Greater Greater Washington

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DCPS schools put unmotivated students in AP classes. That doesn't work.

An influential education columnist is applauding the DC Public School system's decision to expand Advanced Placement offerings, arguing that any motivated student should be allowed to take the college-level courses. But many high-poverty schools in DC simply assign students to AP classes even if they're not willing to do the work.

Photo from Bigstock.

In September I wrote a post questioning DCPS's decision to require all high schools to offer at least six AP courses this year and eight next year, an increase over the previous minimum of four.

I pointed out that at DC's high-poverty neighborhood high schools—the ones that must take all comers rather than selecting students who apply—70% of the AP tests received the lowest possible score, 1. (The maximum score is 5, and 3 is considered passing.) Did the bottom-level scores mean that many students weren't even trying?

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, a longtime proponent of AP expansion, has now responded to my post by arguing, as he has in the past, that students benefit from AP classes regardless of whether they pass the test.

Mathews' views are important. He publishes an annual ranking of high schools across the country, based on the number of AP tests given at a school, that has largely fueled the recent rapid expansion of AP courses across the country.

Mathews and I agree that any student willing to work hard should be able to take an AP course or something like it. But Mathews believes the problem is that schools are keeping motivated students out of AP classes because they don't have top grades or haven't met certain prerequisites. That was the case when Mathews first started writing about AP classes 30 years ago, and he says it's still true in many schools today.

But that's not the problem in DC. Instead, most high-poverty high schools here appear to be putting students into AP classes who haven't chosen to be there. Those students aren't getting anything out of the courses because they're unwilling to do the necessary work. And the motivated students often don't get the support they need because the size of the class is too large to allow that to happen.

Most AP teachers don't have the leverage to exclude unmotivated students

After Mathews expressed interest in writing something about my post, I put him in touch with David Tansey, who teaches AP Statistics at Dunbar High School, a high-poverty DCPS school. In 2013, 94% of the AP exams given at Dunbar received a score of 1.

In his column, Mathews focused on Tansey's ability to limit his class to motivated students, using that example to bolster his arguments for AP expansion. When Tansey decided last year that he would teach an AP class for the first time, he recruited selected students, told them this year's course would require hard work, and gave them a letter their parents needed to sign before they could enroll.

But Mathews overlooked the fact that what Tansey did was highly unusual. Tansey is in his seventh year at Dunbar, which makes him one of the most senior teachers there, and he consistently gets high ratings under DCPS's teacher evaluation system. The vast majority of AP teachers in schools like Dunbar don't have the leverage to convince school administrators to limit their classes to motivated students, he told me.

Instead, Tansey said, administrators simply tell some students, "You're taking AP," whether the students want to or not. Perhaps it's the only class that fits with a student's schedule, or the other possible options are too crowded. And administrators may assume students who make As or Bs at their schools can handle AP-level work.

But that's not the case. An AP course is supposed to cover a year of college-level work. But even high-achieving students at a school like Dunbar may be behind grade level, so they might have to first cover a year's worth of high-school-level material before tackling AP material—all in the course of one year. That's a huge lift.

Even motivated students at high-poverty schools often need intensive support to do AP-level work, ideally in small classes. But at the same time that DCPS has told high-poverty schools to expand AP offerings, it hasn't given them money to hire more teachers. So schools are under more pressure than ever to increase the size of AP classes, to prevent other classes from getting too big.

Teachers can and do "dumb down" AP classes

The crux of Mathews' pro-AP argument is that teachers can't dumb down AP classes because "outside experts," not the teachers themselves, grade the final exams. Although he acknowledges in his column that "a few AP teachers" commit "malpractice" by going easy on kids, he assumes the vast majority grade quizzes and essays on the same tough scale the outside experts will apply on the final AP exam.

But Tansey says that what Mathews assumes is a rare occurrence is actually common practice in high-poverty schools. Kids at schools like Dunbar, he says, have been "battered by failure." If you apply AP-level standards to quizzes and give students Fs, they may just stop trying. And even students' grades on the final AP exam, he says, aren't that important to them because they arrive after the course is over.

Still, Tansey says that with a couple of exceptions, the 21 students in his AP class this year are working hard and getting more out of the experience than they would in a regular math class. So, even though he's just now beginning to introduce AP-level material, Tansey's experience seems to support at least part of Mathews' hypothesis: motivated students will benefit from a more rigorous class.

But that doesn't mean it has to be an AP class. As Tansey said in an email to Mathews that I was copied on, "'Offer more APs!' is the wrong call. 'Offer challenging courses, like AP courses, that students have to choose to accept the rigor of' is a better call."

That's a comment Mathews chose to ignore—as he chose to ignore the general thrust of Tansey's critique. Perhaps that's understandable: since writing a book in 1987 about Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who worked wonders with low-income students in AP math, Mathews has built a career on waving the "AP-For-All" banner.

But DCPS officials, at least, should pause and consider whether simply mandating more AP courses in high-poverty schools, without providing funds for additional teachers, will actually benefit students. As Tansey suggests, a more sensible goal would be to match all students with classes they actually want to be in—even if it's auto repair or carpentry rather than AP Statistics.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Test scores may rise or fall, but the achievement gap persists

On Tuesday, officials released dismal scores from the new Common Core-aligned tests students in the District took last spring. The next day, another set of scores showed DC students improving faster than those in the rest of the country. One thing that was consistent in the results was a large gap between rich and poor.

Photo from Bigstock.

The first set of scores, on standardized tests known as PARCC, showed that only 25% of DC high school students were "college and career ready" in English. Even worse, only 10% met that bar on a test of high school geometry.

That looks like a huge drop from scores on the old DC test, known as the DC CAS. Last year, about 50% of 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on those reading and math tests. (PARCC scores for 3rd through 8th graders won't be available until next month. They may be somewhat better than the high school scores, but will probably also decline significantly.)

You might conclude that students' skills have suddenly plummeted, but in fact the two tests aren't comparable. The PARCC tests, which are designed to measure whether students have the skills they'll need to succeed in college, are far more rigorous. Instead of asking students to write an essay about their dream vacation, for example, a test might give them two sophisticated passages to read and ask them to make detailed comparisons.

In past years, DC's education leaders and elected officials have celebrated incremental progress on the DC CAS. This year, they lamented the low PARCC scores and somberly declared they were prepared to do the hard but necessary work to improve them. But barely had the words left their mouths, or their press releases, when their lamentations turned to joy.

DC's growth in NAEP scores outpaces the rest of the country

That's because DC bucked a national trend on the other test: the NAEP, given to a sample of students across the country every two years. The NAEP is considered far more rigorous than most of the old state tests, including the DC CAS. This year, math scores for 4th and 8th graders declined nationwide. But in DC, 4th grade scores rose by three points in math and seven in reading, while 8th grade scores remained flat.

On the face of it, the PARCC and NAEP results appear contradictory. But the tests were differently constructed, and they were assessing different grade levels. And while it's true DC's NAEP scores have gone up, they're still at or near the bottom compared to other states.

But of course, DC is more like a city than a state. And cities, which have higher concentrations of poverty, tend to have lower test scores. So it's fairer to assess DC's performance against another set of NAEP scores that compares large urban school districts to one another—although those scores include results only from DC Public Schools, not the charter sector.

On that measure, DCPS has improved—in fact, as DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson likes to point out, it's the fastest-improving urban school district in the country. In 2007, DC was at the bottom of the NAEP list of districts. Now, for 4th grade results, it's in the middle. But for 8th grade, it's still near the bottom of 21 districts: higher than two others in reading and only one other (Detroit) in math.

Both sets of scores reveal gaps between subgroups

One thing that the NAEP and PARCC scores have in common is that they reveal the width and persistence of DC's achievement gap. On the PARCC test, for example, School Without Walls—a selective DCPS school with a relatively affluent student body—saw 97% of its students reach the "college and career ready" bar in English and 76% in math. At the other end of the spectrum, three high-poverty DCPS schools had no students meet that bar in English, and eight had none who reached it in math.

Some previously high-performing charter schools saw their scores drop precipitously, as has happened elsewhere. Last year at KIPP DC College Prep, where most students are black and low-income, 95% of students scored proficient in math and 71% in reading on the DC CAS. This year, just under 20% of students met the PARCC bar in either subject.

Gaps between ethnic and socioeconomic groups loomed wide on the DC CAS, but PARCC has turned them into chasms. On the PARCC English test, for example, 82% of white students met "college and career ready" expectations, compared to 20% of black students, 25% of Hispanics, and 17% of economically disadvantaged students. On last year's DC CAS in reading, an even higher percentage of whites scored proficient—92%—but so did 44% of black students, 50% of Hispanics, and 42% of the economically disadvantaged.

And despite the increases on the NAEP for DC as a whole, a demographic breakdown of DCPS's scores reveals that gaps seen in previous years haven't budged. In 8th grade reading, for example, 75% of white students scored proficient as compared to 11% of black students, 17% of Hispanics, and 8% of low-income students. In DC as a whole, the gaps between white students on the one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other are the largest in the nation on the NAEP, according to one calculation.

To be fair, one reason for the size of the gaps is that DC's white and affluent students perform at an unusually high level. But to begin to close that gap, disadvantaged students need to improve faster than white ones. In fact, looking just at DCPS scores, proficiency rates for white students have either gone up or stayed the same on each of the four tests since 2013, while at least one other subgroup's rate has gone down on all but one of the tests.

On the English and reading side, the root cause of the gap in scores is the relative lack of exposure low-income students have to knowledge and vocabulary, starting from birtha deficit elementary schools usually reinforce by failing to focus on building students' knowledge. (Frankly, I'm not sure how to explain the abysmally low PARCC math scores: even among white students, only 52% met "college and career ready" expectations.)

Some will see the test scores, and the gaps they reveal, as evidence that education reform hasn't worked. Critics of the Common Core standards may use the PARCC results to argue the tests are unrealistically hard. Those on the other side will say the Common Core is revealing deficiencies that were masked by the DC CAS, and point out that this kind of change takes time.

There's some truth to all those arguments. But the bottom line is that our schools are continuing to fail many students who enter with the greatest deficits, and we need to find a way to bring their knowledge and vocabulary closer to the level of their affluent peers. Test scores can tell us how far we still have to go, but they won't tell us how to get there.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Fairfax City will install its first bike lane

There will soon be a bona fide bike lane between downtown Fairfax and George Mason University, the first in Fairfax City.

Fairfax City's first bike lane, location map and proposed design. Images from the City of Fairfax.

On September 29, the Fairfax City Council approved a one year pilot program to test a three block bike lane on University Drive, the street that connects downtown Fairfax to the largest university in Virginia.

The bike lane will begin just south of downtown Fairfax, and will run south as far as Armstrong Street. There, it will meet George Mason Boulevard, where Fairfax installed its first sharrows a few years ago.

Crews will restripe University Drive this autumn, to change its configuration from having two car lanes in each direction, to having one car lane each way, a central turn lane, and bike lanes next to each curb.

This is a baby step

This bike lane, and its associated road diet, is a nice baby step for a community that's never given bikes much thought.

But a baby step it is. Not only did officials promise to reevaluate and possibly remove the bike lane after one year, but they significantly shortened it from the original proposal.

At one point, planners had hoped to stripe the bike lane north through downtown Fairfax, as far as Layton Hall Drive. Unfortunately, that was a no-go.

Map of the approved bike lane, canceled portion, and existing sharrows. Map by the author, using base map from Google.

A natural location

Fairfax City isn't a big community. It's located roughly between I-66 and George Mason University, and its historic downtown is one of the more walkable places in Northern Virginia outside the Beltway.

With a walkable downtown and a big university, it's a natural for better bike infrastructure.

Unfortunately, decades of suburban road design have left most of Fairfax City just as car-dependent as surrounding Fairfax County. Now, that's beginning to change. But ever so slowly.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

DCPS is expanding AP classes, but at some schools everyone fails the test

As part of her Year of the High School initiative, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is expanding Advanced Placement offerings at all DCPS high schools. But at most high-poverty DC high schools, few if any students earn passing grades on AP exams.

Photo from Bigstock.

Starting this year, DCPS is raising the minimum number of AP courses each high school must offer from four to six. Next year, all high schools will be required to offer at least eight AP courses.

The expansion of AP in DC is part of a nationwide trend, fueled by the idea that all students benefit from taking the ostensibly rigorous, college-level classes regardless of how well prepared they are.

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews, a leading proponent of the AP-for-all theory, publishes an annual ranking of US high schools based largely on how many AP tests they administer per graduating student. Although Mathews' methodology and assumptions have drawn criticism, his ranking has spurred much of the AP growth.

Nationally, AP participation rates have more than doubled in the past decade, with 2.5 million students taking at least one AP exam in 2015. But as the number of AP test-takers has expanded to include many more low-income and minority students, the failure rate has grown even more rapidly.

AP exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, and the College Board, which administers the exam, considers 3 to be a passing score, enabling a student to earn college credit. (Many universities give credit only for scores of 4 or 5.)

Nationwide, about 60% of all test takers scored a 3 or better on at least one exam. But the pass rate for African-American students was just half the rate for white students.

In DCPS overall, the proportion of exams on which a student earned a 3 or above has gone up from 27% in 2010 to 33% in 2015. But those figures, provided by DCPS, don't reveal much about how students at each school are performing. Students at some schools may be taking several AP exams, doing well on all of them.

A DCPS spokesperson, Michelle Lerner, declined to release school-by-school pass rates, saying that some AP classes are small enough that individual students could be identified. But a retired DCPS teacher, Erich Martel, has calculated school-level scores on the basis of information he received from an internal DCPS source. The data lists scores for all AP tests taken at each DCPS high school in 2012 and 2013.

At some schools, almost all tests get a score of 1

In 2013, according to Martel, the overall pass rate for DCPS was just under 31%. But that rate drops to lower than 10% if you exclude relatively affluent Wilson High School in Ward 3 and three selective schools—Banneker, Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and School Without Walls.

At four high-poverty DCPS schools—Dunbar, Ballou, Cardozo, and the now-closed Spingarn—none of the tests received a passing score. At Coolidge, H.D. Woodson, and Anacostia, the pass rate was less than 4%.

Overall, almost 46% of tests taken by DCPS students got the lowest score possible, a 1. But again, if you exclude Wilson and the three selective schools, almost 70% got that score. At Spingarn, all 24 tests received a 1, and at Dunbar, 49 out of 52 did.

Mathews and other advocates of AP expansion argue that students benefit from the experience of taking AP classes and tests, even if they don't pass the tests. Some studies have supported that claim, while others have refuted it.

The most recent study concluded that merely taking an AP class, without also taking the test, had no effect on a student's score on the ACT college entrance exam. Those who took and failed the AP test scored a quarter to half a point higher on the ACT, which is roughly equivalent to the boost a student would get from test prep coaching. (Students who passed the AP test scored from one to four points higher on the ACT, depending on which AP class they took.)

About 95% of DCPS students who take AP classes also take the test, according to DCPS. But the lead author of the recent AP study believes that students benefit not from the three hours spent taking the test but from the studying they put in beforehand. So the real question may be: do the many DCPS students who get 1s on AP tests actually study for them?

No doubt some AP teachers out there could answer that better than I can. But when I volunteered as a tutor for a college-level history class at a high-poverty high school a couple of years ago, I realized that most students in the class lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary to gain even a basic understanding of the texts. And if students can't understand the material, they can't study for the test.

An AP score of 1 could mean that a student showed up for the test and just answered questions randomly, or didn't answer them at all. A study cited by Mathews in support of AP expansion shows benefits for students who get "even a score of 2" on the AP, but says nothing about those who get a 1.

AP-for-all defenders argue that even if students are unprepared for AP classes, they'll get more out of them than they would out of regular classes where exams are graded, not by an independent entity, but by teachers who may be willing to lower standards. But if the AP material is far above students' heads, they may not be getting anything out of the classes at all. Perhaps we need a third alternative: classes that are both rigorous and accessible to the students who are taking them.

While building a pipeline, keep AP classes small

"We believe that at every school there are students at AP level," says DCPS's Lerner. That may be true, but at high-poverty schools even those students probably need a good deal of support to do well. And unless classes are small, they won't get it.

Lerner says DCPS schools are required to offer the minimum number of AP classes even if only a few students enroll. But will school administrators resist the temptation to herd large numbers of students into classes they're not prepared for, as they seem to have done in the past?

Even if administrators keep AP classes small, without additional funds the result may be that other classes get larger. And the non-AP students may get inferior teachers, since schools generally assign their best teachers to AP classes.

Lerner says the district is "setting up a pipeline" for its AP classes and expects enrollment to grow in the future. That makes sense: if you want low-income students to be prepared for AP classes in high school, you need to start laying the foundation in kindergarten, if not before.

But increasing the number of AP classes now at all schools makes sense only if DCPS ensures the classes are limited to students who can actually get something out of them.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

The original version of this post said that the scores compiled by Erich Martel were not broken down by AP subject. In fact, they include both aggregate AP scores for each school and subject scores.

Here's how DC's youth are getting involved in urban planning

Teens from around the region recently built an exhibit at the National Building Museum to show what they know about city planning and design. It's one of many examples of how local youth are plugging into the world of urban planning.

IWWL participants at a visit to the Washington DC Historical Society research about the history of different neighborhoods. Photo courtesy from the National Building Museum.

The high schoolers behind Investigating Where We Live: New Monuments Revealed, hailing from Maryland, Virginia, and DC, participated in a five-week summer program designed to teach them about, well, design. Throughout, they learned how to create clear and effective images for plans, drafted changes to one of DC's traffic circles, and soaked up knowledge from experts from all over the planning field.

The IWWL program took the teens on an investigative journey of their city, leading to a new understanding of urban planning.

"The biggest impact the participants get is that they gain an awareness of cities," said Andrew Costanzo, IWWL's Outreach Programs Manager. "They realize that there are conscious choices being made, and that they can have a part in the conversations driving those choices."

Students developed an appreciation for the built environment, and brought their photos, sketches, and observations to life by building an exhibit devoted to what they learned this summer.

The best way to learn is by doing

To get a sense of the entire planning process, IWWL teens focused on a new theme each week. In one week, students learned techniques for taking pictures that communicate information clearly. After all, professional planners have to be able to illustrate their talking points to a wide variety of audiences, and good photography skills go hand in hand with that.

Participants put their new photography skills and perspectives to use by going around Washington and photographing public spaces big and small. One day, they visited Arlington Cemetery and the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial; another day, they visited DuPont Circle and the National Japanese American Memorial for Patriotism in World War II (yes it is real and that is its actual title). Students workshopped and critiqued each other's photos daily, and the cream of the crop now adorn the walls of their exhibit.

Students plan, sketch, and compare photographs to help design their own exhibit space. The students built the space to showcase what they learned this summer. Photo from the National Building Museum.

After a few weeks of picture taking, IWWL participants took part in series of design activities led by experts in the field.

One group worked together to imagine and draw plans for upgrades to Sheridan Circle, an underutilized circle on Massachusetts Avenue. They came up with lots of features to improve Sheridan Circle that would bring tears of joy to Jane Jacob's eyes: new sidewalks and connections to other parts of the street, benches so people can sit and relax, and trees for more shade.

More and more, young people are tuning into planning

IWWL is just one example of the ways our region's youth are getting involved in planning. The Building Museum runs other planning and architecture programs for youth like CityVision, which teaches students how to help shape their communities through design and talking to people in their communities.

Beyond the Building Museum, the Washington Architectural Foundation runs the Architecture in the Schools program that connects working architects with classrooms to teach construction concepts.

Even gardens in DC public schools are a big deal in that they are providing real opportunities for youth to get their hands dirty and participate in urban agriculture, which is something that some of the leading urban planners in the world are putting lots of thought into.

Urban planning can be overwhelming if you see it as a giant concept rather than a collection of actionable tasks, especially when you're worried about zits or long division.

"Often times, a program like this is the first opportunity for youth and teens to think about urban planning and architecture," said Costanzo of IWWL. "The built environment encompasses so much that it can be hard to wrap your brain around it."

The new exhibit was designed and built completely by this summer's Investigating Where We Live participants, aged 13-17. Photo by the author.

Programs like these teach young people about specific bits and pieces that help them to see the bigger picture, from like meeting with local residents, designers, and architects to sketching ideas and giving feedback.

Even for those who might not be all that interested in the planning profession, these programs give participants a good working knowledge of cities, and have better understandings of how the world around them takes shape.

Investigating Where We Live: New Monuments Revealed is open through June 5th, 2016.

How school choice can make it harder to solve the problems of poverty

For those who believe a system of school choice is the answer to our education woes, DC is a model for the rest of the nation. But the decline of the neighborhood school can make it harder to address the needs of poor children in a comprehensive way.

Photo from Bigstock.

DC is a bastion of school choice, with only about a quarter of students attending their assigned neighborhood school. Overall, 44% of DC students are in charters, which draw from across the District, and many go to traditional public schools that are selective or located in neighborhoods other than their own.

Proponents of school choice argue that this kind of competition among schools leads to an improvement in school quality overall. But in some gentrifying DC neighborhoods, middle-class parents working to improve their neighborhood schools have long criticized a system that makes it relatively easy for parents to send their kids elsewhere.

"DC has created so many escape hatches—you don't have to invest," one mother told the Washington Post as she was about to switch her four-year-old from her neighborhood elementary school in Logan Circle to a sought-after bilingual charter. "Maybe they've got to close those hatches."

DC's Promise Neighborhood Initiative adopts a holistic approach

School choice can also make it difficult to improve children's chances of success in low-income neighborhoods, as illustrated by the experience of DC's Promise Neighborhood Initiative. Part of a nationwide program, the DCPNI has been receiving $25 million in federal grants to saturate an entire troubled area with social services and investments.

The initiative focuses on the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood in Northeast DC, where about half the residents live below the federal poverty line and nearly 90% of families with children are headed by a single female.

The area includes a charter middle and high school operated by the Cesar Chavez network and one DCPS elementary school, Neval Thomas. A highly regarded preschool program, Educare, has also located in the neighborhood. (There was a second elementary school in the area when the initiative began, but DCPS closed it shortly thereafter due to low enrollment.)

The idea behind Promise Neighborhoods is that just trying to improve the schools in a high-poverty area isn't enough, because the problems of poverty spill over into the classroom. DCPNI works with neighborhood families on a range of issues, teaching things like parenting skills and healthy eating practices and trying to build community engagement.

But the center of the model—inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone in New York—is the school, and the premise is that neighborhood children will attend schools in a given area from preschool through 12th grade.

That's not the case in Kenilworth-Parkside, where fewer than a third of the 1,600 students attend local schools. The rest are enrolled in a staggering 184 different schools around the District.

Schools in the neighborhood have gotten better. Neval Thomas now has an updated library and other amenities, and while test scores remain low, attendance has improved. And the Cesar Chavez campus earned high marks from the Public Charter School Board for the first time last year, with administrators crediting the tutors, new curriculum, and teacher training funded by federal Promise Neighborhood money.

But fewer than 100 of Cesar Chavez's 356 students came from Kenilworth-Parkside last year. And many neighborhood children aren't benefiting from the improvements at Neval Thomas because they attend school elsewhere.

DCPNI provides afterschool programs that are open to those kids, but it can be hard for them to get there on time if they're coming from schools in Northwest DC or if their schools have extended day programs.

The specifics of school choice may differ in gentrifying neighborhoods and low-income ones like Kenilworth-Parkside. But the end result in both cases is that many of the more motivated and engaged parents jump ship, ultimately leaving the neighborhood schools with a higher concentration of the most challenging students.

A neighborhood-based approach can make it easier to attack poverty-related ills

The children in Kenilworth-Parkside who go to school elsewhere may be getting a better education than those who remain, but they're not immune from the effects of poverty-related trauma. The schools they attend, whether charter or DCPS, usually aren't equipped to deal with the mental health issues they may bring with them, or to help their families acquire better parenting skills.

Some schools are trying to address these issues, but a community-based approach like DCPNI's would make it easier, especially when a school's families are far-flung. And a community-based approach stands a better chance of lifting the whole neighborhood, which may be the only way to lure some parents back to the neighborhood school.

"I don't want my kids going to school with neighborhood kids," one mother in Kenilworth-Parkside who sends some of her children to a charter told the Post. "People here have a lot of problems."

It's too late to dismantle the extensive system of school choice in DC, which has been expanded by the rise of charter schools but certainly existed before they came on the scene.

Lower-income families living east of the Anacostia River have long sent their children across town to more desirable DCPS schools. And higher-income families have always been able to exercise choice by moving to a neighborhood with better schools, either within the District or beyond its borders.

Restricting school choice at this point would be unfair to low-income parents who can't afford to move to a better school zone or district, and it could push middle-class families out to the suburbs.

But if we want to see improvements in all neighborhood schools—and if we want to know whether an all-enveloping approach like DCPNI's can work—we may need to modify our system of choice. One possibility that has long been discussed would be to allow charters to extend a preference in admissions to neighborhood residents.

As many in the charter community have argued, a neighborhood preference wouldn't be appropriate for all charter schools, and it shouldn't be forced on them across the board. But if a charter in a low-income area wants to set aside some of its seats for nearby kids who want to attend, giving the school that option could provide some of the benefits of choice without undermining the institution of the neighborhood school.

And neighborhood preference could make it easier to address the poverty-related ills that prevent poor children from succeeding in school and in life, while also benefiting a whole community. Education reformers like to defend school choice on the ground that a child's chances of getting a good education shouldn't depend on her zip code. But in the era of No Child Left Behind, school choice has left many zip codes as far behind as they've ever been.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

When it redesigns its campus, Gallaudet hopes to pioneer architecture for the Deaf

The southwestern edge of Gallaudet University borders a growing urban center, but fences close the campus off. Now, the school is rethinking its design and redevelop some of its land to bolster finances. To do this, it's reimagining 6th Street NE as a corridor that zips together deaf and hearing communities.

Gallaudet's 6th Street gate is not exactly community-friendly. Photo by the author.

Gallaudet is using two projects to create the first urban environment designed for the deaf. First, it's redesigning its public spaces, including the 6th Street streetscape, the campus grounds, and a few small buildings. Second, it's developing four large parcels of land that front 6th Street NE.

As the world's only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet has a set of design guidelines the school calls DeafSpace; the redesigns will fit with both that and the 10-year master plan that zoning requires.

Base image from Google Maps.

Gallaudet wants new buildings and new ideas for tailoring its design to the Deaf

Gallaudet's main entrance on Florida Avenue NE is nearly half a mile from where Union Market, the neighborhood's new attraction, sits on 6th Street. Redeveloping the parking garages and auxiliary buildings there will tie the campus to its surroundings without harming its historic campus by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who also designed Central Park.

JBG's conceptual plan for the 6th Street development project. Image from JBG/Gallaudet.

A large part of the development plan has already started. In 2014, the school selected the developer JBG and architect Morris Adjmi; the team behind the Atlantic Plumbing project at 8th & V NW, to build 1.3 million square feet of building on the parcels.

Gallaudet has already used internal workshops and two design processes to pioneer a way of designing spaces for the Deaf. The school wants to stay innovative in this field as moves forward, so it's holding a two-part design competition to shape its public spaces.

For now, it's gathering input from neighboring communities and asking for designers to form teams with specializations like interaction design in addition to architecture and urban planning.

A panel will narrow those teams down to just a handful in October, and the teams will then submit rough designs for feedback from the student and neighborhood communities. After a round of revisions, a jury of experts will pick a winning approach in February.

Using a competition allows Gallaudet to draw on a range of expertise that goes beyond the immediate community, which is important given that this is the school's largest planning endeavor to date.

The Gallaudet master plan emphasizes connections towards the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro. Image from Gallaudet.

Creating spaces for deaf people presents unique challenges

Gallaudet is promising vibrant streets and high standards of sustainability, both of which are now common in DC projects. But making spaces for deaf people will require designers to think a little harder than usual.

Gallaudet developed its DeafSpace guidelines when it realized its campus didn't suit how the Deaf use buildings and streets. The guidelines go way beyond the "universal design" requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead of focusing just on patches for audiological deafness, uncapitalized, DeafSpace is custom tailored to culture shared by people participating in Deaf (capitalized) communities.

It's not an overstatement to say there's a distinct Deaf Culture. Many of our social norms, from how we say goodbye to what kind of art we enjoy, rely on hearing. The Deaf have different norms, and the way they talk is also different from English speakers. Although most deaf students can read and write English, American Sign Language is an entirely distinct language, with different grammar, vocabulary, and dialects.

In sign language, a single hand sign changes meaning depending on where the signer makes it, its orientation, movement, and what their facial expression is. To communicate in ASL, you need to see the whole upper body. A bar with low, intimate lighting will kill an ASL conversation the same way loud background music does for the hearing.

DeafSpace concept diagrams. Dangermond Keane Architecture / Gallaudet

Since Deaf Culture prefers clear vision and generous personal space, those are the conceptual building blocks. Sign language requires people to stand further apart and use more space, so, hallways have to be wider. Signers have to keep their hands free, so in DeafSpace, there are as few manually opening doors as possible.

If a deaf person can't see through a door, they can't tell if someone's in a room, so windows are helpful. But at the same time, an ASL user can spy on a conversation through that glass. In this case, translucency balances the competing needs. In general, reflective surfaces on cabinets or walls a deaf person might often face help with spatial awareness. Even paint helps: blue walls help hands and faces pop no matter the skin tone.

DeafSpace is a distillation of these needs and solutions into what the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander calls "patterns:" generic rules and forms that a designer can combine to create a multifunctional, comfortable space. The leader of the DeafSpace project, Hansel Bauman, sees it as a way of designing spaces around Deaf interactions and experiences.

But DeafSpace has few patterns that apply to open areas and urban space. Do crosswalks have to heighten visibility? If sidewalks have to be wider, do they cut into sidewalk cafes and increase the area of surfaces impermeable to rainwater? There are a lot of new issues open spaces present. I think bringing more brainpower to these issues is why Gallaudet is holding the design competition.

Plus, Bauman wants to take the concept further, to design spaces more tightly around human behaviors and sensations, irrespective of specific abilities. That might seem basic, but between a tendency to stick to financially proven conventions or get lost in an artistic vision, it's easy to forget the human interaction behind the built environment. The competition could bring this idea some much needed attention.

Tailoring an urban space for Deaf experience may force competing teams to get back to basics about how spaces facilitate interaction between people. Maybe the competition will let designers to reexamine the patterns of design for a sidewalk cafe or a multi-story building's front door.

The Flipboard Cafe in Melbourne, Australia has complex connection to the street. Brolly Design

Gallaudet's decision to open up its campus to a pedestrian-friendly, dense 6th Street is an extremely promising step. One step further would be taking the focus on buildings as amplifiers of social interaction and applying that design across the city.

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