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Some are questioning whether all students should be on a college prep track

A former professor who spent two years teaching in a high-poverty DC Public Schools high school advocates separating students into a college prep track and other tracks that would lead directly to jobs. But to really know who belongs in which track we need to revamp an elementary school system that has left almost all poor students woefully unprepared for a college prep curriculum.


Photo from Bigstock.

The old practice of separating students into academic and vocational tracks has fallen into disfavor. That's because traditionally, school systems often funneled white and affluent students into college prep classes while relegating poor black ones into classes intended to prepare them for jobs in fields like auto repair and cosmetology.

Education reformers have generally insisted that all students follow a college prep curriculum. But some are beginning to recognize the value of what is now called career and technical education in engaging disaffected students and providing them with practical skills.

Some school districts, including DCPS, are beefing up their formerly anemic vocational offerings with new Career Academies embedded within neighborhood high schools. Two new ones, focusing on engineering and information technology, are opening this year at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7.

But these academies—and much of the vocational training finding favor among reformers—are an addition to, not a substitute for, college prep classes. The DCPS website explicitly says the expectation is that "all Academy graduates continue on to college before pursuing a career."

A former teacher and others question whether "college for all" makes sense

Caleb Stewart Rossiter, a former professor at American University who spent two years teaching math at H.D. Woodson, proposes a different approach in his book Ain't Nobody Be Learnin' Nothin': The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools..

Rossiter says only about 20% of students at schools like Woodson are "within striking distance of high school standards." And he argues that under the current system, those students will never be college-ready because they're being held back by students who are disruptive or hopelessly behind.

In some ways Rossiter's version of tracking differs from the paternalistic model that prevailed in the old days, when the school system decided which track a student should be on. Students and their parents or guardians themselves would choose either a college-prep or vocational track at 7th grade, with an option to reevaluate at 9th. Rossiter wouldn't exclude any students who are highly motivated from college prep.

But, as under the old system, Rossiter wants vocational tracks to lead students directly to jobs rather than to college. And he wants schools to require students who are years behind to undertake intensive remediation before embarking on either track, although they might need less remediation for the vocational one.

Rossiter's book details extreme dysfunction at Woodson (which he refers to as "Johnson" in his book), characterizing the "unspoken bargain of calm high-poverty classes" as "don't push me to work and I won't disrupt the class much." In addition to tracking, Rossiter wants extremely disruptive students and those far behind grade level removed from regular classes and getting counseling and non-credit remediation.

Rossiter isn't the only one questioning the assumption that all students should go to college. When students are in 11th or 12th grade and still reading and doing math at an elementary level, subjecting them to a grade-level college prep curriculum appears to be a waste of everyone's time.

And, as Rossiter argues, the supposed college-prep curriculum isn't even doing a good job with the low-income students who manage to make it to college: 64.5% of low-income students who enroll in a two-year college need remedial classes, as do 31.9% of those who enroll in a four-year college. Only 9% of the poorest students complete a college degree—less than a third of those who enroll. Those who drop out are often left with huge debt and no degree.

True, poor and minority individuals who make it through college do far better than those who don't. But college doesn't seem to be the great equalizer that some had hoped for. A new study has found that black and Hispanic college graduates have far less wealth than their white counterparts.

So offering students the option of a track that leads to a job rather than to college makes sense. And there should be no shame in vocational education. Society needs beauticians and auto mechanics as much as it needs college professors and lawyers.

Vocational classes may solve some of the disciplinary problems afflicting high-poverty schools as well. As Rossiter saw when some of his most disruptive students eagerly embraced a challenging masonry task and excelled at it, some students are far more responsive and persevering when learning is part of a hands-on task.

Lately, some reformers—including the Obama administrationhave modified the "college for all" mantra, saying instead that "all Americans need some form of postsecondary education," if not college then at least a training or certification program after high school. But if we could embed that training or certification within a high school curriculum, and make it meaningful, we could save everyone time and money.

Before we embrace a version of tracking that allows some students to opt out of college prep, however, we should be aware of a couple of major caveats. One is that most decent jobs that don't require a college degree still require a high level of accomplishment. Some people who skip college and complete an occupational concentration in high school manage to out-earn college graduates, but only if they did well in Algebra II and advanced biology.

Inadequate elementary school education may be masking students' potential

More fundamentally, we may be overlooking a lot of undeveloped academic potential in low-income kids because of the education they get before they reach high school. Elementary education is currently so inadequate that we simply don't know how many kids would be capable of handling a college prep curriculum if they were given the right kind of foundation.

Even before standardized tests became important—but even more so afterwards—elementary schools have been focusing almost exclusively on basic skills in reading and math. In reading, that means hours every day practicing comprehension strategies like "finding the main idea" and making predictions.

Elementary schools have spent little or no time building students' knowledge of subjects like history and science. That's particularly harmful for poor kids, who are less likely to acquire that kind of knowledge at home.

When those kids get to high school, they suddenly encounter a curriculum that assumes a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don't have. As a result, they can't understand much of what they're supposed to be learning. No wonder they become disaffected.

Of course, some teenagers will be disaffected even if we inject actual content into the elementary school curriculum—a slow and difficult process that DCPS is now beginning to undertake. And some students who are engaged in school still won't be interested in going to college. But right now, we can't know for sure which kids fall into which category.

In the short-term, the only way we might be able to tell is to offer motivated students intensive tutoring in the subjects they're supposed to be learning—not, as Rossiter proposes, tutoring in "basic skills," which will do them no more good than a skill-based curriculum did in elementary school. That would require a huge and most likely expensive effort, but it's worth trying.

For the longer term, we need to revamp the elementary school curriculum so that poor kids are acquiring the tools that will allow them to access high school level work. Only then will students and their families be able to make a genuine choice between a path that leads to college and one that leads in a different, but equally fulfilling and possibly even lucrative, direction.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Charters that don't fill student vacancies may find it easier to boost test scores

Most DC charter schools have a policy of accepting new students at any grade level. But others refuse to take applications past a certain grade. Because students who arrive in later grades can bring down a school's overall test scores, we need to be careful when comparing schools that have different admissions practices.


Photo from Bigstock.

All schools have some attrition from one school year to the next. Some charter schools backfill, which means they accept new students to fill slots that become vacant. Schools that don't backfill don't replace those students, allowing the size of a grade cohort to shrink from year to year.

In some places, like New York and Philadelphia, the backfill issue has divided the charter community. Some have argued it's unfair not to replace students who leave, given the length of charter waitlists. They also say schools that don't backfill are artificially inflating the percentage of students who score proficient on standardized tests.

That's because the most mobile students tend to score the lowest. And students who have been at a good school since early childhood are more likely to be on grade level and better accustomed to a school's behavior code than those arriving later on from weaker schools. So if a school doesn't replace those who leave, it can end up with a smaller cohort of higher-scoring students.

At one New York City charter school, for example, the percentage of students in one cohort who scored proficient in math was 94% in 3rd grade and 97% five years later, in 8th grade. But the number of students taking the test over that period declined from 88 to 31. That school is part of the Success Academy network, which doesn't backfill after 4th grade.

But schools that choose not to backfill aren't necessarily just trying to inflate test scores. The leader of the Success Academy network says she's protecting the interests of students who stay the course. When new students come in who are far behind, they absorb teachers' attention and hold back those ready to move at a faster pace.

And choosing not to backfill has a cost. In places like DC, where schools are funded on the basis of the number students they enroll, lower enrollment means less money.

Some DC charters don't backfill

DC charters aren't publicly sniping at each other over the backfill issue, but some schools here appear to be reaping the kinds of advantages critics have pointed to elsewhere.

Two DC charter middle schools, both of which include grades 4 through 8, don't accept new students after 6th grade. Both are high-performing and serve primarily low-income populations, and both had significant declines in enrollment for the cohort that graduated from 8th grade in 2014.

At one of the schools, Achievement Prep, that cohort dropped from 93 students in 6th grade in 2012 to 43 in 8th in 2014. The proficiency rates for 8th graders in 2014 were 90% in reading and 97% in math.

At the other, DC Prep Edgewood, the cohort dropped from 55 to 32. The proficiency rates for its 8th graders were 81% in reading and 100% in math.

Would those schools' 8th-grade scores have been lower if they'd filled vacancies with new students? It's hard to say. But another charter middle school that accepts new students at all grades, E.L. Haynes, maintained a class size of 101 between 6th and 8th grade for the same period. Its 8th-grade proficiency rates in 2014 were significantly lower than the two schools that don't backfill: 57% in reading and 70% in math.

Even high schools that backfill don't necessarily admit many new students

It's more common for charters not to backfill at the high school level. Eight DC charter high schools restrict applications to certain grades, with two high-performing ones—BASIS and Washington Latin—not accepting new students after 9th grade.

But even high schools that theoretically accept students at all grade levels can see their cohorts shrink dramatically. At highly ranked KIPP College Prep, the 2015 graduating class numbered 71 students, down from a 9th grade cohort of 134. Last year, the school enrolled only two new 10th graders and one new 11th grader, according to a KIPP DC spokesperson, Lindsay Kelly.

Why not more? "Unfortunately," Kelly said in an email, "many students who come to us in high school lack the credits needed to be on track with their grade level. Some families would rather have their child be promoted at a different high school than have them repeat a year as a student at KCP."

Should all charters be required to backfill?

Some argue that all charter schools should backfill, to level the playing field. New Orleans, where almost all students attend charter schools, has imposed that requirement.

But as KCP's situation illustrates, enforcing such a rule might not be that simple—or even desirable. It doesn't seem fair to hold back students who are capable of doing grade-level work or better by requiring their schools to admit students who are far behind.

Perhaps the better option is to be clear about what we're comparing. New York is considering investigating the amount of attrition and backfilling at its charter schools, which seems like a step in the right direction.

It would also help to look not just at a school's proficiency rates, but at how much its students test scores grow from year to year. DC's Public Charter School Board does take growth into account in evaluating schools, but it's hard for the public to tell how much weight they place on it.

And we should be able to compare test scores for students who have been at a school for several years against scores for newcomers. Right now, those two categories are lumped together, at least for public consumption. If schools that backfill are nevertheless able to boost achievement for kids they've had for a while, they should get credit for that.

The controversy over backfill is a variation on the controversy over charter schools in general. Yes, charter schools have an advantage over traditional public schools because, among other things, they don't have to take students midyearand because families who choose to apply to charters are more likely to be motivated and engaged.

And yes, charters that choose not to backfill have advantages over charters that do backfill, as well as over traditional public schools that backfill. But rather than imposing the same burdens on all schools, we would do better to acknowledge that some schools have more obstacles to overcome than others.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Some DC schools are betting that personalization can fix education

DC is at the forefront of a movement to make education a more personalized experience, relying in part on technology to tailor learning to each student's needs and interests. The approach promises to ensure that advanced students are challenged and struggling ones engaged, even if they share the same classroom.


Photo from Bigstock.

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others need more help. Teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and some are lost.

While experts have long advised teachers to differentiate instruction so they can reach each student at her level, that takes a lot of training and talent. Some say it's impossible.

Now a different, more personalized approach is gaining ground across the country and in the District. While personalized learning models vary, most rely at least partly on technology to allow students to progress at their own pace, moving on when they've demonstrated mastery—sometimes of content they've chosen for themselves.

Programs that blend traditional and technology-based instruction are now in place at 17 schools within the DC Public School system on a school-wide basis. Many others use the approach in at least some of their classrooms.

And DC's CityBridge Foundation, through an initiative called Breakthrough Schools: DC, has provided funding and technical support to help 13 DC schools devise new personalized learning models. Each school can receive as much as $500,000 over the course of several years.

Evidence on the effectiveness of personalized learning has been scant, and the term embraces so many different models that it's hard to evaluate its success overall. Last year, however, two studies found that some low-income schools using personalized models had positive outcomes on test scores and other measures.

Some personalized and blended learning models could have drawbacks

Personalized and blended learning models have the potential to engage all students without separating them into different tracks, as schools used to do. But there are reasons to proceed with caution.

If kids are allowed to progress at their own pace, many may opt not to challenge themselves. If they're also allowed to choose what to learn, some may not choose wisely. And if each student is studying something different, it's hard to have a group discussion or an exchange of ideas.

And under many blended learning models, including those used at some DCPS schools, kids spend the day rotating between stations in a single classroom, spending a third of their time working at computers.

Students in those classrooms can lose valuable instructional time while making transitions. And in the many classrooms that have only one teacher, the unsupervised students working at computers don't always stay on task.

Even if they do, much of the software currently available has no connection to what students are learning from their teachers. Students may spend hours every week practicing reading comprehension skills rather than acquiring knowledge, an approach that is particularly harmful for low-income students.

Older methods of personalization are worth trying too

Given those possible flaws, we shouldn't lose sight of old-fashioned, low-tech ways of personalizing learning. One would be to have students write about what they're studying, something schools don't often do these days. Struggling students could write a sentence, more advanced ones a paragraph, and others an entire essay.

And then there's the time-honored version of personalization employed by the wealthy: tutoring.

There are logistical barriers to bringing both of these methods of personalization to schools on a large scale, but they're not insurmountable. DCPS has been piloting a writing program that has had encouraging results with students of varying needs and abilities.

And while tutoring has historically been expensive, at least one school has pioneered a low-cost version that has boosted achievement dramatically.

Like tutors, computers can get students to practice skills and give them immediate feedback. But they can't provide the emotional connection that is important in stimulating learning . Nor can they teach students to write well, or possibly to develop the analytical skills that good writing requires.

Of course, the high-tech and low-tech approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. Used thoughtfully, computers can free up teachers' time to work with students one-on-one or in small groups, building relationships and doing other things only humans can do.

And personalization, if balanced by whole-group activities that create dialogue and a sense of community, is a more realistic approach than assuming that all students are proceeding in lockstep just because they happen to be the same age.

So by all means, let's experiment, judiciously, with these new approaches to an old problem. But at the same time, let's try to find ways to use older pathways to personalization that are tried and true.

An expanded version of this post is available at DC Eduphile.

What other college towns can teach us about College Park's challenges

Our contributors recently discussed why College Park, Maryland doesn't have the same "college town" feel as the places around similar flagship universities in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, or California. But College Park isn't the only place struggling with these issues. What can we learn from other college towns around the nation?


Morgantown, WV. Photo by Bill Walsh on Flickr.

Geoff Hatchard posed the question:

[What] college towns aren't the commonly-cited ones that may be "somewhat great" and are improving that College Park can look to as inspiration? I'm thinking of places that have or are overcoming obstacles. The first that comes to mind is New Haven, CT. Are there other examples anyone can think of?
Ben Ross said, "Boston University might be an example. When I lived in Boston, that stretch of Commonwealth Avenue was dominated by auto dealerships. It's much more urban now."


Photo by Wendy Brolga on Flickr.

Tracey Johnstone has an example from not too far away:

Old Dominion U. in Norfolk had/has the same problems: It's a metropolitan area with better [or worse] places to go and Hampton Blvd. divides it 1/3-2/3rds. And, to be honest, men vastly outnumber women in the Norfolk area (whereas it's the opposite in the immediate DC area) so, the demographic skews younger and more male than most college towns. In other words, college girls aren't limited to dating college boys. As a lot of first-generation college students attend Old Dominion, the income/class jump from dating college students to sailors isn't that big. And the situation is muddied by all the folks attending Old Dominion while still serving and on the GI Bill after getting out.

All that contributed to no "college" ambiance.

Toronto has a few student-oriented places near the university like the Brunswick House, but on one side is the Ontario Parliament Building and on another Toronto's "Rodeo Drive" with Cartier, Louis Vuitton, etc. Not exactly college fare.

Joe Fox fleshed out the list:
Comparisons that come to mind (for me) to UMD—being near an urban area, but not having an urban campus like GWU or ODU, in a large market—are:
  • University of Miami
  • SMU in Dallas
  • University of Richmond
  • Manhattan College
  • Rutgers
  • Seton Hall
  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • UC-Irvine
  • Arizona State
  • George Mason U
Of the above, only Tempe and Westwood, to me, have that feel. The rest are similar, or less college-like, than College Park.

San José State. Photo by HarshLight on Flickr.

Geoffrey Hatchard said, "Add SJSU in San José to that list."

SJSU is compact, dense, has 30,000 students, but turns its back on all four sides to the city around it. Parking garages are located on a couple of the corners, and the only place where there has been an active move to make the school and the outside city mix is at the northwest corner where the MLK Library, shared by the school and the city's library system (serving as its HQ), sits.
Gray Kimbrough tried to break down the "college town" challenge into some specific factors, which we quoted in the first part as well. He went on to tie them into general trends nationwide:
UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).
Universities with prototypical college towns generally lack #2. The closest thing I can think of to an exception would be Princeton, which is NYC-accessible because of NJT, but not really that close. Also Ann Arbor isn't all that far from Detroit, but it's somehow in a different world.

Universities that have condition #2 but nonetheless have good relations with the community tend to lack or have resolved at least one of the other conditions. Northwestern has the advantage that Evanston is quite a bit larger than College Park, but it also has a much denser campus that isn't completely inward facing. Minnesota isn't exactly in downtown Minneapolis, but it has a dense campus that interfaces with a commercial strip on at least one side. And despite original reluctance, UMN's leaders have come around to the idea that transit has a huge role to play in tying the campus to the broader community. Berkeley might be the closest example here, but I haven't spent enough time there to comment on what they're doing right.


Transit mall at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
Basically think of any large university that has a decent amount of activity near campus. All of these have at least one side of campus that blends relatively seamlessly with a prime commercial strip. UMD has a pretty effective buffer on its side of campus facing US 1, and basically no part of campus faces outward. NCSU is beyond what could be considered a relatively dense core in Raleigh, yet somehow its main campus is denser than UMD's.

Also, where a university lacks a great relationship with the surrounding community, a medical center can serve as an entry point to a discussion to improve that. I see some schools that have turned their backs on their towns, like Yale and Duke, starting to take advantage of this. UMD has a vet school, but I don't think this has the same effect as a really good hospital. Even GW and Georgetown have built-in positive interactions with DC because of their med schools and hospitals.

College Park can't do much about #2, #4, or #5, but they can work to change #3 in particular, and hopefully work on #1 in the process. There needs to be an acknowledgment that the layout of UMD's campus absolutely plays a factor here. As they build out the campus, perhaps they can work to both build more densely and build connections to the surrounding area.

Jonathan Krall brought it back to walkability and the urban form:
In my experience, most universities have adjacent commercial areas, so long as zoning allows it. The ones with college towns have human-scale street grids in or adjacent to the commercial zone. This is true of UC Boulder, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSB, all of which have large cities nearby. It is not true of UM College Park or UC San Diego. I do not know how those street grids came to be, but they make all the difference. What the college-town part of Boulder (just west of the school) has over College Park isn't better shops and restaurants. It's that people like to walk and bicycle in the college-town part of Boulder (and the rest of Boulder as well, but that's another story).

However, these college towns could be considered anemic (Boulder, UCSB) or over-commercialized (Berkeley, UCLA) compared to a small college town such as Ithaca, NY, home to Ithaca College and Cornell University. The big-city effect is real, but it is the walkable street grid that is essential.


Westwood, CA. Photo by Tony Hoffarth on Flickr.

Owen Chaput pointed out that what makes a good "college town" varies depending on whose eyes you are looking through:

When we ask what makes a good college town, whose perspective are we looking at it from? Undergraduates, graduate students, staff, unaffiliated residents, and random visitors all have very different needs and interests, and what suits one group very well might be uninteresting (or a nuisance) for another group. I suspect that a great college town comes in part from having all groups present on or nearby campus, and relatively dependent on the campus business district(s) to meet their needs.

For towns looking to improve, here are a few possible factors: for undergrads, the challenge is getting them off campus and spending money or living in the surrounding community. With grad students, the challenge is enough cheap housing, beer, and culture nearby the university so the grad students don't go live somewhere more interesting and affordable. Staff (professors, admin, support) and unaffiliated community residents need to be able to live close enough to the college business districts to patronize them year-round, but require diversified housing stock and separation from the weekend rowdiness.

Ithaca, NY is the best I've ever spent time in. Hard to find fault with it, except it is far from a major city and frigid for six months of the year. But it's an easier example since it doesn't fit the UM-College Park suburban-urban rubric, and I think it benefited from natural geography keeping things crowded in two directions. Emory is bad. Surrounded by very expensive, low-density suburban housing, but only three miles from Atlanta! Very little commercial zoning. Awful, awful traffic. It has a huge medical facility and the CDC right next door, but lacks any college town feel. The walkable street grid explanation fits for Emory.

What universities around the nation do you think have lessons for UMD and College Park?

Why isn't College Park a better college town?

Many major state universities have "college town" areas right near them, with walkable neighborhoods that serve the student population. Charlottesville, Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Berkeley and LA's Westwood, California are a few well-known examples. College Park, by contrast, doesn't have this feel. Why is that?


Photo by Matt Chan on Flickr.

This isn't a new topic of conversation around the region, but after it came up in a recent comment thread, we asked our contributors to weigh in on this.

Jeff Lemieux pointed out the single most significant factor many people point to: the surrounding roads are far too car-oriented.

A sewer runs through it. University Boulevard bounds the campus to the north as a divided highway with no bike or pedestrian access and no development potential. Route 1 is getting better but is still treated more like a suburban strip arterial then a commercial street. College Park should be a paradise for walking and biking. But it has a ways to go.

Route 1 and Calvert Road near UMD. Image from Google Maps.

Dan Reed thinks location and the number of commuters contributes:

[This is] exacerbated by UMD's history as a commuter school. ... Even kids who live on campus but grow up in the area frequently go back home to visit friends or family, to work, etc.

I do think this is changing as 1) Maryland's national reputation means it draws more students from out of state and 2) more students live on campus, which means you have a bigger base to support shops and restaurants in the area, which in turn gives people more of a reason to stick around, which in turn supports more activity. I don't know if that's enough to support the kind of businesses that we associate with a "college town," like the awesome College Perk coffeehouse which closed many years ago, but it's a start.


Route 1 and Knox Rd. in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Partap Verma also thinks College Park is improving:

College Park has always been divided into two main areas—the downtown area with restaurants and bars that's not too far from the dorms, and the overall Rt. 1 area. In recent years the downtown has seen some new development with new apartments/retails/restaurants and actually looks pretty decent. And then you have the larger Rt. 1 area that is filled with strip malls and car dealerships that are slowly going away and being replaced by much needed apartments and hotels that serve UMD.
Commenter dcer52, on the thread that started this discussion, pointed out how an often-contentious town-gown relationship has also held back the growth of a college town area:
Here is one famous example that sums it up. When the Green Line station in College Park opened in the 1990s, the University planned to run a shuttle bus from campus to the station. However, the extension of Paint Branch Parkway was not built yet so the bus would have to run through surface streets in the City of College Park. The University offered to allow any College Park resident to ride the bus for free (not just students), but the city refused to allow the shuttle buses to ride on city streets to access the Metro station.

When the College Park Metro station opened, about six blocks from the edge of the University of Maryland campus, the University was prohibited from running a shuttle bus to the station (as was Metro and PG County The Bus). So instead students, faculty, and others had to take a shuttle bus to the Greenbelt station.

When I was a student there in the 90's I tried to take an active role in city issues. I changed my voter registration to College Park only to find that for persons living on campus or in student housing neighborhoods, the assigned polling place was not College Park city hall (downtown and walking distance from everything) but some other building that required a drive (or cab ride) from campus. Some colleges actually have polling places for students on campus, College Park put theirs as far away from campus as possible. Message sent.


College Park Metro. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Gray Kimbrough summed up some of the major reasons for the problem:

UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).

A road on the UMD campus. Photo by Matt Chan on Flickr.

Payton Chung added some context and a possible quantitative metric, Floor Area Ratio (FAR):

Some universities have successfully built their own college towns—like UIC, a postwar commuter school. That UMD hasn't is probably a semi-conscious decision, both due to a commuter school mentality on behalf of the administration (and students) and a snobbish suburban mentality on behalf of the town (as dcer52 retells).

As Gray points out, the commuter school mentality results in a campus that isn't all that dense, and is isolated from walkable retail. From the middle of McKeldin Mall to the nearest off-campus restaurant is about 0.4 miles away—an eight-minute walk one way, or too far to manage a roundtrip within a 15-minute break between classes. Contrast that to 0.07 miles from the middle of the Court of North Carolina (at NC State) or 0.2 miles from the middle of Polk Place (at UNC).

Local architects Ayers Saint Gross have a cool "comparing campuses" tool with figure-ground plans and statistics on many academic and medical campuses. Overall, FAR isn't the most useful metric for something as big as an entire campus (which might include athletic fields, research farms, etc.), but UMD's campus has an overall FAR of just 0.22. By contrast, "urban" campuses like UCLA and VCU have FARs in the 0.8-0.9 range. All FARs are not created equal, but it's not for nothing that LEED awards points for FARs above 0.5/0.8. In my experience, few truly walkable places have FARs much below 1.0; there's just not enough other destinations within walking distance.


Route 1 and Knox Rd. in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Dan Reed discussed the pros and cons of the FAR metric and the issue of just where the downtown area is located relative to campus:

I like Payton's discussion about FAR, which makes a good point about the walkability of a campus itself and its ability to contribute to the surrounding area. But I would note that a golf course takes up like half of the 1200+ acres UMD has, and the part of the campus closest to "downtown" College Park (aka South Campus) is fairly dense, walkable, and somewhat oriented to Route 1 and Knox Road where all of the bars are.

That said, South Campus is predominantly upperclassmen dorms and apartments, which is great for the bars, but sucks for anyone trying to grab students going to and from class. Most of the academic buildings are either in the middle of campus (far from Route 1) or on North Campus (very far from Route 1. When I was in architecture school we drove (!!!) to Route 1 for lunch because otherwise it was a 20 minute walk.

UMD's been talking about East Campus for a decade now and their plans to put retail and housing and a hotel on Route 1 are good. But this discussion makes me wonder if they should also put some academic buildings there instead of cloistering them far away from the rest of town.

College Park clearly faces some obstacles to be a better college town (including disagreement among residents about whether it should be at all). It's not the the only place where some or many of these factors apply. Our contributors also discussed other towns which are grappling with these same issues, and other universities that lack a good physical connection to their surroundings. We'll have more of this contributor discussion, moving beyond College Park, Maryland, in an upcoming article.

Some DCPS schools have to cope with an influx of midyear transfers

Thousands of DC students switch schools midyear, especially at some high schools that are part of the DC Public School system. That has negative consequences both for the students who switch and the schools they enter.


Photo of students from Shutterstock.

A recent report from DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that over 92% of DC students remain in the same school throughout the year, based on data from 2011 through 2014. Some have hailed that as proof that the system is fundamentally stable.

But that 8% of students who move midyear is more significant than it sounds, and DCPS schools take in a disproportionate number of new students as compared to charters. In fact, many students who transfer to DCPS midyear come from charter schools. Most of the new arrivals, however, come from other DCPS schools or other states.

Students who switch schools midyear are often already at risk, and transferring only exacerbates their difficulties. They're more likely to have low test scores and to qualify for special education than the DC population as a whole, according to the report. They're also disproportionately low-income, African-American, and male.

Schools that take in a lot of students midyear also face challenges. If a school has established clear routines and rules, late arrivals won't be familiar with them. Some may bring behavior problems that caused them to leave their previous school.

Teachers need to devote extra effort to bringing new students up to speed on what the rest of the class has been learning. Other students at the school can suffer as a result.

Clearly, there are powerful incentives for schools to deny admission to students after the school year has begun. But it's also obvious that it would be a bad idea to deprive thousands of kids of any education whatsoever.

Besides, in DC, only charters have the option of turning midyear applicants away. Neighborhood DCPS schools are legally required to take all comers, whenever they arrive.

DCPS has a net gain of students while charters have a net loss

According to the report, over 6,000 students entered or exited DC schools or changed schools within DC at least once during the 2013-14 school year. Both sectors lost students during the course of the school year, but charter schools were much less likely to replace them with new arrivals. By June, DCPS experienced a net gain of 2% of its enrollment, while charter sector enrollment had declined by 5%.

Some have charged that much of the churn in DCPS is caused by students leaving charter schools midyear, voluntarily or involuntarily. The report shows that many more students do leave charters for DCPS midyear than vice versa.

In fact, over the three years studied, the number of students going from charters to DCPS was more than 12 times the number who have moved in the opposite direction. And over 30% of charters' decline in enrollment each year was due to students transferring to DCPS.

But it's also clear that students arriving from charters are only a fraction of the students entering DCPS schools midyear. More students switch schools within DCPS. For the three years covered by the report, 717 students on average switched from one DCPS school to another each year, while an average of 584 entered the system from charters.

And the number of students who entered DCPS from beyond DC's borders is greater than the number of transfers from charters and other DCPS schools put together: 1,783 a year, on average.

High school students move more than others

It's also clear that there's more movement at the high school level than in other grades. Students in 9th grade had the highest rate of churn in 2013-14, with 12.4% switching schools. At 10th grade, the figure was 8.7%. The only other grade level with a higher rate was preschool for three-year-olds.

That's in line with another study that found 30% of DC students switch high schools at least once. And high school is a particularly bad time to switch: a student's chances of graduating sink by 10 percentage points each time he transfers, according to the study.

A few DCPS high schools have the highest influx of midyear transfers, according to data gathered by the Washington Post. Cardozo High School, which takes in many immigrant students, had a 30% increase in enrollment during the year. Its net gain, after offsetting the increase with students who withdrew, was 18.4% of its student body.

Other high schools, including some application-only DCPS schools, were comparatively stable, losing or gaining less than 1% of their population. Meanwhile, 16 high schools, all of them charters, had a net loss of between 3 and 22.5%.

At Roosevelt High School, which had a net gain of 8.4%, there were 487 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. By May, 47 had withdrawn, but 73 others had arrived.

New students may arrive with vastly different needs. At Roosevelt, the newcomers included a 17-year-old from Guatemala who was in school for the first time since 6th grade, a 9th-grader who had left a charter after she was caught with marijuana, and an 18-year-old who had dropped out of another DCPS high school after moving into a group foster home near Roosevelt.

A change in school funding may help but won't solve the problem

Clearly, officials need to take steps to reduce student mobility in DC. One possibility now under discussion is to change the way schools receive compensation. Currently, charter schools receive a set amount for each student enrolled on October 5th. If they gain or lose students after that date, they neither take in or lose additional money.

A system that compensates charters more accurately for the number of students enrolled throughout the year might give them an incentive to retain students. But it wouldn't help reduce the far greater inflow of students to DCPS from other sources. And it's not clear charters would be willing to admit a larger share of the students who arrive midyear even if they got compensated for them, given the disruption such transfers can cause.

There may be policy changes that could reduce the amount of transferring within DCPS, but it's not clear officials can do anything about the movement across state, and even international, lines. It would help, however, if DC could at least share data about students and their movements with Maryland and Virginia.

That would allow schools here to determine the backgrounds and needs of students who enter from those states, and it would enable DC officials to understand what happens to the many students who transfer to those states' schools from DC. That kind of data sharing is a possibility that OSSE is currently exploring, according to the report.

As the report concludes, we need more information about the underlying causes of student movement from school to school before we can try to reduce it. But even once we identify them, those causes may be hard to address.

Some have suggested, for example, that a system of school choice is part of the problem, because it's led to a cavalier attitude about moving from one school to another. And given that students who transfer midyear are disproportionately at-risk and low-income, poverty and housing insecurity may also be driving a lot of the mobility.

So it's likely that student mobility will be a fact of life at many DCPS schools for the foreseeable future. It would make sense to develop specific programs to help integrate new students at schools that receive large numbers of midyear transfers, as Cardozo has done for immigrant students.

And when we're comparing one school's level of achievement to another's, we should take into account whether a school has been acquiring additional challenging, and possibly disruptive, students—or whether it's been losing them.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

What's behind the low standardized test scores in one high-priced DC neighborhood

Generally, housing prices in DC correlate with neighborhood school test scores. But Garrison Elementary in Logan Circle is a striking exception: it's a school with math and reading proficiency rates in the mid-20s in an area where the median sale price for a three-bedroom home last year was over a million dollars.


Photo of Garrison Elementary from DCPS website.

Garrison's principal, Collin Hill, says that he, like others, was a little surprised that prices within the school's boundaries were so high. But he also says his school's test scores don't tell the whole story, and that Garrison is on an upward trajectory.

In 2012, DC Public Schools announced it was planning to close Garrison, located at 1200 S Street NW, because of low enrollment. Built for 350 students, the school had only 228.

But parents at the school mounted a massive effort to convince DCPS to reverse its decision, promising to boost enrollment to 344 by 2016. As a result, DCPS not only agreed to keep the school open but also pledged to modernize the dilapidated building.

That pledge has yet to be fulfilled, as DC officials have repeatedly postponed the funding for Garrison's renovation. And while enrollment has increased, last year it was still only 244. For next year, DCPS has projected a figure of 260.

Test scores at the school have actually declined over the past several years. Proficiency rates in 2011-12 were 51% for math and 45% for reading. They dipped to 33% and 31%, respectively, in 2012-13. For 2013-14, they were 23% and 25%.

The connection between gentrification and test scores can be complex

Generally, of course, schools in affluent neighborhoods have high test scores. In areas where housing prices have long been high, that has a lot to do with the fact that schools enroll affluent kids, who tend to score better than low-income kids on standardized tests.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the reasons for the correlation between scores and housing prices can be more complex. Scores may rise as affluent families begin sending their kids to a low-performing neighborhood school, and those rising scores in turn attract more affluent families. Ideally, scores of low-income kids at the school also increase as the school improves.

Logan Circle, the neighborhood where Garrison is located, is a gentrification poster child. Longtime Washingtonians may remember it as a rough area they did their best to avoid 20 or 30 years ago. In the past few years, it's become a bustling downtown mecca where it can be impossible to snag a table at a restaurant—or a condo, if you don't have $900,000.

Of course, many of the people paying high prices for homes around Logan Circle aren't sending their kids to Garrison. They may not have school-age kids, or they may be in a position to afford a private school. Some may figure they'll luck out in the lottery for charter schools or DCPS schools in other neighborhoods.

Still, according to the DCPS website, 48% of Garrison's students live within the school's boundaries. For a DCPS school, that's a respectable figure. While some schools draw over 80% of their students from within their boundaries, even many with high test scores draw far fewer. John Eaton—a high-performing school in affluent Cleveland Park—has only 45% in-boundary students.

Multiple factors may explain low scores at Garrison

But the wealthier neighborhood families who send their kids to Garrison aren't generally sticking around long enough for their kids to have a positive effect on the school's test scores. As at many other schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, affluent residents have tended to send their kids there for preschool and kindergarten and then peel off for other schools. DCPS testing doesn't begin until 3rd grade, by which time classes are predominantly filled with lower-income kids.

The uncertainty about Garrison's future two years ago may have exacerbated that trend among families who could muster the resources to find another school.

Principal Hill also says that at a small school like his, a small number of weak students in a given year can pull average scores down significantly.

And scores may well improve in the future. Hill says he's been laying the groundwork for that kind of improvement, but it takes time to see results.

Hill took over the school in 2012, shortly before DCPS announced plans to close it, with a mandate to increase in-boundary enrollment. He set in motion a number of changes. For one thing, he says, the school's previous administration focused its efforts on the grades that were tested instead of building a strong foundation in basic skills in lower grades.

Hill has changed that approach, and he says it's paying off. All but two of last year's kindergarteners ended the year with reading skills at grade level, he says. And on measures of reading comprehension for students below 3rd grade, Garrison scored among the top ten schools in the district. That was true for both the lowest-performing kids and those who were just below where they should have been.

There's also been almost a complete turnover in teaching staff since Hill took over. While some of that was "natural turnover," Hill says, some of it has reflected improvements he wanted to make. And he's introduced a new math curriculum, a writing initiative that has seen good results at other DCPS schools, and a calmer school culture.

Test scores aren't everything

More fundamentally, Hill says test scores aren't the full measure of a school. If neighborhood residents come visit Garrison, he says, they'll find a "community where people feel welcomed and valued." He cites his own experience as a parent some years ago at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill.

"When our kids went to Maury," he says, "the test scores were not phenomenal. But when my wife walked in, she said it felt like a friendly, supportive place."

Clearly, that's what a number of neighborhood parents have experienced at Garrison and one reason they fought so hard to keep it open. One parent who had a negative reaction to Garrison's former principal had the opposite reaction to Hill.

"He's smart, engaged, well-spoken, and aware of the challenges he faces," she wrote in a post for Greater Greater Education two years ago.

Garrison may well get a respite from a focus on test scores for a while. Because DC gave students new, more rigorous tests this past school year, scores coming out this fall won't be comparable to those from past years. As a result, they may be de-emphasized—or perhaps even not made public.

That could help draw even more neighborhood families to Garrison, and possibly encourage them to stay longer. But Garrison, like most DCPS elementary schools, suffers from a feeder pattern problem: no matter how good the elementary school gets, families may not want to stick around and risk being funneled to a middle school and high school they lack confidence in.

Currently, the destination school for Garrison students is Cardozo Education Campus, which houses 6th through 12th grades. Formerly a low-performing high school with a rough reputation, Cardozo reopened two years ago after one of DCPS's typically stunning renovations. The new building also absorbed what had previously been a stand-alone middle school, Shaw at Garnet-Patterson.

It's not clear how many Garrison parents will be willing to send their 6th-graders on to Cardozo. The new school boundary plan that DC has adopted calls for reviving a separate Shaw middle school that would serve as the destination for Garrison students. There's no word, though, on when or if that school will actually be built.

But more and more residents of Logan Circle, like residents of Capitol Hill and other gentrifying areas, may well decide that a convenient, welcoming neighborhood elementary school that is on the upswing is worth something, even without the promise of a high-quality feeder pattern. Maybe even a million bucks.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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