Greater Greater Washington

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Violence against our neighbors is an urbanist issue

For several days now, the editors at GGW have struggled over what to say about the events leading up to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Such acts of violence are unconscionable. How does an online community like ours invite open, compassionate, productive discussion about it?


Photo by Jamelle Bouie on Flickr.

Last week, Ben Fried, editor-in-chief of Streetsblog, wrote thoughtfully on the threat of street violence. Ben wrote,

When the news came out yesterday that a Staten Island grand jury had failed to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, like many people I found the outcome difficult to comprehend. With clear video evidence showing that Pantaleo broke NYPD protocol and a coroner's report certifying that Garner's death was a homicide, this grand jury should have reached the conclusion that had eluded grand jurors in the Michael Brown case in St. Louis County: There should be a trial to determine if Pantaleo had committed a crime. But apparently that's not how our justice system works.

As the editor-in-chief of Streetsblog, I've been grappling with how and whether the site should cover these incidents of police violence. Do the killings fall within the Streetsblog beat? My first inclination was to say they do not. I don't believe there is something intrinsic to the streets of Staten Island or Ferguson to explain the deadly force that Pantaleo and Darren Wilson applied against unarmed black men. Wilson did initially stop Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson for jaywalking, but another pretense could have been concoctednone of the other high-profile police killings in recent months began with a jaywalking stop.

Nor is police harassment and aggression against black men limited to streets. John Crawford III was shot and killed in an Ohio Wal-Mart. Akai Gurley lost his life in the building where he lived. It is an "everywhere" problem, not just a "streets" problem.

Nevertheless, for people of color, the mere act of going out on the street carries the disproportionate risk that an encounter with police will escalate into a fatal situationor, on a more routine basis, the threat of a random police stop turning into an arrest that can have profound life consequences. As Adonia Lugo wrote for the League of American Bicyclists last week, these considerations affect how people use streets and public spaces, including their choice of how to get around.

I'm white; I don't know what it's like to carry this apprehension with me whenever I'm out walking or riding my bike. So I would like to do something a little different with this post and invite people of color who read Streetsblog (or who just came across this post floating on the internet) to share your thoughts. What effect does the threat of police violence have on how you experience and use streets and public spaces?

Our thanks to Ben for speaking up, even without being sure of the right words. We want Greater Greater Washington to be a community that helps its participants learn and grow about urbanist issues.

Whether it takes us out of our comfort bubble or not, this is an issue that impacts our community. How has it impacted you, and how can we talk about it productively and empathetically?

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Chevy Chase grasps at straws in the Purple Line fight

The Town of Chevy Chase has run out of coherent arguments in its fight to keep the Purple Line away from its borders.


The Purple Line in Maryland. Rendering by MTA.

With a Republican administration arriving in Annapolis, endangered shrimp-like creatures are no longer in fashion. So in a series of blog posts this week, former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin focuses instead on the project's finances. He makes two main points in his criticism of the Maryland Transit Administration's plans for the Purple Line: that the state will turn to private partners to help fund it, and that the state expects it to carry more passengers than other light rail lines around the country.

But these are strengths, not weaknesses.

Lublin's claim that the project is weak because it uses a public-private partnership (P3) has things backwards. The project's merit is why the state chose it as the vehicle for P3 funding. Maryland could afford to build the Purple Line with current revenues, but it needs money for other transportation projects.

The total of the road and transit projects around the state is more than what the state can finance within its debt limit. Under Maryland law, P3 financing doesn't count against the limit because it is not paid back out of taxes. (In this case, fare revenue will repay the investors.) The state selected the Purple Line as a vehicle for P3 financing rather than some other facility because it judged that it would be unusually attractive to private investors. This judgment has proved correct, demonstrating the project's financial soundness.

Compared to other transportation projects, the Purple Line is the best investment Maryland can make

Maryland faces serious budget pressures, but that does not mean it can or should stop building transportation infrastructure. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend $7.2 billion on capital projects through the State Highway Administration, and $6.2 billion on transit through MTA and WMATA.

The state relies heavily on county governments to prioritize transportation investments. In 2013, following the increase in the gas tax, MDOT announced funds for replacing the Nice Bridge, a project that will cost $1 billion to serve an estimated 37,000 cars per day, because that's what Calvert Charles County prioritized. MDOT also funded design for the Thomas Johnson Bridge, estimated to cost over $800 million, because that's what Calvert and St. Mary's Counties wanted.

In Montgomery and Prince George's alone, there are dozens of road widening and interchange projects in the pipeline that collectively cost billions. In Montgomery, there are at least eight interchanges, including the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road interchange ($142 million), the US-29/Fairland Road interchange ($148 million), a new interchange at I-270/Newcut Road ($138 million), and four more interchanges on US-29 that will cost an additional $500 million. In Prince George's, officials have plans for an interchange at MD-4/Suitland Parkway for $150 million, and for seven interchanges on Indian Head Highway totaling $606 million.

Ten interchanges cost as much as the state's share of the Purple Line. Which of these will create more access to jobs and stimulate more economic development? Prince George's and Montgomery know the answer, and for many years their leaders have identified the Purple Line as their transportation priority.

Lublin claims the Purple Line's projected ridership is inflated, but that's not true

Lublin's second claim is that Purple Line proponents have overestimated its ridership. For this argument, he relies on a blog post by the well-known light rail critic Randal O'Toole, who asserts the Maryland line won't carry any more riders than others around the country.

O'Toole doesn't look at the specifics of the state's ridership forecastwhich, as I showed recently, is probably too low rather than too highbut instead relies on general observations about the route. These range from very dubious ("no major job centers" in Montgomery County) to irrelevant (the average density of the built-up sections of the county, including Germantown and Olney) to just plain false (he says many University of Maryland classrooms are not within walking distance of a future station).

Even worse, O'Toole gets the numbers completely wrong. He says the final Environmental Impact Statement forecasts 46,000 riders a day in 2030; actually, it says there will be 69,300 in 2030 and 74,160 in 2040. Similarly, he misquotes the draft EIS36,000 rather than around 65,000 (the route the state later chose is a hybrid of alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100).

Based on O'Toole's analysis, Lublin infers that fare revenues will fall short of estimates. He then throws in a complete red herring, asserting that Baltimore bus fares will pay to run the Purple Line. It would have the same degree of truth, and be just as misleading, to say that car registration fees paid in Garrett County finance the free courtesy van at Martin Airport east of Baltimore. Maryland collects revenue from air, water, and ground transportation throughout the state into a single trust fund. All regions contribute, and all benefit.

David Lublin is not a stupid person, and he is familiar with the Purple Line ridership forecasts. While he served on its council, Chevy Chase paid consultants a lot of money to critique the state's numbers. If the arguments in his recent blog posts are the best he's got, that speaks volumes about the weakness of the case against the Purple Line.

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The DC Council's education committee may disappear after Catania's departure

Does the DC Council need an education committee? That question has come up for debate as the committee's chair, former mayoral candidate David Catania, prepares to step off the council.


Photo from office of David Catania.

The famously aggressive, apparently indefatigable Catania made the education committee a force to be reckoned with during the two years he was at its helm. Some applauded his efforts to light a fire under DC's education officials, while others complained he was micromanaging the schools, and even that he was a bully.

Now some have suggested that DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson is thinking of abolishing the committee. Education activists are urging him to keep it and appoint a new chair, arguing that education issues will languish without it. Mendelson has said he doesn't know what he's going to do and is talking about the issue with other councilmembers.

The council had an education committee until 2006, when Vincent Gray, then the incoming council chair, abolished it. Gray argued that having education matters come before the full council would allow all members to participate. But it also gave Gray himself more influence over a hot political issue that could serve as a springboard to the mayor's office.

Shortly after voters elected Mendelson council chair in late 2012, he decided to revive the education committee and make Catania its chair. At the time, Mendelson said those moves would be "very good in intensifying our work in public education."

So why is Mendelson now thinking about doing away with the committee? Unlike Gray, he doesn't seem to have mayoral ambitions, and he hasn't demonstrated a keen interest in education, so it's unlikely that he wants to claim the limelight for himself. Perhaps he feels the committee's work actually became too intense.

Catania as committee chair

Catania got a lot done: among other things, he visited 150 schools, helped procure funds for school renovations, proposed a tuition-assistance program for graduates of DC high schools, revived the moribund office of school ombudsman, and introduced a sweeping package of seven bills that he drafted with the help of a law firm.

Not all of those bills passed, but Catania had notable achievements with legislation that increased funding for at-risk students and overhauled the special education system.

On the other hand, some of his proposals duplicated initiatives that the Gray administration was already working on, and others seemed to be at cross purposes with them.

And in his rush to shake things up with his bills, it sometimes appeared that Catania hadn't thought through their implications. For example, his proposed DC Promise college scholarship program threatened to jeopardize an existing federal scholarship program for DC students.

Aside from the sheer volume of things Catania did, his manner was a problem. While his supporters praised his aggressive style, it didn't always make for smooth relations with the many other cooks in DC's education kitchen.

He and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson began their relationship cordially enough, but it soon became tense. When he questioned her at committee hearings, he sometimes sounded like a litigator cross-examining a hostile witness.

The case for keeping the education committee

Does that mean there shouldn't be an education committee? It's arguable that DC has enough entities overseeing its education system. In addition to DCPS and the Public Charter School Board, there's the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the State Board of Education. So maybe we don't need yet another governing body.

But when the DC Council appropriates funds, it clearly needs to ensure that government agencies spend them responsibly. Education spending is a significant part of the DC budget, so it makes sense that a separate committee should exist to monitor it.

And, with one exception, all of DC's education-related government bodies have members or leaders who the mayor appoints or nominates. The exception is the elected State Board of Education, but its role is only advisory. So the council's education committee is the one DC entity that can serve both as an independent watchdog and a meaningful conduit for public frustration with the state of the District's schools.

Of course, before the schools went under mayoral control in 2007, the local school board served those functionsand the schools failed to improve. Some argue that the whole point of mayoral control was to streamline decision making and centralize accountability. If you have two sources of control, they say, it's not clear who to blame or credit.

That argument may have force in other cities, but DC is an anomaly. Here, there's no state government to oversee the mayor's management of the schools, and a mayoral election once every four years may not be enough to ensure accountability.

Plus, findings in a recent study showed that many DC residents feel mayoral control has reduced the public's voice in education. True, the old school board may have given the public too much of a voice, politicizing questions that should have been left to policymakers and experts and blocking needed reforms. But in the long run, reforms are more likely to work if they have public support and don't just come from the top down.

Some have warned that the council's education committee has been on track to replicate the worst aspects of the old school board. But that doesn't have to be the case. A new, less confrontational but still energetic committee chair could change the dynamic and forge a productive partnership with mayor-elect Muriel Bowser's administration, while at the same time providing a check on unfettered mayoral control.

It looks as though the likely replacement for Catania, should the committee remain in existence, will be Councilmember David Grosso. He's demonstrated an interest in education and a sense of urgency about reform, but he doesn't seem to have Catania's acidic edge. He might be just what DC's complicated and increasingly polarized education landscape needs right now.

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Events roundup: Post-holiday fun

After a short holiday break, we are jumping right back into a busy week of fun-filled events. Learn about Buzzard Point, Montgomery County rapid transit, and President Obama's transportation funding strategy. See new apps and tools using Capital Bikeshare data, and learn how smart growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand in Virginia.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The future of Buzzard Point: This section of DC has started to change with the nearby baseball stadium and will change far more if a soccer stadium comes to the area. GGW contributor David Garber is moderating a panel discussion about Buzzard Point development Tuesday, December 2, 6:30 pm at 101 M Street SW.

Obama's transportation strategy: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, wil discuss the Obama administration's transportation funding strategy at a talk on Tuesday, December 2. It's at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 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.

Capital Bikeshare technology: Coders around the region have continued to build useful and fun apps and visualizations using Capital Bikeshare data. The third CaBi hack night is coming up on Thursday, December 4. People will show off their creations at the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory, 641 S Street NW starting at 6 pm.

Montgomery County rapid transit: If buses are more your flavor, then spend your Thursday night learning about the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line for Montgomery County. The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit will host an informational open house at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 7:30-8:30 pm, where you can get up to speed on the proposal for 10 major BRT routes to connect several communities in the County.

Greener smart growth: Interested in saving the environment while supporting smart growth? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the MVCCA Environment and Recreation Committee to consider how smart growth can help support restoring the watershed around Route 1 in Fairfax County. Ecologist Danielle Wynne with Fairfax County will discuss the current restoration plans for the watershed and how we can balance growth and the future health of the environment. The event is on December 3 at the Mt. Vernon Government Center, 2511 Parkers Lane, from 7:15 to 8:30 pm.

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

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Low-income DC students get a helping hand to make it to college graduation

It's tough for low-income minority students to make it through college, especially if they're first-generation college-goers. But thanks to the efforts of one DC nonprofit and several charter schools, students from the District may have a better chance than most.


Photo of graduation cap from Shutterstock.

More and more DC students are taking the SAT and applying to college, but how many are actually graduating?

Because it often takes low-income students more than four years to get a BA, the six-year rate has become the standard for measuring college completion for that group. DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education has only recently begun to track college graduation rates and won't have the six-year figure available until next spring.

But the DC College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit that offers college support to all DC public school students, says the six-year graduation rate for the students it serves, most of whom are low-income and minority, is 44%.

While that may sound low, it's far better than the 11% national average for low-income first-generation (LIFG) college students, a category that includes many alumni of DC high schools. Overall, the average six-year completion rate at four-year colleges is 59%.

LIFG students can encounter any number of obstacles on the way to a degree. Even those who excelled at their high schools may feel lost academically. Socially, they may feel out of place, especially at elite institutions. And, even more than other students, they may not have a clear idea of the connection between college courses and what they want to do in the future.

The biggest problem, though, is usually financial. Even after cobbling together scholarships and loans, students may find themselves forced to choose between attending class and showing up for jobs that make it possible for them to stay enrolled.

Often, what should be a minor setback ends up derailing a college career. Students may not want to ask for help or may not know who to ask.

But if you're a low-income college student from DC, you have a better than usual chance that someone from home is trying to make sure you stay on track to graduate.

DC-CAP supports students after high school graduation

For many, that person is an adviser from DC-CAP. A group of DC business leaders started the privately funded organization 15 years ago to fill a void in college advising services in DC Public School high schools. Seven Six years ago it began serving charter schools as well. DC-CAP says the college enrollment rate in DC is now about 60% , double what it was when the organization started.

During that same time, the college completion rate has tripled. DC-CAP's college retention advisers, building on relationships that start in 9th grade, keep track of students across the country through email, social media, and phone calls. On campuses that have a lot of DC-CAP students, the organization asks upperclassmen to act as peer mentors and liaisons.

DC-CAP also works with students' families on financial planning and gets regular reports directly from colleges so its advisers can monitor students' progress and intervene when necessary. Also, advisers can check on students during emergencies, as one recently did with students in upstate New York during a massive snowstorm.

Charter schools visit freshmen

But some DC charter high schools that send many low-income students to college go even further. Three schoolsThurgood Marshall Academy, KIPP DC, and SEEDnot only stay in touch remotely but also try to visit all students during their freshman year.

"The visit makes a huge difference," says Tevera Stith, director of the KIPP Through College program, which serves both alumni of KIPP DC's own high school and those who go on to other schools after attending a KIPP middle school. "For some of these kids, they won't have a family member who will visit them."

DC-CAP, which has only four advisers for 7,000 students at 500 colleges, doesn't have the capacity to make those kinds of visits. The charter schools support only a few hundred alumni at any given time.

Of the three charters, Thurgood Marshall has the highest six-year graduation rate, 65%. KIPP DC hasn't yet had a cohort of alumni reach the six-year mark, but Stith says she thinks the rate will be about 45%.

SEED says that 33% of its students who graduated from high school at least five years ago have earned a BA, while another 10% have earned an associate's degree or are currently in college.

Finding the right match

But when a student goes to a college that SEED has identified as having stronger supports for low-income students, the completion rate rises to 54%. Staffers at DC-CAP and the three charter schools all keep lists of institutions where their students have done well, and they emphasize the importance of finding the right fit for each student whether it's an Ivy League university or a community college.

"We have institutions that will take students with less than a 2.0 GPA and be really committed to serving those students and making sure they're retained and graduate," says Tosha Lewis, Vice-President of Retention and Data Management for DC-CAP.

A good college match can help students avoid academic and social difficulties. And the college support staff in DC do their best to connect students with financial aid, sometimes providing funds to cover small but essential expenses. DC-CAP provides students with up to $2,070 a year for five years and has disbursed a total of about $31 28 million since its founding.

Any DC student can also take advantage of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program (DC TAG), which provides up to $10,000 in tuition assistance at public four-year colleges across the country to help make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates. In addition, DC TAG provides up to $2,500 per year towards tuition at private colleges in the DC area, private historically black colleges, and two-year colleges nationwide.

OSSE will provide data on graduation rates and remedial classes

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers DC TAG, is also beginning to focus on college support and retention, according to Dr. Antoinette Mitchell, the assistant superintendent for adult and career education.

OSSE plans to publish a list of colleges where DC students have done well, Mitchell said. And beginning next school year, information about college enrollment and four- and six-year graduation rates for every DC high school will be available on OSSE's LearnDC website, along with information about how many students take the SAT and ACT and the average scores.

OSSE is also planning to begin tracking the number of DC students who need remedial classes when they get to college. While it's clear that many DC high school graduates fall into that category, a hard figure isn't currently available. And it's an important figure to have: generally, only 35% of college students who take remedial classes graduate within six years.

It's unrealistic to expect all of DC's high schools to ensure that the college careers of their low-income graduates will be entirely smooth, and support from the colleges themselves or non-profits like DC-CAP will continue to be vital in helping students cope with financial and social challenges. But it shouldn't be unrealistic to expect that, in the not too distant future, every DC high school will give its college-going graduates the academic skills they need to handle college-level work. After all, that's what high schools are supposed to do.

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