achieved its results not with students who were already high-achieving, but with "the knuckleheads."

Will female knuckleheads have a school like Urban Prep open to them? I don't think so. And clearly, Henderson and Bowser don't think AP classes and tutoring in a low-performing neighborhood school provide a "substantially equal" experience to Urban Prep. If they did, they wouldn't go to the trouble and expense of creating a new school.

Racine also points to the New Heights Program for Expectant and Parenting Students, which operates at six DCPS high schools, as an alternative option for girls. But that program isn't restricted to girls by its terms, although 80% of the students enrolled are female. It's also much smaller in scale than Urban Prep, costing $1.3 million a year. And its prime focus is helping students both raise a child and get through high school, not ensuring they get to college.

Throughout the letter, Racine refers to EMOC as a "pilot," and suggests that it's okay for DC to try attacking the problem of the achievement gap one step at a time. But most pilot programs don't involve building a new building and cost $20 million. And courts don't buy the one-step-at-a-time argument when the government is making distinctions on the basis of constitutionally sensitive characteristics like race or gender.

One part of EMOC Racine didn't address, because Bowser announced it after Cheh requested the opinion, is an internship program for 100 young men. Each intern will not only get a year-long paid job, he'll also be paired with a mentor who will "provide guidance on career, school, and life choices."

Perhaps there's a convincing argument to be made for EMOC, but Racine hasn't made it. And I'm not sure I'd want to try making even a more convincing argument to a "knucklehead" female of color who wants a chance to go to Urban Prep.

The ACLU of the National Capital Area, which also raised questions about EMOC, is still considering its response to Racine's opinion. The ACLU has challenged single-sex education in other parts of the country, and all it might need to sue DC is a girl who wants to go to Urban Prep. Or, perhaps, a white male or female who wants a tutor or a paid internship.

Racine said in his opinion that his office is "fully prepared to defend the initiative" if it's challenged in court. He may get his chance. But he might want to do a little more preparation before he launches his defense.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DCPS plans to give Wilson High School less money to serve more students

DC Public Schools plans to cut Wilson High School's budget next year by 10%, even though the student body is expected to grow by 10%. Parent groups and the school's principal are protesting, arguing that the cuts will hurt the most vulnerable students at the relatively affluent school.

Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

Next year's proposed budget will effectively reduce the school's allocation by $1.8 million, according to Interim Principal Gregory Bargeman. He and parents at Wilson warn that the cut will mean larger class sizes, decreased security, and less support for struggling students, many of whom travel to the Ward 3 school from other parts of the District.

Bargeman recently told parents and students that DCPS plans to reduce Wilson's per-student allocation from $9,276 this year to $8,306 next year, an amount he said was the lowest allocated to any neighborhood school in the District. According to Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, other high schools are receiving an average of close to $14,000 per student.

At the same time, the Wilson student body is growing even faster than expected. This year's budget was based on a projected enrollment of 1708, but the actual enrollment is almost 1800. That resulted in a shortfall of almost $790,000 this year.

DCPS projects that next year's enrollment will be 1878, but parents say recent trends indicate it will be at least 85 more than that. Even assuming DCPS's figure is correct, Bargeman says the school system is asking Wilson to serve 170 more students than last year with less money—$309,600 less, to be exact.

Wilson's Parent Teacher Student Organization and Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) have sent a letter to Mayor Bowser and other DC officials asking that Wilson get an additional $900,000 for next year. They plan to hold a meeting at the school tonight, and are asking residents, especially those who live outside Ward 3, to contact their DC Councilmembers.

Cheh has already sent DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson a letter protesting the budget cut. "To parents across the District who send their children to Wilson," she wrote, "Wilson is a model and restores confidence in DCPS. With this budget, however, you will dramatically shake that confidence."

Wilson draws students from every one of DC's 22 zip codes, according to school parents. And 44% of its students come from beyond its boundaries.

In Wilson's weekly bulletin last week, Principal Bargeman said he had spent much of the previous week "trying to persuade DCPS to reconsider the proposed cut. To date, DCPS has been unwilling to make changes."

Funding and at-risk students

Henderson told the Washington Post that the school system is reducing Wilson's funding because it has to target funds to schools with large concentrations of at-risk students. DC law requires that each school get an additional $2,000 for each student who is homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

But as Cheh points out, Wilson does have a substantial number of at-risk students. According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, at-risk students make up 31% of its student body. True, many other DCPS schools have at-risk concentrations of 70% or more. But because Wilson has such a large student body, that 31% translates into 550 students, which is greater than the number of at-risk students at several other high schools—and greater than the entire enrollment at two of those schools.

Beyond that, DCPS isn't just decreasing Wilson's additional funding for at-risk students. It's decreasing the minimum amount the school is supposed to get to provide basic services to all its students, in order to provide additional funds to other schools.

Last year, DCPS didn't allocate the at-risk funds proportionally as the law required. Because of time constraints, it used the money to help fund initiatives it had already planned.

A guide to the school budget posted on the DCPS website explains that in allocating at-risk funds for next year, officials decided they couldn't "in good conscience" take money away from worthy initiatives that are getting the funds this year. So, among other cost-saving measures, they "examined the budgets of schools with smaller numbers of at-risk students" and reduced per-pupil funding for next year on the theory that it was "the least harmful way of freeing up funds."

All students at Wilson will suffer from the planned cuts, but at-risk and low-income students there will suffer the most, says Jeffrey Kovar, a Wilson parent and chair of its LSAT.

For example, Wilson will no longer have a full-time college counselor. Middle-class students whose parents went to college themselves will still be able to navigate the college application process, but low-income first-generation college applicants will be at a serious disadvantage.

Kovar, one of the authors of the letter calling on residents to protest the cuts, also says Wilson will lack money to support minority students taking challenging AP classes and struggling to pass 9th grade.

Class sizes will climb to 30 for regular classes, he predicts, and AP classes, already averaging 30 students, could go as high as 40. A lack of staff to monitor behavior in a building designed for only 1550 students could also pose a threat to safety.

The year of the high school and Wilson's achievement gap

Kovar finds it particularly ironic that Henderson is planning to cut Wilson's funding in what she has declared "the year of the high school." Just as last year DCPS focused on improving middle schools, next year it will concentrate on improving high school quality, especially for low-income and struggling students.

Wilson has long had an achievement gap between its wealthier and lower-income students, and the apparent reason the school's principal was fired earlier this school year was his failure to make enough progress closing it. Now, says Kovar, the school will have an even harder time doing so.

DCPS presumably feels that affluent families within Wilson's boundaries will continue to flock to the school despite the cuts. And perhaps it hopes that allocating more money to schools in poorer neighborhoods will lure students into remaining there rather than traveling across town. Certainly it would make sense to try to fill the gleaming but half-empty high schools that DC has spent many millions building or renovating in recent years.

But it will take a while before those other schools achieve Wilson's drawing power, whether that power is justified or not. No doubt poorer DCPS schools desperately need funds, and there seems to be an assumption that Wilson will be okay no matter what. But that may not be true. Wilson is the one neighborhood high school in DC that holds the promise of being both diverse and high-performing. It would be a shame if DCPS made that promise impossible to fulfill.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DC's charter schools boost learning for poor and minority students

DC's charter schools do a better job than its traditional public schools when it comes to educating low-income and minority students, according to a recent national study. But the study indicates that white and Asian students fare better in the traditional sector.

Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

The study ranked DC's charter sector sixth in the nation among 41 urban school districts for its positive impact on student learning.

Overall, students in charter schools have had bigger gains in both reading and math than similar students enrolled in the DC Public School system, especially when it comes to middle school math. And while charter schools are still far from closing the achievement gap, it's smaller for charter students than for those enrolled in DCPS.

The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), looked at data from the 2006-07 through 2011-12 school years. It matched "virtual twins," students with similar backgrounds and test scores, some of whom went to charters and some of whom stayed in the traditional public school system.

Researchers then compared rates of growth for the "twins" in each sector, as measured by increases in standardized test scores.

Nationally, the CREDO study found that students in urban charter schools gained the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days in reading.

It's harder to quantify the gains on the local level, which the CREDO report frames in terms of standard deviations (SDs) rather than days of learning. But overall, charter students had gains of 0.09 SDs in math and 0.13 SDs in reading over their DCPS counterparts.

Results for different demographic groups in DC

Generally, the strongest positive results were for students who were poor and black or Hispanic, as compared to white non-poor students in DCPS. Charter students who were eligible for free and reduced price lunch, a frequent measure of poverty, were only 0.02 SDs below non-poor students in math. The equivalent gap for low-income DCPS students was .09.

The charter sector also improved the performance of Hispanic students and students learning English as a second language, as well as students who qualify for special education services, although the gains were not as large.

White and Asian students in the charter sector didn't fare as well. Both groups actually did worse than their peers in DCPS, by 0.06 SDs in reading and about 0.10 in math.

There are two possible explanations for that, according to Anne Herr, director of school quality for FOCUS DC, a charter advocacy organization. One is that the sample sizes are small. White students make up 12% of DCPS's student population and just 5% of the charter school population.

It's not clear how many Asian students attend DC's public schools, but the number is low. Last year, Wilson High School was the only one in the District with ten or more Asian students scheduled to graduate.

The other reason is that the DCPS schools with large numbers of white students are generally high-performing, so the base of comparison is much higher.

The negative results for white students in charter schools are consistent with CREDO's nationwide data. Nationally, those students lost the equivalent of 36 days of learning in math and 14 in reading, compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

The CREDO study praised DC as one of four cities that had few low-performing charters and also a majority that outperformed traditional public schools in both math and reading. The other three cities in that category were Boston, Detroit, and Newark.

Another recent report labeled DC's charter sector the healthiest in the nation. Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS DC, says the two studies prove the value of DC's charter schools.

"I don't see how people can try to ignore anymore that the DC charter movement is thriving," Cane said. "It's a combination of some really brilliant people who have started schools and a really good authorizer that's willing to close schools that are not closing the achievement gap. We also have a very good law that gives charters a lot of freedom of action."

Reasons to question data on charter success

While Cane has a point, some would counter that charters enjoy certain advantages that high-poverty DCPS schools don't: for example, a self-selected group of students that is more likely to be motivated, and the option of denying admission to students who arrive midyear.

And while DC may rank sixth in the CREDO study, it lags pretty far behind the top charter sectors. Boston ranked number one in both reading and math gains, with 0.324 SDs in math and 0.236 in reading. The comparable figures for DC were 0.134 and 0.097.

And, of course, given that these are comparative measures, even a charter sector that isn't doing a great job can look good against the background of a low-performing traditional school system.

Another cause for concern is that charter success, both locally and nationally, is greater in math than in reading, and seems to stall at the high school level. In DC, the highest gains were in middle school math, with charter students gaining 0.23 SDs. For middle school reading, the figure was only 0.02.

The gains for DC charter high schools weren't statistically significant, but at the national level high schools provided their students with the equivalent of 32 additional days of learning in math and only 9 in reading. As in DC, the highest gains nationally were in middle school math, with 73 additional days of learning.

It's generally easier to raise the performance of low-income students in math, probably because math doesn't require the background knowledge and vocabulary that reading comprehension does. But literacy skills are arguably more important, since they're fundamental to understanding all other subjects—including, to a certain extent, math.

While it's not clear from the report why gains drop off in the higher grades, one likely reason is that high-school-level work requires more sophisticated reading, writing, and analytical skills. And it's possible that even high-performing charter middle schools haven't really been preparing their students to handle them.

With the advent of the Common Core and its more rigorous standardized tests, which students in DC and elsewhere are taking for the first time this year, those deficiencies may soon become apparent at lower grades as well.

DC has much to be proud of in its charter schools, and many low-income students have received a better education than they otherwise would have thanks to their existence. But the achievement gap is fundamentally a literacy gap, and the jury is still out on how much progress the charter sector has really made in closing it.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

We visited 18 schools in 90 days to play DC's annual preschool lottery. Here is what we learned.

Parents all over DC are awaiting the results of the city's annual lottery to get into public schools and public charter schools, which are expected to hit inboxes Friday. The anxiety level is high.

Lottery image from Shutterstock.

My husband and I entered the lottery to get a spot in a preschool program for our three-year-old child. Not all 3- or 4-year-olds are guaranteed a spot in a school, even in the school they are zoned to attend. Only in kindergarten is there a secured spot for students in the District (and for preschoolers in five low-income areas as a pilot program).

That means applying to multiple schools in hopes of getting into one. For months or years, parents like us have pored over school data, researched curricula, visited school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents, and asked questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city.

We all want to get our children into the "best" school that is the "right fit." And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.

Here is some of what we learned about the process and about some of the schools in DC.

Lotteries are enormously competitive. At both charters and neighborhood schools, alike, we often heard the refrain of "Our school is more difficult to get into than (insert the name of the Ivy League school du jour)." Some of these elementary schools receive hundreds if not thousands of applications, with just a few spots to fill. (We tried our best not to even entertain the idea of going to places like Brent Elementary, where it seems a family must win the actual lottery to afford a house that is in bounds for the school.)

The largest number of seats for incoming 3-year-olds that we saw was in the low 60s. Most were in the 20s and low 30s, and that is before the schools take into account the sibling and other preferences. The lottery gives preferences to the siblings of students already at the school and, in some schools, children of the school's staff.

After hearing about the difficult odds, parents in the open house sessions murmured and whispered among themselves. And at the end of the sessions, these same administrators would smile and say, "We invite you to apply for our school and to put us in the No. 1 spot." While inviting to hear, it also made us wonder whether some schools are trying to goose the numbers of applications, so they can continue to tout their desirability to future parents.

There are some amazing schools in DC. Really amazing. Yes, it's an urban district with lots of unevenness and inequality—some painfully obvious—but there are many schools that are thriving and excelling. For example, one of the first schools we walked into was Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, and I was very impressed with what we witnessed. From the outdoor garden to the music class, it felt like a warm, friendly building where children would grow and be challenged.

The inequities of the system are real. Why can't all of DC's kids go to a school like Peabody? Some schools have old buildings, or school leadership that doesn't demand and provide excellence, or general poverty, or parents who aren't or can't be more involved in their children's education, or a whole host of other issues all combined. But it still hurts to know that not every child can go to the excellent schools that the District has to offer.

PTAs are providing enormous amounts of extra funding and other types of aid to schools throughout the District. Many of the schools we visited have signature fundraisers that they put on every year in the hopes of buying a new kiln, supporting a gardening program, updating the school library, etc., etc. This is both invigorating and frustrating.

It's wonderful to see parents come together to support their children's education, and I expect one day that we will be heavily involved with our son's school's PTA. But what about parents who don't have extra money or extra time to give? What happens to schools without those extra resources? How can we as a city support ALL schools with resources for the arts as well as for writing, reading, math, social studies and science?

Demand for the city's language immersion schools is high and only growing, as many parents want to see their children gain valuable skills and knowledge about other cultures in this globalizing world. We are keenly interested in these schools and this model of teaching and ended up putting many of these schools near the top of our list, even though the chances of getting in are so thin. District leaders—and others throughout the country—should pay close attention to this demand and find ways to meet it.

School data—or the lack thereof—can make you start to twitch. My husband, a statistician, eagerly dove into the data that he could find about the results of past lotteries to help us figure out where we'd have the best chance of getting in. (We have no sibling or other preferences for 11 of the schools we chose, and we put our zoned school, which is still struggling to find its way, last on the list.)

But even with all his expertise, we still couldn't get a great grasp on the numbers because many of the charters don't supply that information. And that's just the information about the lottery. We had to ask basic questions at every school—publics and charters alike—about things like whether there is a full-time school nurse, whether there is a separate library in the building with a dedicated librarian, etc.

For the most part, all of the public schools had these things, but many of the charters did not (especially the newer ones). Regardless, we shouldn't have had to ask for this information. All of this should available publicly in a place where everyone can peruse and compare easily and quickly. No one should have to go into a school building to figure out these basic things.

There is data in DCPS's school profile pages, on the Public Charter School Board's website, and on LearnDC, but not everything we wanted to know.

The charters we visited are offering a solid education and a caring environment to students. It's unfortunate that the public schools don't have the flexibility to do some of the things the charters can, but there are great schools of both types. However, I firmly believe that if the charters receive public money they must be just as accountable and transparent to the residents of the District and their children as the public schools.

It was dispiriting to hear one charter administrator speak with some level of hubris as if her school answered to no one, least of all the parents of the children in her school. (That only happened at one place we visited, thankfully.) We as parents and citizens in the District should demand more transparency from the city and Congress about the charter schools whose budgets come, at least in part, from our tax dollars.

The whole process is heavily weighted in favor of wealthier residents. My husband and I both took off time from work—which we later made up in various forms of working late or on weekends—to attend the open houses. We are grateful that our jobs allowed us the flexibility to do so. Only some schools offered visits after working hours. For anyone who works a job on a shift or with little flexibility, visiting these schools would not have been an option. The schools need to do a better job of finding other ways to open their doors to potential parents.

An organization called DC School Reform Now has been making videos, or "virtual school tours," to address this problem. There aren't a lot of videos yet, though, and it's not going to close the gap entirely.

DC doesn't really offer "school choice" today. Yes, we did make choices about which schools to put on our list. Yes, with the charters and publics taken together, the city offers a variety of different models and philosophies. (We really liked the Montessori schools, for example, but they aren't for everyone.) And yes, there are some truly excellent schools in the District.

But ultimately, with so many people competing for few spots, our ability to get into those schools is mostly due to chance, not choice. Rather than being a process of choosing what's right for one's child, the current lottery is mostly about hoping that child can get into any good school at all.

An expanded version of this article originally appeared on Medium.

Support Us