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DCPS wants to focus on boys of color, but some say that's unfair and illegal

DC Public Schools is launching a new initiative that will focus on males of color, but some critics say the plan is unfair to black and Latino girls, and possibly illegal.

As part of its Empowering Males of Color initiative, DCPS plans to recruit 500 volunteer tutors for black and Latino males. It will also award grants to schools that devise their own programs to help those students. And, in its flashiest move, in the fall of 2016 it will open a new boys-only high school east of the Anacostia River.

After DCPS unveiled its plans with great fanfare a few weeks ago, Councilmember Mary Cheh sent a letter to DC Attorney General Karl Racine, asking for an opinion on whether the planned $20 million initiative would violate DC or federal anti-discrimination laws. And this week the ACLU of the National Capital Area wrote to Mayor Muriel Bowser raising the same question.

Three other councilmembers are defending EMOC, citing statistics showing that black and Latino boys lag behind white students on many academic measures. Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson have chimed in to defend the initiative as well.

Cheh doesn't dispute that boys of color have it worse than white students. But she and the ACLU-NCA say that black and Latino girls face problems just as serious as their male counterparts.

The DCPS initiative is part of a broader movement focusing on black and Latino males. Last year, President Obama announced a program called My Brother's Keeper designed to improve the lives of minority boys. Sixty urban school districts have joined the effort.

Critics say girls of color have it just as bad

But, like Cheh and the ACLU, some observers have questioned why the initiative targets only males. They argue that minority girls also live in poverty, come from single-parent homes, drop out of school in large numbers, and get arrested. Not only that, they say, girls of color face high rates of sexual assault and are at risk for teen pregnancy.

And a recent study suggests that school discipline affects black girls more disproportionately than their male counterparts. Across the country, black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls, according to the study. Black boys are only three times more likely to be suspended than white boys.

Still, it's clear that in some ways black and Latino males fare worse than their female counterparts. Within DCPS, test scores and attendance rates are lower, particularly for black boys. More broadly, incarceration rates are higher for black and Latino men, and fewer of them enroll in college.

Perhaps, as a matter of policy, those statistics do warrant a special focus on males of color. But do they justify a boys-only high school?

"Studies show that separating boys and girls does not improve academic performance," wrote the ACLU-NCA's executive director, Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, in the letter to Bowser. "It simply increases gender stereotyping."

Single-sex schools raise special legal issues

Still, some maintain that single-sex environments actually help break down gender stereotypes, and you could argue that DC should be able to experiment even in the absence of hard data. But there may be legal obstacles to doing that.

In defending the initiative, Councilmember David Grosso argued that lots of government programs target funds to populations with particular needs, such as low-income students and those with learning disabilities. "The EMOC initiative, in my opinion, is no different," he said.

But in the eyes of the law, the EMOC initiative actually is different. That's because the Constitution, and the federal law referred to as Title IX, impose special restrictions on the government when it discriminates on the basis of gender.

Federal regulations interpreting Title IX say that school districts offering single-sex schools have to provide a substantially equal school to the excluded gender. That doesn't mean DCPS would have to set up an all-girls school, but it's not clear that it could even offer a coed equivalent to the urban prep school it's planning.

And the Title IX regulations aren't the last word. There's also the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has relied on that provision to require an all-female nursing school to admit men and an all-male military school to admit women. But it hasn't ruled on the question in 20 years, and it's far from clear how it would come out on a school like the one DC is planning.

In fact, these days there are many single-sex public schools—particularly charter schools—operating across the country. DC has an all-girls charter school, and until recently it had one that was all-boys.

But, says the ACLU's Hopkins-Maxwell, the fact that single-sex public schools exist doesn't mean they're legal. It just means no one has challenged them yet. The ACLU has challenged a number of single-sex programs around the country, but it doesn't have the resources to challenge them all.

Single-sex classes could be a problem too

In addition to single-sex schools, the ACLU has focused nationally on single-sex classes within coed public schools, which are actually regulated more closely than single-sex schools.

Under Title IX, a school must provide a rationale for the single-sex class, ensure that enrollment is voluntary, offer a coed class in the same subject, and avoid gender stereotyping. Every two years, the school must conduct a review to ensure that the rationale is still valid.

There are a number of public schools with single-sex classes in the DC area. While they don't necessarily reinforce stereotypes, I happened to visit one DCPS elementary school that had such classes, and I noticed that schedules for boys appeared in blue and those for girls in pink.

A spokesperson for DCPS failed to respond to questions about how many other single-sex classes the system offers and whether the district is complying with the federal regulations that govern them.

The EMOC initiative has attracted a lot of attention, and whatever its merits it makes sense to get an opinion on its legality before investing millions of dollars in it. But perhaps someone should look into whether DCPS is already in danger of violating Title IX because of its single-sex classes.

For one group of kids from Anacostia, a dream deferred is turning into reality

In 1988, a DC philanthropist promised a group of low-income 7th-graders in the Anacostia neighborhood that he would pay for their college educations. What's happened to the kids since then shows that the presence of a caring adult can alter a child's life trajectory.


Photo courtesy of Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post.

A thought-provoking new documentary called Southeast 67 will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival this Friday. It traces the lives of some of the 67 kids "adopted" by Stewart W. Bainum, Sr., as part of the national I Have a Dream program. While it's not a simple success story, the film suggests Bainum's initiative ultimately helped many escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Bainum, a hotel and nursing home magnate who died last year, randomly selected one half of a class at Kramer Jr. High School (now Kramer Middle School) in Anacostia to be his beneficiaries.

He hired two people to mentor and help the kids with their schoolwork through high school, and pledged to pay their college tuition if they graduated by 2000.

By 1994, 72% of the "Dreamers" had graduated from high school. That was significant. The graduation rate for the half of the class not chosen for the program was only 27%.

But the idea behind the program was that students would go on to college right away, and few did. Only six of the 67 earned a BA on time, according to an article in the New York Times, and 36 never used any of the tuition money that was available to them.

Growing up amid a crack epidemic

It's clear that designers of the program vastly underestimated the challenges facing kids in Anacostia at the time. It was the height of the District's crack cocaine epidemic, and violence pervaded the Dreamers' lives.

One of the two adults hired to mentor the Dreamers, Steve Bumbaugh, estimates that only 15 to 20 of the kids were abused at home or had parents who were crack addicts. But, he says in an oral history on the film website, "Every single Dreamer witnessed somebody being murdered. They were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war."

Obviously, tutoring alone wasn't going to be enough to ensure the success of kids living in such an environment. But Bumbaugh and his colleague, Phyllis Rumbarger, went way beyond tutoring—and even way beyond providing food, organizing basketball games, and rousing tardy students from bed, all of which they did.

Essentially, they gave many of the Dreamers the encouraging, reliable adult presence that was otherwise lacking in their lives. In some cases, they forced that presence on the kids. And as writer Paul Tough and others have detailed, research has shown that the presence of a caring adult in a child's life can counteract the effects of toxic stress caused by growing up in poverty.

Still, it wasn't enough to get many on the path to college immediately. One Dreamer in the film, Martece Gooden Yates, seemed to have it all together in high school. What no one knew—not even Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—was that her mother had become addicted to crack.

She couldn't go away to college, she says, because she was afraid her mother would OD. She did enroll at the University of the District of Columbia, but she was already pregnant by then and soon dropped out.

Tenille Warren, who I've written about before, was a talented artist and seemed to have a promising future. But she wanted to make money to get away from an abusive mother, so she took a job at Safeway.

And Antwan Green was one of ten Dreamers who went off to the conservative all-white boarding school in Ohio that was Bainum's alma mater. Green had no trouble making straight As there, but quit when an uproar broke out after a white girl invited him to a dance. He ended up dropping out of high school and dealing drugs.

Success can come later in life and extend to the next generation

You might judge these three, now in their late 30s, to be failures. But as the film makes clear, they're anything but. Yates is still married to the father of the child she gave birth to after starting UDC, and she's pursuing a nursing degree at Trinity University.

After Herculean efforts, Warren is now a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

And Antwan Green, after narrowly escaping a long-term prison sentence, has a GED, his own trash-hauling business, and a stable marriage. And it's clear from both the film and his remarks at an invitation-only screening a couple of weeks ago that he's at least as thoughtful and articulate as many college graduates.

So while a college degree is clearly important these days, it shouldn't be the only measure of success. Even if it is, maybe you shouldn't impose a time limit on it. In addition to Yates and Warren, two other Dreamers are currently in college, and a total of nine have graduated, according to the Times article.

More significant, perhaps, is what is happening in the next generation. Nineteen children of Dreamers are in college, three hold BAs, and two are in graduate school. The film shows Antwan Green's college student son hunched over his books. Green predicts he'll get a Ph.D.

In an oral history on the film's website, Bumbaugh provides more texture for these statistics. In the past 10 years, he says, the Dreamers have been getting married, keeping the same phone numbers, staying at the same jobs—in short, building the kinds of stable lives their parents didn't have, and passing the benefits on to their kids.

It's impossible to know how the Dreamers' lives would have unfolded if they hadn't been chosen for the program. But, as Bumbaugh says, "All of these outcomes cannot be coincidental. They're so radically different, unfortunately, from the kids who were not in the program." For many of the Dreamers, he suggests, the program was able to help break a cycle of poverty going back many generations.

No doubt things would have gone even better for them if their environment had been safer and they'd had more access to things like "a goddamn doctor if they got sick," as Bumbaugh says. They needed, he argues, more than "a cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be."

But, as the life trajectories of many of the Dreamers show, cheerleaders—or at least, cheerleaders with the ability and dedication displayed by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—can make a huge difference. Ideally, parents serve as those cheerleaders. But many parents are too stressed by poverty themselves to perform that role.

The question is: how do we find thousands more people like Bumbaugh and Rumbarger, and provide them with the resources to help the many kids who need them?

High-poverty schools need better teachers, but getting them there won't be easy

DC needs to increase the number of highly qualified teachers who work in high-poverty schools. But doing that could require a fundamental change in the way DC Public Schools evaluates and supports teachers.


Photo of teacher from Shutterstock.

DCPS teachers who get high ratings are more likely to work in schools serving relatively affluent students. That's typical of school districts across the country, and the US Department of Education has given all state education agenciesincluding the District's—until June to come up with a plan to correct the imbalance.

Under DCPS's teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, teachers in affluent Ward 3 get ratings that are significantly above those in lower-income Wards 7 and 8, according to a study based on data from 2010 to 2013. Another study shows that 41% of teachers in Ward 3 received IMPACT's top rating of "highly effective" in 2011-12, as compared to only 9% in Ward 8.

DCPS bases IMPACT scores on a number of factors, including classroom observations and growth in students' test scores for teachers of tested grades and subjects. Charter schools have their own methods of evaluating teachers.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education is currently trying to come up with a plan to bring more highly qualified teachers to high-poverty schools, in both the charter and DCPS sectors. It's not clear how OSSE will define "highly qualified," but when it comes to DCPS teachers, IMPACT scores are likely to be a factor.

More money isn't enough

The simplest approach would be to offer teachers with high IMPACT scores more money to teach in high-poverty schools. But DCPS already does that. Highly effective teachers in those schools can get bonuses of up to $20,000, as compared to $2,000 in other schools, and their base pay is higher as well. Obviously, it hasn't worked.

One reason for that may be that teachers generally care more about their working conditions than about how much money they make, according to a report from The Education Trust. And the report says students aren't the most important factor. Instead, good teachers want a school with a strong leader and a collaborative environment. That's especially true for those in high-poverty schools.

Another problem with DCPS's approach is that to get the additional compensation, teachers have to continue to get a highly effective rating after they switch from an affluent school to a high-poverty one. And some teachers say it's a lot harder to get that rating at a high-poverty school.

That not only explains why teachers who are highly rated at affluent schools are reluctant to move to high-poverty ones. It also may explain why there are so many fewer highly rated teachers at high-poverty schools in the first place.

For one thing, part of the IMPACT score for some teachers depends on how much the teacher has increased her students' test scores in a given year. But the tests are geared to a student's grade level, and many students at high-needs schools are several grade levels behind.

If a 10th-grader comes into a teacher's class at a 5th-grade level and the teacher succeeds in bringing the student's skills up to a 6th- or 7th-grade level, the test isn't geared to capture that improvement. Neither the teacher nor the school gets credit. And there's virtually no way to bring a student up five grade levels in a single year.

"No teacher wants to go into a school where you can only be told you've failed," says David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School.

Teachers at high-needs schools, where behavior problems are more common, are also more likely to get low ratings on the classroom observation component of their IMPACT scores. Tansey recalls getting a low rating from one observer because a student cursed in class.

Tansey pointed out that the student had corrected himself, something that reflected Tansey's efforts and was a vast improvement over the student's behavior at the beginning of the year. But, he says, that made no difference to the observer.

Teachers need to motivate disengaged students

More fundamentally, Tansey says, the IMPACT approach assumes that students are intrinsically motivated to learn. That may be the case at more affluent schools, or at selective DCPS or charter schools where students or their parents have made an affirmative decision to attend. It's usually not the case at a neighborhood high-poverty school like Dunbar.

Tansey's students often have traumatic home lives and don't see the point of school. So he tries to explain how any mathematical concept he teaches will be useful in the real world. One project has kids planning out their lives, from choosing a college and a job to figuring out what kind of house they can afford. The kids love it, he says, and along the way they're using math to make calculations.

But projects like that won't do anything for Tansey's IMPACT score. "I do a project like that despite the requirements, not because of them," he says. Rather than having to hide techniques that work with disengaged students, he argues, teachers at high-poverty schools should be encouraged to share them with colleagues.

Tansey actually is rated highly effective—one of five teachers with that rating at Dunbar, he says. And he concedes that teachers who are rated highly effective are "genuinely effective." But he says there are also many genuinely effective teachers in high-needs schools who don't get the "highly effective" rating.

And, he says, there are "highly effective" teachers at affluent schools who would no longer get that rating at a high-needs school. It takes a different set of skills.

All this suggests that it doesn't make sense to simply try to lure highly rated teachers from Ward 3 to Ward 7 or 8. A better approach might be to recruit new teachers who have been specifically trained to deal with high-poverty populations, preferably through a residency program that includes a one-year apprenticeship in a high-needs school. (Disclosure: I'm chair of the DC Leadership Council of one such program, Urban Teacher Center.)

But even that won't be enough to ensure they stay. If DC wants to retain excellent teachers in its most challenging schools, administrators will need to make them feel their efforts are valued as much as those of their counterparts at more affluent schools.

Mystery callers try to ensure that DC charters admit special needs students

Nationally, public charter schools serve fewer students with special needs than traditional public schools do, and some charge that charters are screening such students out. But for the past three years, DC's Public Charter School Board has been deploying a "mystery caller" program to prevent that from happening here.


Photo of mystery caller from Shutterstock.

Over the past couple of months, DC parents and guardians have been calling around to charter schools to get information about applying for this fall. But they're not the only ones. Staff members of DC's PCSB, which oversees the District's charter schools, have been calling schools as well.

Equipped with a suggested script and a cell phone, PCSB staff pretend they're calling about a child in their care who has an unspecified learning disability and isn't being well served by the school she's currently attending. They ask what they need to do to apply to the school they're calling and whether they need to submit any information about the child's disability.

The answers to those questions should be: apply through the My School DC website, and don't submit any information relating to the disability or even indicate that the child has one. Nor should school personnel say anything discouraging, such as that the school across the street might be a better fit.

If school staff give inaccurate answers, they get a second call a few weeks later. If they still answer incorrectly, and if the answer seems to result from discrimination rather than ignorance, the PCSB may set in motion a process that could ultimately lead to the school losing its charter.

That hasn't happened yet, according to Rashida Young, the PCSB's Senior Equity and Fidelity Manager. Usually, school staff just need training or coaching to understand what the law requires. And the situation seems to be improving: out of about 100 schools called annually, the number that failed the second round of calls was ten two years ago, eight the next year, and only two last year.

"After doing this for three years," Young said, "I think people are getting the message."

Aside from being effective, the PCSB's "mystery caller" program is inexpensive and easy to implement. It's attracted attention from charter authorizers around the country, and at least one state—Massachusetts—has copied the idea.

DC has an advantage over many other areas because nearly all charter schools now participate in a common application process. That means the PCSB doesn't have to scrutinize each school's application form to make sure they're not asking prohibited questions.

Charters may still discriminate after enrollment

That's not to say DC has solved the problem of ensuring that charters are serving students with special needs. Although schools aren't allowed to ask any questions about disabilities at the application stage, they can ask those questions when it comes time for the student to enroll. And some charge that charters "counsel out" students with disabilities after enrollment.

Federal law requires that all public schools, whether charter or traditional, provide every student with a free appropriate public education. Schools must place the child in the least restrictive environment possible.

If the school can't serve a student well, it needs to arrange for another placement, possibly in a private school where the tuition would be paid by the District rather than by the charter itself.

The PCSB also checks for discrimination after enrollment, for example by monitoring suspensions and seeing whether disabled students are disproportionately represented. But the primary responsibility for enforcing federal law on special education rests with DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Last school year, 12% of DC's charter students had disabilities, as compared to 14% of students in DCPS. Nationally, the special education population in charter schools is 8 to 10%, versus 13% in traditional public schools.

But it's not hard to find disparities between certain charters and certain DCPS schools. At BASIS DC, part of a charter network known for its academic rigor, only 5.9% of students are classified as having disabilities. At Hart Middle School in Ward 8, which serves roughly the same grades, that figure is 26.7%.

Disparities may not be the result of discrimination

Does that mean schools like BASIS are discriminating? Not necessarily. True, BASIS itself has been the subject of government investigations after parents complained it wasn't providing required special education services, and the PCSB continues to monitor it.

And it's undeniable that charters have strong incentives to limit their numbers of special ed students. Test scores for that subgroup are generally lower, and they count as part of the school's overall performance—even if students have been placed in a private school because the school can't serve them.

On the other hand, it can be tricky to compare numbers of students with special needs across schools, because some schools are more likely than others to identify students as being in that category. Plus, while all schools need to make reasonable accommodations, students with disabilities and their parents may simply prefer not to attend a school that demands a lot in terms of academic rigor or discipline.

And it may be unrealistic to expect every charter school, however small, to deal with every kind of disability, which can include anything from mild dyslexia to serious autism to uncontrolled seizures. Even DCPS, with its economies of scale, has received a low rating from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for its special education services.

But the law requires that charter schools admit all comers, regardless of disability, and the PCSB has been inventive in coming up with a program to help ensure schools comply. Still, it doesn't make sense to expect all charters to end up serving the same proportion of special needs students, or even to expect parity between the charter sector and DCPS.

What's important is to ensure that children with disabilities get the best education possible, in whatever setting works for them.

Ask GGW: Is a Georgetown gondola practical?

The Georgetown Business Improvement District and neighborhood leaders have been floating the idea of a gondola linking Georgetown with Rosslyn. But many transit experts seem skeptical. Who's right?


Image from the Georgetown BID.

Georgetown BID head Joe Sternlieb says it could be an inexpensive way to build a high-capacity transit link. On the other hand, the National Park Service and other agencies would have to approve any wires over the Potomac, and jealously guard this territory against encroaching structures.

This week, we asked the contributors, why does Georgetown seem so enthusiastic but most others aren't? Is there a good transportation reason that these aren't the best choice (and why most US cities don't have them)? Or is it just that people don't believe it could ever get federal approval?

"Two words: 'Wire ban,'" retorted Matt Johnson.

"A zip line would be my preferred alternative," Tracy Loh joked.

Gray Kimbrough said, "I heard that there are wireless gondolas in development which will solve this problem," but Matt Johnson said the technology is "in its infancy." "A wireless hoverboard is much less complicated than a wireless gondola," he claimed. Steven Yates reminded us all, "Sadly, you need extra power to make hoverboards work on water."

Dan Malouff weighed the meta-questions:

Transportation people, at least the ones who aren't hopelessly close-minded, roll their eyes because the Georgetown idea specifically puts the cart before the horse, not because gondolas are inherently useless.

It's sort of like a transit fantasy map. There's been no analysis about what problem it's supposed to be solving, or about whether it's the best way to solve whatever problem that is. It could be, but nobody knows.

So my position on the gondola is "skeptical but open-minded." It could totally work, maybe even very well, but so far I just don't feel strongly enough about it (either pro or con) to become particularly vested in its outcome. I'd like to see some actual analysis on it, and maybe after that I'll feel differently.

Payton Chung laid out the reasons why one might use a gondola:
Any technology will have its proponents, and I'm prone to eye-rolling whenever someone claims that the technology is what will make or break a transit project. (They're wrong: it's the corridor.) As Malouff says, it's putting the cart before the horse.

However, having talked about gondolas with the relatively technology-agnostic Jarrett Walker, there are a few situations where a gondola makes sense:

  • Few stops
  • Challenging topography or limited ROW/footprint
  • Relatively level passenger flows through the day
I can think of worse corridors than Georgetown to Rosslyn. In particular, surface transit will require too large a footprint in a corridor that's heavily restricted by NPS, and the shopper/tourist traffic this would draw isn't sharply peaked.

However, there are better ones, like ski resorts or universities on mountaintops (e.g., OHSU [Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, which has one today] and SFU [Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, which has considered one]).

Gray Kimbrough relayed the history of New York City's Roosevelt Island Tramway:
Much of [Roosevelt Island] was redeveloped in the 1970s, and as an interim solution until the promised subway station opened, they built a tramway with one stop on the island and one in Manhattan. It opened in 1976, and ended up being so popular that when the subway station opened in 1989, they kept the tramway running.

For many people, it's a very convenient way to commute into Manhattan. It's also one of my favorite ways to view the city from a different angle, and I encourage tourists to ride it whenever they go.

Finally, Topher Matthews, who served on the steering committee that wrote the Georgetown 2028 report which recommends a gondola study, explained why the community is excited about the possibility:
I understand the eye rolling that transit people are doing in response to this proposal. It's tiresome, but I understand it.

Here's why this could be a good idea:

  • It's much cheaper than streetcar and Metro
  • It can be built incredibly fast (months not years)
  • It can be an attraction in and of itself
The best argument, though, is this: the plan is not simply to go from Rosslyn to M Street, but rather to continue to end at Georgetown University. Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road.

Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible? Arguing this way is no different than Matt Yglesias saying that to improve streetcars we just need to completely smash the car lobby.

[Joe Sternlieb] is obviously a big booster of it, but he makes it clear: all he wants to do now is a feasibility study. If it comes back as unfeasible, then that's it. He'll drop it.

It's easy to laugh it off. But, seriously, if you can't even consider it while simultaneously defending streetcar without dedicated lanes, I'm not sure how you're making a distinction between what's a fanciful waste of money and what's worth defending.

Sounds like doing a study of the gondola concept isn't such a bad idea.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Some needy DCPS students are getting a lot less funding than others

Last year, the DC Council passed legislation designed to ensure that additional funds would be distributed equally among the District's neediest students. A new interactive graphic shows that instead, some of those students are getting a lot less money than others.


Image from DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC.

The DC Council decided that schools should spend an additional $2,000 dollars per year on each "at-risk" student in traditional public or public charter schools. The at-risk category includes students who are in foster care, homeless, receiving welfare or food stamps, or at least a year behind in high school.

The Council didn't specify what kinds of programs the money should fund. Charter schools are free to spend it however they want, and the DC Public Schools administration is supposed to delegate the decision about how to spend the money to individual schools.

But DC Public Schools said it didn't have enough time to allocate the additional funding on a per-pupil basis this year, as the law required. Instead, it used the money to fund initiatives it had already planned, saying they lined up with the needs of at-risk students.

The result is that some DCPS schools are spending much less on each at-risk student than others, according to a data tool developed by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC, a volunteer group of data enthusiasts.

Mann Elementary in Ward 3, for example, spent over $15,000 on each of its at-risk students. That's partly because there are only two such students there, making up just 1% of the school's total enrollment, according to the data tool.

By contrast, Ballou High School in Ward 8 spent only about $5,000 on each of its 470 at-risk students, which represent 72% of the school population. And Beers Elementary in Ward 7 spent a mere $168 on each of its 259 at-risk students, 60% of its enrollment.

At-risk money is benefiting a broader range of students

Of course, as the data tool also reveals, that doesn't mean each at-risk student is getting exactly that amount of extra help. In line with DCPS's priorities, much of the additional money is going to efforts that benefit a broader range of students: expanding curriculum, enrichment activities, and mental health support for middle-grade students; extending the school day at schools that chose to do so; and focusing on literacy at low-performing schools.

At Ballou, for example, over $100,000 went to hiring an assistant principal for literacy. Middle schools got additional staff and money for field trips and extracurricular activities.

At many schools, though, it's not clear where the money is really going. Many DCPS schools received grants designed to increase student satisfaction, which count as part of their at-risk funding. Each school can use that money for things it determines will help students enjoy school more, such as extracurricular activities or technology.

But the data tool doesn't detail what exactly the schools did with those grants, called Proving What's Possible for Student Satisfaction Awards. Mann and Beers each got all of their at-risk funding in the form of one of those grants, so it's unclear what they're doing with any of the money.

The data tool also doesn't include charter schools, so it's also unclear what they are doing with their at-risk funds.

How will DCPS allocate at-risk money in the future?

It remains to be seen what DCPS will do with the at-risk money next year, when there's enough time to allocate it on a per-pupil basis and let individual schools decide how to spend it. Will administrators at the central office be tempted to continue using the money to fund priorities they have already set, like improving high schools?

Aside from the temptation to follow through on existing plans, DCPS may find it hard to come up with initiatives focused exclusively on at-risk students. If a school hires an additional reading specialist, adopts an extended day, or plans a field trip, can it—and should it—try to limit those services to kids who are homeless or on welfare?

A better approach might be to fund "high-dosage" tutors for kids in the at-risk category. When it's done intensively and integrated into the life of the school, tutoring can have a dramatic impact on achievement. A side benefit might be the kind of mentoring that at-risk students are likely to need.

Even with that kind of targeted program, there will inevitably be funding disparities. A school with only two at-risk students will probably have to pay more per pupil for on-site tutoring than a school that has several hundred. But it's unlikely to cost 89 times as much per student, which is the difference between what Mann and Beers are supposedly spending on at-risk students now.

It's great that DCPS wants to increase field trips, beef up the middle school curriculum, and do other things that will benefit a larger group of students. But the system should be funding those initiatives with its general operating money. The fact is, the law requires DCPS to funnel its at-risk money to students facing the greatest challenges. And that may be what's needed to give them a real chance to succeed.

Removing the superintendent won't fix the broken culture at Montgomery's public schools

Montgomery County school superintendent Josh Starr resigned this week. Many community members are wondering what went wrong. While Starr had a lot of supporters, his role in a MCPS culture that didn't take criticism well may have been his undoing.


Starr at the March to Close the Achievement Gap. Photo by the author.

A week ago, Bethesda Magazine reported that four of the eight school board members didn't support renewing Starr's contract. Last weekend, Starr and the Board of Education quietly met to discuss his departure February 16, four months before his contract ends.

Some elected officials, along with parents and students were confused about what he'd done wrong, pointing to increased test scores since Starr arrived in 2011. Others felt that Starr didn't have a clear direction for the school system, and wouldn't listen to people he didn't agree with. Ultimately, that may have led to his dismissal. But the frustration with Starr reflects a larger issue with how MCPS deals with a rapidly changing school system.

Starr made promises, but didn't always follow through

Despite its reputation as a high-performing school system, MCPS also struggles with the suburbanization of poverty, which has made the achievement gap among minority and low-income students more evident. Starr championed the issue, boasting of his commitment to social justice and even appearing at a student-organized March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring.

But if community members or public officials tried to question him on this or other issues, Starr could be arrogant or dismissive. When the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that growing segregation in the schools is exacerbating the achievement gap, Starr shrugged it off, saying the school system was already working hard to fix the problem.

In practice, that didn't always seem to be the case. MCPS spends less on its low-income students than other area school systems. There's been little talk about Starr's "innovation schools" program, which pledged additional resources and supports for 10 high-poverty schools, after a big announcement two years ago. And last year, Starr threatened to remove programs that could help close the gap from the budget if the County Council didn't give MCPS more money.

A reflection of the broader system

Meanwhile, the school system has struggled with other controversies over the past year, including widespread math exam failures, improper credit card use, and a sexual abuse scandal. Starr wasn't directly responsible for any of these things, but frustration grew with his aloof nature and unclear agenda for MCPS.

"Four years went by and people were still waiting to hear what the new direction was all about, where are we going," said Nancy Navarro, a councilmember and former school board member, to the Washington Post. "That was never really articulated."

This impatience made Starr an easy scapegoat when things went wrong, as Councilmember Marc Elrich notes. Yet his behavior is really a reflection of MCPS as a whole.

MCPS gets its high-flying reputation from a handful of high-performing schools in the most affluent parts of the county, even as many schools are doing much worse. This perception is one reason why the teachers' union has such a strong influence on local politics.

As a result, people assume that all of MCPS is doing fine and are unwilling to challenge the school system. Meanwhile, officials are reluctant to admit anything's wrong. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote Harvard researcher Gary Orfield in a 1994 study of segregation in MCPS, which is still relevant today.

To fix MCPS, recognize that it's broken

This culture is a big problem for MCPS, which is used to being the preferred school system for families with the means to choose where they live. Today, many of those families are moving farther out to Howard or Frederick counties, or taking a chance on the District's improving public schools. To keep MCPS competitive, the school system and its leadership have to acknowledge that it's no longer solely defined by its success, but its failures as well.

On the day he resigned, Starr retweeted a photo of a girl at White Oak Middle School, a high-poverty school in East County that I once attended in the 1990s, with the caption: "I want to be recognized for my work. I have been in the honor roll for a long time."

Like her, MCPS is used to being a well-regarded school system, and wants to be recognized. But the real test of its success is how it grapples with the great challenges facing it. Whoever replaces Starr will need to ensure that all the county's schools deserve the "honor roll" status that attaches to the more affluent ones on which the county has staked its reputation.

DCPS spotlights the needs of African-American and Latino males

DC Public Schools has announced a new initiative that will train a "laser-like focus" on African-American and Latino males, two groups that fare worst on many measures of academic achievement. But the effort, which includes a new all-boys high school, will inevitably leave some students in relative darkness.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently unveiled a three-pronged program targeted at the 43% of DCPS students who are males of color. Spending $20 million over the next three years, DCPS plans to recruit 500 tutor-mentors, fund school-level programs aimed at engaging and supporting black and Hispanic boys, and—most ambitiously—bring in a successful Chicago charter network to replicate its prep school model in DC.

Many details are still unclear. DCPS is already recruiting volunteer tutors for the four well-regarded tutoring programs it is partnering with, but at least one of them uses only paid tutors. More fundamentally, it's not clear exactly where the $20 million will come from, although DCPS hopes to raise at least $7.4 million of it from private donors.

Another question is whether Urban Prep Academies, the organization that will run DCPS's prep school beginning in the fall of 2016, will enjoy the same degree of autonomy here that it's had running three charter schools in Chicago. Henderson promised that Urban Prep will have "as many autonomies as they need to make it work," but she added that the DC Council may need to change the law to make that possible.

Urban Prep has made headlines for getting 100% of its alumni into four-year colleges since it began graduating students five years ago. Its school uniform, which includes red ties and navy blazers adorned with the school crest and motto—"Credimus," Latin for "We believe"—calls to mind an elite boys' school like St. Alban's.

But, unlike most of those at St. Albans, Urban Prep's students are black, and many are from low-income families.

Joining Henderson at last week's kick-off event, the school's founder, Tim King, told an inspiring story about a homeless student who "would actually sit on the cold floor in the shelter bathroom doing his homework, because it was the only place there that had the lights on past 10 pm." That student, King added, became class valedictorian and is now a student at Georgetown University.

Snaring Urban Prep was a coup for DC, according to Henderson. "Let me be clear," she said. "Everybody in the country wants Urban Prep Academies to open a school in their city."

One reason DC won out might be that Henderson and King have known each other since their undergraduate days at Georgetown, where King was assigned to be Henderson's mentor.

Critics say school has high attrition and low scores

As with almost any successful charter school, Urban Prep has its critics. Some say the attrition rate is high, with the size of a class sometimes shrinking from 150 to 50 students between 9th and 12 grades. (Urban Prep did not respond to questions about this and other topics.)

Another complaint about charters like Urban Prep is that its students are a self-selected group, with more motivated families and a lower poverty rate than students in neighborhood public schools. Although the DC version of Urban Prep will be a traditional public school rather than a charter, the same criticism could apply, since parents will presumably need to take affirmative steps to enroll their sons.

One response to these critiques is that even if Urban Prep doesn't work for all kids, at least it works for the ones who get there and stick with it. But some question even that.

At one of the school's three campuses last year, only 9% of students were deemed ready for college-level work, defined as scoring at least 21 on the ACT. At the other campuses, the figures were 28% and 20%. The average for Chicago public schools is 27%.

Even if one assumes that Urban Prep does change the life trajectory of the young African-American men it serves in Chicago, will it do the same for the young Latino men that are also supposed to be part of DCPS's "laser-like focus"? (Speakers used that metaphor no less than six times during the announcement of the initiative.)

While the DC school presumably won't exclude anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity, the Urban Prep model is clearly geared to black students. And its planned location at some unspecified site east of the Anacostia River, an area that is almost entirely African-American, may make it difficult for Latino boys to attend in any event.

Black and Latino girls need help too

And what about black and Latino girls? While the legality of single-sex education used to be in dispute, the federal government loosened its rules in 2006, and since then single-sex schools and classes have proliferated.

Research has been equivocal on whether single-sex education produces better results. But some data indicate that it's most likely to benefit poor and minority students, although it's not clear why.

Single-sex charter schools like the Chicago version of Urban Prep are free to operate with no restrictions. But when a single-sex school is part of a traditional school district, federal policy requires the district to make another school of "substantially equal" quality available to the excluded gender. That other school can be either coed or single-sex.

Will black and Latino girls have a "substantially equal" option? That could become a matter for debate, and possibly even litigation.

Aside from legality, the plan for Urban Prep and indeed the whole "Empowering Males of Color" initiative raise questions of equity. On DC's standardized tests last year, the proficiency rate for black girls was about 45%, and for Latinas about 57%. That's better than the rates for black and Hispanic boys—about 35% and 49%, respectively. But it's way below the 90% proficiency rates for white students.

Of course, efforts that elevate the needs of one group almost always have an adverse effect on others. And in the case of young men of color, you can make a case that it's justified.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that Urban Prep, in combination with DC's many charter schools and its several application-only DCPS high schools, will further drain off the more motivated male students from neighborhood schools, leaving behind a higher concentration of those who are hardest to educate.

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