Greater Greater Washington

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The Dutch government is trolling DC over marijuana, bike lanes, and streetcars

As marijuana legalization took effect in the District of Columbia, Mayor Muriel Bowser said DC would "not become like Amsterdam." We talked about the differences yesterday, including on bicycling and transit, but the Embassy of the Netherlands has playfully responded with this infographic comparing our two capital cities.


Image from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Really.

The embassy also created a Q&A comparing marijuana laws in the two cities. But bicycling and transit supporters might focus more on the bike lane and streetcar disparities. That "(almost)" hurts. Low blow, Netherlands.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

How two families dealt with Metro problems and other transportation options in the snow

There was track work on the Red Line last weekend, and as it turned out, a smoke incident as well. Both Mitch Wander and David Alpert were riding the Red Line, and the experiences yielded plenty of examples of the bad and the good of Metro and other transportation choices.


A family (not Mitch's or David's) in the snow. Photo by Amber Wilkie on Flickr.

Mitch says, "My son and I considered car2go or Uber for an early morning trip from Glover Park to Catholic University. Uber had surge pricing in effect, likely because there were few cars on the road, but there were two nearby cars2go. We walked to the first only to find it parked on a patch of ice and on a hill. But the second one fit the bill."

Meanwhile, David and his daughter were going to Tenleytown. He says, "We've mostly given up on using Metro on weekends when there's track work (and often, sadly, even when there's not). But we didn't want to drive back in a major snowstorm, so we tried the Red Line even though the Metro website said service was only running every 20 minutes.

"We just missed a train to Shady Grove by a few seconds, but fortunately, though the website didn't mention this, there were some extra trains just from Dupont to Shady Grove (and from Judiciary Square to Glenmont), one of which pulled in shortly after."

The snowstorm begins

By the time both families were coming back, the snow was coming down heavily.

There were nearly two inches of snow on the ground when Mitch and his son left Catholic University just before noon. He says, "I overruled my son's suggestion to use car2go again. Instead, we decided to take Metro to Tenleytown and either take Metrobus or get a ride from my wife home.

"We walked to the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The first train arrived but the conductor announced that the train would go out of service at Judiciary Square without explaining why. We waited for the next train which continued downtown.

"At Dupont Circle, the train stopped with doors open for several minutes. There were still no announcements, but Twitter showed photos of smoke at the Woodley Park station."

"My son and I left, as did a few other passengers I informed about the problem. People by the bus stop said that the D2 had not been running for 45 minutes, so after trying to walk a few blocks, we decided to use Uber despite the 1.7x surge pricing. A car arrived within 10 minutes."

Another Metro delay compounds problems

David and his daughter left a little later, at 12:30. It was difficult to even push a stroller two blocks up a small hill to the Metro along sidewalks with fresh snow. This was not a time to be driving.

"Another 'special' train pulled in right as they got to the platform, which I knew wouldn't go through downtown, but he initially assumed it would reach Dupont before turning. However, it instead went out of service at Woodley Park. The conductor also did not explain why; I guessed that perhaps the train was going to wait in the pocket track before going to Dupont, though it also could have related to the smoke which I didn't yet know about.

"The conductor announced that another train was 20 minutes behind, and the signs confirmed this. This seemed odd since the wait between through trains was supposed to be 20 minutes, and the special was surely in between. Nonetheless, we settled in for a wait. Since mobile phone service works in Woodley Park, they were able to play music and watch videos.

"However, 20 minutes later, there was no train,though multiple trains had passed outbound. The top 'Glenmont' line on the digital displays showed a blank space instead of a time estimate. Eventually, the station manager announced that there was a disabled train at Friendship Heights.


Photo by David Alpert.

"I considered bailing on Metro, but my daughter is too small to ride in a car2go or an Uber without a carseat. There were no Uber vehicles with carseats available at all, according to the app, even at a surge rate.

"The platform had grown quite crowded at this point. Fortunately, Metro sent an empty special train in the opposite direction to pick up waiting passengers (even though, as Twitter showed, having a train pass by without picking them up annoyed some people waiting at Dupont Circle).

"An employee arrived on the platform and told people that a train would come within 15 minutes. And it did. The total trip ended up taking about an hour."

What can we learn from this story? There are a few conclusions we can draw:

Travelers have so many options, which is terrific. Mitch and his son used three modes of transportation (car2go, Metroail, and Uber) and considered two others (Metrobus and private car). He says, "I think my son takes for granted that we can seamlessly jump from one transportation option to another." If one mode is struggling, as Metrorail did, many people can opt to switch.

Modern technology is extremely helpful to compare options. It wouldn't have been possible to find out about the smoke so quickly or evaluate as many choices without today's smartphones, apps, and social media. We didn't have these options or this timely, decentralized information even just a few years ago, and it's transformed mobility.

Metro still can do far, far more to communicate about outages. Neither Mitch nor David knew about the short-turning special trains before riding one, and the website didn't talk about them. Some train announcements are hard to understand because of bad equipment and/or train operators who mumble through their explanations.

The following day, David and his daughter rode the Metro again, and when arriving at Dupont on a special train which was turning around, he overheard a rider saying, "I don't understand how this system works." People get confused and frustrated during planned or unplanned disruptions. Communication wouldn't stop all frustration, but could stop the confusion and reduce anger.

We're still lucky to have Metro even despite all its problems (which are many). Even though it took an hour to get from Tenleytown to Dupont Circle, that was better than trying to drive. Buses were not running. Walking was out of the question. Underground trains had a lot of problems, but they still worked. Maybe that's not much to be happy about, but people in most cities and even most parts of our region don't even have that.

Cities worldwide are building beautiful, landmark pedestrian and bicycle bridges. Could Georgetown be next?

A new bicycle and pedestrian bridge may one day connect Georgetown with Roosevelt Island. Some recent bridges like this in other cities have become iconic landmarks. Could DC do the same and compensate for its freqently lackluster bridge designs? Here are a few of the world's great pedestrian bridges.


London's Millennium Bridge. Photo by Dominik Morbitzer on Flickr.

Such a bridge was part of Georgetown's recent 15-year action plan and made it into DC's MoveDC citywide transportation plan last year.


Where the bridge could go. Image from the Georgetown BID.

Many cities have built new bridges as opportunities to showcase distinctive design while adding vital pedestrian links. The London Borough of Wandsworth is sponsoring a design competition right now for a new footbridge across the Thames.

Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the glass-floored Sundial Bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California.


The Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. Photo by David W Oliver on Flickr.


Photo by dwhartwig on Flickr.

London's Millennium Bridge opened in 2000 to bridge the Thames between the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. The bridge is tall enough to allow river navigation, but short enough not to obstruct the historically protected view corridor of the cathedral.


Photo by Duen Ee Chan on Flickr.


Photo by andre.m(eye)r.vitali on Flickr.

The Simone de Beauvoir Footbridge has been undulating across the Seine in Paris since 2006.


Photo by Tim Brown Architecture on Flickr.


Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr.

The crescent Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, tilts back to allow ships to pass.


Photo by Ian Britton on Flickr.


Photo by Martin Sotirov on Flickr.

The Henderson Waves bridge soars 120 feet over a valley in the Southern Ridges park of Singapore. The bridge deck provides shade and seating areas to view the park valley.


Photo by edwin.11 on Flickr.


Photo by Steel Wool on Flickr.

Although it spans a relatively short distance, Sarajevo's Festina Lente Bridge features a playful loop that shades a seating area midway across the bridge.


Photo by the author.

Could one of these bridges come to DC?

Such a connection would provide many advantages. Although the island is inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, visitors can only access it from Virginia. Visiting the island requires a half-mile walk or bike ride from Rosslyn down the Mount Vernon Trail. There's a small parking lot on the Virginia shore, but it fills up quickly on warm weekends, and drivers can only reach it from the northbound GW Parkway.

A bridge from Georgetown would give District residents and visitors easier access to this wooded and marshy parkland, which serves as a stark contrast to the dense urbanization of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.


The view from Georgetown Waterfront Park. Image by the author.


Georgetown Waterfront Park (left) and Roosevelt Island (right) as viewed from the Key Bridge. Image by the author.

There isn't money for the bridge today. MoveDC lists the bridge as a second-tier priority, meaning it is not within DC's six-year capital plan. DDOT planner Colleen Hawkinson said external factors, such as outside funding or public support, could shift the bridge's priority.

Even if funding arises, multiple federal agencies will have to act. The National Park Service controls the island and would have to agree to any changes. MoveDC classifies the bridge as a bicycle transportation project, but the National Park Service, which controls the island, prohibits cycling there. The National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, which are providing advice on the Frederick Douglass Bridge replacement, would play a strong role in reviewing designs.

Any project will require an environmental analysis which could take years (one for a proposed boathouse on Park Service land on the Arlington shore of the Potomac is dragging on into its third year, for example). If the bridge does come to fruition, it will be years away, but it would be a major asset to help people enjoy and appreciate the Potomac River.

Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!


Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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.

How should Montgomery County fund and build Bus Rapid Transit?

Montgomery County needs to find a funding stream in order to make its Bus Rapid Transit happen, and county executive Ike Leggett is exploring the possibilities. One of them is an independent transit authority, and while that may still work, the county needs to both vet it more thoroughly and weigh other options.


Photo by Oregon Department of... on Flickr.

In late January, Leggett rolled out his initial vision for how to develop, operate, and finance BRT via a new independent transit authority that could raise additional property tax revenue. Opposition led him to withdraw that initial proposal last week, citing a need for a more in-depth community review.

The first step in the process would have been to pass state legislation to enable Montgomery County to create such an organization. An array of voices turned out to a hearing in Rockville on January 30th to testify in favor of the legislation and to support the BRT network, from the Sierra Club to the African Immigrant Caucus.

The Bus Rapid Transit plan is popular with Montgomery County residents—a survey of 400 residents in early 2014 found 71% of residents support BRT. They see BRT as a way to revitalize aging commercial corridors, make the area safer for people walking and on bikes, ease traffic congestion, and decrease air pollution.


Map of Montgomery's BRT plan by Communities for Transit

But while the network has garnered widespread support, many union members and civic association leaders have voiced opposition to the independent transit authority legislation. Their concerns range from the proposed tax to questions about labor rights to how quickly the bill had been rolled out.

While some opponents are people who have been against BRT from the start, concerns from residents and councilmembers prompted Leggett to withdraw the bill and bring stakeholders together to discuss other options for funding by June.

Where should the money come from?

Montgomery County already dedicates a portion of its property taxes to the RideOn bus system, but it's not enough to pay for both RideOn and BRT. Leggett proposes giving the county council authority to set and approve a higher property tax rate that would be enough to would cover both.

An independent transit authority with a dedicated revenue stream is a promising idea that deserves consideration. Similar structures have worked well, primarily at regional scales, to provide laser-focus to build and finance new transit systems such as a streetcar in Pima County, AZ. Local funding and oversight for BRT may be more important than ever given the new Governor's expressed interest in cutting transit investment.

One reason transit advocates supported the transit authority proposal was that it included the possibility for the county to do its own planning studies; currently, the State Highway Administration is in charge. Right now, it's hard for Montgomery County to manage timelines, costs, and system designs, a problem that last year led to a mishandled planning study on Georgia Avenue. A local agency wouldn't totally eliminate the risk of bad design or lagging timelines, but local control over the coming BRT system will be essential to making it great.

County Council staff have recommended considering other options that the county allows for raising revenues, including special taxing districts and differential tax rates on commercial and residential properties. Councilmembers have said they prefer splitting the cost between all residents as well as commercial property owners within the BRT corridors that stand to benefit.

Before raising additional revenue, elected officials should also look to reprogram the existing transportation budget. Even though driving in the county has been declining for over 10 years, costs of road expansion projects total over $180 million in the county's capital budget and over $1 billion on its wish list for state transportation funds. If BRT is the county's top priority after the Purple Line, it should reconsider these costly investments.

To move forward, the county can use a public engagement process to help residents understand the costs and benefits of a potential funding system for BRT. Montgomery's transit plans are forward-thinking and its residents need and want better transit. Now, officials need to put forth a clear vision to finance and build BRT, in partnership with the community.

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.

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