The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Jessica Christy

Jessica Christy has two children learning Chinese at Washington Yu Ying, where she is also the president of the Parent Association. For work, she does industrial hygiene consulting and stays at home with her two-year-old. In her free time (ha!), Jessica enjoys needlepoint and DIY home improvement. All opinions stated here are her own. 


Schools combine to extend language immersion

Thanks to a unique collaboration, students from some of DC's most popular charter schools will join together to continue their Chinese, Spanish, or French immersion instruction through high school. Next fall, students from the 5 feeder schools will become part of the inaugural 6th- and 7th-grade classes at DC International School (DCI).

Photo by wu.peng on Flickr.

For the first year the school will operate with 200 students in a temporary location that is yet to be determined. In the fall of 2015, DCI plans to open at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Ward 4 with 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Eventually the school will expand to 12th grade with 1,000 to 1,200 students and will graduate its first class in 2020.

The agreement between the feeder schools offers students a path to further their language development while attending a middle and high school that offers a wide choice of courses and activities, something none of the charter schools would likely be able to afford to do on their own.

The feeder schools are Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), Mundo Verde, DC Bilingual, Elsie Whitlow Stokes, and Washington Yu Ying. Enrollment will also be open to students not currently attending those schools.

For the 5 schools, the collaboration came naturally. In addition to language immersion, all employ similar flavors of inquiry-based curriculums. Yu Ying follows the International Baccalaureate framework, while the other schools use inquiry-based learning, Expeditionary, or Montessori instruction. DCI will follow the IB curriculum framework with a focus on internationalism, inquiry, environmental stewardship, and social justice.

Schools too small to offer rich secondary experience

Yu Ying, where two of my children are enrolled, opened in the fall of 2008 as a Mandarin immersion school with pre-k, kindergarten, and 1st grades. The school planned to add one grade per year through 8th grade. But in 2011, it became clear to then-Executive Director Mary Shaffner that the size of the school would eventually limit options for students in the upper grades.

"We believed that our school was too small to provide a rich middle school experience," said Shaffner, now DCI's chief operating officer.

Shaffner found that many other charter leaders shared her frustration. This led her and administrators from Mundo Verde, LAMB, and Stokes to think about creating a combined middle/high school that would allow students who have been enrolled in immersion programs for as many as six years to continue their language instruction. DC Bilingual joined the team a few months later.

DCI aims to create an inclusive environment through choice. Everyone who graduates will receive a DC high school diploma, but beyond that, students will be able to pursue a range of options. Students will be able to choose to take selected IB courses or earn the IB diploma. They can also earn the IB diploma in their target language. Students who may not be planning to attend college will be able to obtain a career certificate in a particular field of study.

Students at DCI will technically remain enrolled at the feeder schools they came from. The school also plans to admit some students who come from other schools every year, depending on available space, through 9th grade. Due to the rigorous nature of the IB program, DCI will not accept new students after 9th grade.

The plan is to offer science, fine arts, PE, language instruction, and humanities in some or all of the target languages. Students admitted in later grades, who will have varying levels of language mastery, will be able to receive language instruction before taking other classes in their target language.

Benefits of language immersion

Studies have shown that language immersion, when done right, can benefit students cognitively while not negatively affecting scholastic performance in the non-immersion language. Two critical aspects of successful programs, which are in place at Yu Ying, are parallel curriculums in both languages and plenty of support in the non-immersion language.

DCI is already working on architectural and construction plans for the Walter Reed location. The medical center was closed in 2005 as part of a broader closure of military bases and the property is expected to be transferred to the District any day.

The school's permanent home will include 130,000 square feet in Delano Hall, which was built in 1933 as a nurse's dormitory and later converted to office space. DCI will be just one part of an extensive reuse plan for the 67-acre site.

The DC government recently chose a team of master developers, Hines and Urban Atlantic. That clears the way for DCI to solidify a schedule for its construction.

Architect rendering of DCI. Photo from DCI.

Considerable renovations will be needed to turn the space into a school, but DCI's architect, Perkins Eastman, is well equipped for the job. Recently, the firm designed the Concordia International School in Shanghai, shown below.

Photo by Tim Griffith.

DC residents can also view the firm's handiwork at the recently renovated Washington Latin School. Among other features, DCI will have a gym/auditorium, student commons, and a soccer field.

I grew up in a city where students attended their neighborhood schools almost without exception, because every school provided a similar high-quality learning experience. When I moved to DC in 2006, navigating the school system was a bit overwhelming. I appreciate the quality education my oldest has already received at Yu Ying, and knowing that my children will be able to attend DCI provides added peace of mind.

DCI is hosting an information session at Yu Ying (220 Taylor St., NE) on December 10th at 6:30pm. DCI is not participating in the common lottery this year. Those interested can apply through this link.


New superintendent of education is not new to DC

Last week the Mayor appointed Jesús Aguirre, the current director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, to the position of state superintendent of education. Aguirre does have a background in education, but will it be enough to positively affect education policy in the district?

Photo from DC DPR website.

Aguirre has worked as a science teacher in Los Angeles, a charter school operator in Arizona, and most recently as the Director of School Operations for DCPS.

Like many others in DC's school reform movement, Aguirre began his educational career as a member of Teach for America. In 1995, Aguirre and his wife, Monica Liang-Aguirre, founded and began operating Tertulia Pre-College Community, one of the first charter schools in Phoenix, AZ. (Liang-Aguirre now serves as the principal of Oyster Adams Elementary School in Ward 3.)

The school served low-income, largely Hispanic students at two campuses: an elementary school serving kindergarten through 5th grade, and a middle school serving 6th through 8th grades.

In 2006, Aguirre and his wife relocated to the East Coast for personal reasons. "Although we were still technically on the board of directors and the charter holders," Aguirre said in an email, "we regrettably were not involved in the day-to-day management of the school and were not able to truly support the school's new leader."

Testing data for the school is available going back to 2007. The schools struggled, and test scores apparently fluctuated wildly after 2009. When the school's 15-year charter expired in 2010, the Arizona charter school board declined to renew it, citing poor academic progress, failure to timely submit financial audits, and failure to comply with monitoring and reporting requirements for federal money. At the time, Aguirre was president of the board of the school, which closed in 2011.

Reasons for the school's decline

Aguirre attributes the school's decline to a number of factors. In addition to his move to the East Coast, he cites an increasingly hostile environment towards bilingual education, which, he says, "deprived our students of much-needed language support." He also says that antipathy towards immigrants in Phoenix led many of the school's families to return to Mexico, causing a drop in enrollment that led to financial instability.

While Tertulia was sometimes late in submitting state-required audits and reports during Aguirre's tenure there, he says that the audits were always clean, and the school was in compliance with all state and federal requirements.

Aguirre also notes that, although the school struggled to meet the progress deadlines set by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, it was often "labeled as performing or higher" by the state while he was there. He points to the hundreds of students who he says were successfully educated at the school.

From 2007 until 2009, Aguirre served as the Director of School Operations for DCPS under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He was tasked with ensuring that day-to-day school functions ran smoothly, and he says his experience running a charter school impressed upon him the importance of freeing principals from such concerns so that they can focus on instruction.

In 2009, Aguirre was tapped to run the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. His appointment as state superintendent of education last week came after what Mayor Vincent Gray described as a nationwide search. His nomination now moves to the DC Council for approval. It's not clear when the Council will vote, but Gray has said Aguirre will assume the position on October 1st.

Role of the state superintendent of education

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) plays the same role in DC that a department of education does in a state. The state superintendent of education reports directly to the mayor and is tasked with ensuring DC residents have access to a quality education. This means that the superintendent:

  • Obtains federal funds and grants
  • Certifies educators
  • Selects, administers, and ensures the integrity of standardized tests
  • Drives educational research, and
  • Proposes educational reform ideas
If recent history is any indication, ensuring testing integrity will be an important and highly visible part of the next superintendent's job. Cheating scandals going back to 2008 have caused controversy and thrown the validity of some test results into doubt.

OSSE is not the only agency with authority over education policy in the district. The Deputy Mayor of Education, Abigail Smith (who also served under Rhee), is tasked with overseeing a District-wide education strategy, managing interagency coordination, and providing oversight and support for all education-related agencies. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson oversees the traditional public school system, and the Public Charter School Board has jurisdiction over the growing charter sector. OSSE's oversight responsibilities straddle both sectors, as well as that of adult education.

Some have urged that the state superintendent should have more independence from the mayor. One of the education bills that Councilmember David Catania has introduced would achieve that result by making the superintendent dismissible only for cause and only after a vote by the Board of Education.

Both the Post and Examiner have reported on Aguirre's appointment, with the Examiner's Mark Lerner calling him an "extremely professional and reasonable individual." Neither article mentions the fate of Aguirre's former charter school.

Given Aguirre's background, it's difficult to predict how his tenure as DC's superintendent will turn out. He does have experience running a charter school as well as overseeing DCPS school operations, which he claims will give him a "unique perspective" as state superintendent. But without more documentation about the charter school's history and the circumstances surrounding its closure, it's not clear whether that experience will serve him well.

The school may have performed adequately while he was operating it, but as a board member and president he still bears some responsibility for its subsequent difficulties. On the other hand, he must have come away from that experience having learned a significant amount about what charters need to succeed.

Even assuming that's the case, OSSE's problems are larger than those of a single charter school. It's an agency with a history of high turnover, not just in leadership, but also among the staff. That can cripple an organization no matter how capable the leadership. If Aguirre would like to make an impact in his role as superintendent, he would do well to focus on reducing turnover at OSSE, securing testing integrity, and using the agency's resources to effect positive changes for students.


Students get free bus rides; let's also simplify the paperwork

Starting this fall, students in DC will get to ride Metrobus for free, thanks to a budget surplus. It's good news for kids who take the bus to school. WMATA could take advantage of this opportunity and simplify its system for student fares as well.

Photo by Beechwood Photography on Flickr.

Metro already offers a discounted fare for students, but it's hard to take advantage of it. In order to make our family eligible for student fares, my husband had to obtain the proper forms from our children's schools. One school had no idea what we were talking about.

Then, he had to take them in person to one of 4 Metro sales offices or WMATA headquarters, which are inconvenient to reach and only open on weekdays during business hours. Each form allowed us to purchase a bag of 10 tokens for $7.50. We have to transfer buses to get to school, so we would save 10¢ per trip, not accounting for the initial ride to the sales office.

Students can also get a monthly SmartStudent pass for $30, but only after they obtain a Student Travel Card from the District Department of Transportation. You can get it at the sales office or 8 DCPS schools, if a student goes there. But unless you use it roundtrip nearly every school day, it's more expensive than tokens.

We don't yet know how Metro or the DC Council will implement the fare change. I vote for simply allowing younger students to board the bus for free, while letting those who are older use their student ID. Of course, it probably won't be that easy.

A good option won't involve schlepping down to WMATA headquarters every month with new forms. The current system is not easy or convenient for parents who have 9-to-5 jobs or students who are in school all day. And if your school doesn't have the proper forms, you are out of luck. These hoops likely exist to avoid fraud, but there's got to be a better way.

Neighboring jurisdictions already provide student discounts in different ways. Students in Montgomery County can ride the bus for free on weekday afternoons with a student ID or buy a discounted Youth Cruiser Pass, though like DC, you can only buy them in a few places. In Arlington, students can use a student ID or tokens to ride for 75¢.

Giving students free bus fare is a great idea, but parents and students also need an easy and convenient way to take advantage.


DCPS and charters team up to improve Chinese instruction

With help from DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education, students from 3 DCPS elementary schools are brushing up on their Chinese with help from students at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School in Ward 5.

Photo by the author.

OSSE awarded the 5-year-old school a $200,000 dissemination grant to share "best practices" in teaching Chinese. At Yu Ying, which my son attends, teachers with native-level proficiency alternate between lessons in English and Chinese. Students from Brent, Thomson, and Eaton elementary schools, which have their own Chinese programs, recently visited Yu Ying to practice the language and learn about Chinese culture.

Studies show that speaking foreign languages is associated with increased intellectual growth, better listening skills, and enhanced mental development. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has publicly stated that all DCPS elementary schools will have foreign language instruction, though it's unclear when.

Last week, Yu Ying's 4th and 5th grade classes hosted Brent students for a Chinese lunch of chicken, tofu, vegetables, rice, and noodles donated by Tsim Yung, a local restaurant. Most students went back for seconds.

Lunch time at Yu Ying. Photo by the author.

The Brent students came prepared to practice their conversational skills with the Yu Ying students. For example, students discussed which types of food they liked and what they like to do. After lunch, the students retreated to classrooms to color Beijing Opera masks and play Chinese checkers. All of this happened while students spoke Chinese.

Most of the Chinese teachers in DCPS are grew up and learned to teach in China. Education in China and education in the United States are similar in some respects, but are very different in others. Students in China are very different from American students and require different strategies to stay engaged, according to Pearl You, Chinese program coordinator at Yu Ying.

Students at Brent learn about Chinese culture at Yu Ying. Photo by the author.

For example, students in China generally respond to a more direct approach from teachers in the classroom, while students here generally require a more nuanced approach that involves more steps and follow up to ensure compliance.

Back at Brent, staff from Yu Ying observed the teachers in their classrooms and then met to discuss suggestions. Students at all three schools receive 45 minutes of Chinese instruction per week, and Yu Ying gave each school a sub-grant to supplement their own resources.

Yu Ying and Brent students practice their Chinese together. Photo by the author.

Teachers were especially interested in learning more effective ways to teach American students. Yu Ying staff discussed some new behavioral techniques and more effective ways to use visual aids, such as the "word wall," which helps students with vocabulary. Teachers also learned how Yu Ying uses Chinese resources, such as leveled readers and flash cards, to reinforce learning, along with better ways to teach pronunciation.

The biggest challenge, however, is not only connecting with the students but also making Chinese language instruction relevant to their families. Yu Ying staff helped the teachers from DCPS understand how to better engage with American students and effectively communicate with their families.

Through this grant, Yu Ying staff has helped improve the Chinese language instruction for over 1100 DCPS students between the three schools. In an increasingly global world, knowing a second language will help these students stand out.


Mundo Verde, Green Ribbon schools highlight sustainability

Schools in the District and Montgomery County make sustainability part of the curriculum with greener buildings and a focus on environmental stewardship. With help from the US Department of Education, they could become an example for other schools around the country.

All photos by the author.

Last month, the Department of Education gave Green Ribbon awards to 3 schools in DC, as well as Montgomery County Public Schools and 2 individual Montgomery schools. Nationwide, 64 schools and 14 school districts won awards.

Green Ribbon schools go beyond the traditional "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra. They recognize the importance of engaging with the community and commit to a sustainable future while acknowledging the connection between environmental stewardship and public health.

Green Ribbon award targets a sustainable future

Awards in the DC region went to Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, and Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, along with Cedar Grove Elementary School in Germantown and Summit Hall Elementary School in Gaithersburg.

The Green Ribbon award acknowledges practices that result in greater student engagement, higher academic achievement and graduation rates, and workforce preparedness. State education authorities nominate individual schools or entire districts for the award, which are then evaluated by the Department of Education based on their three pillars of sustainability: reduced environmental impact and costs, improved health and wellness, and effective environmental education.

By including so many facets of sustainability, the award encourages collaboration with state and federal agencies, like the departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Energy as well as private-sector businesses.

The Department of Education has also established a Green Strides Initiative, which helps schools move towards the three pillars. Department officials say that including sustainability in a school's curriculum can not only boost test scores and prepare students for future careers, but "teach students the important civic values and skills that will encourage them to grow into responsible, compassionate, and contributing citizens."

Mundo Verde leads by example

Mundo Verde, located in Columbia Heights, serves students in pre-kindergarten through 1st grade with plans to add an additional grade each year. School officials didn't let being in a temporary location stand in the way of their commitment to sustainability.

They installed low flow faucets, energy efficient lighting with motion sensors, and replaced old carpet with more asthma-friendly tiling. Newly-installed clerestory windows increase the amount of natural light in each classroom.

Outside, a sandbox and recreation deck made from recycled materials replaced 11 unused parking spots. The school officials installed a bike rack and raised garden beds, while 55 percent of Mundo Verde's students get to school by walking, using public transportation, or biking.

Mundo Verde also purchases materials, such as paper, that are 100 percent recycled, sustainably made, and non-toxic. Staff and students use reusable flatware, cups, and plates to cut down on waste. While these changes may seem small, they add up to a much larger impact on the environment.

Students learn by doing

Mundo Verde uses an expeditionary teaching model and project-based learning to challenge students and prepare them to work together to improve the environment. The goal is to make learning as authentic as possible and help students understand not just how things happen, but why.

Last fall, 1st grade students weighed how much waste the school produces and set a goal to reduce it. After visiting Eco City Farms and learning about composting, the students decided to begin vermiculture composting in their classrooms. The composing bin is located right in the classroom and students are in charge of adding materials. As a result, the school produces 70% less waste.

Noting the benefits of good nutrition and exercise, school officials at Mundo Verde designed a school curriculum that emphasizes both. The school offers cooking classes using fresh vegetables and herbs grown in the garden.

Classrooms are set up to take advantage of students' natural curiosity and encourage them to explore the natural world. Autumn leaves decorate the sides of bookcases. For playtime, there's a box with rocks and sticks next to building blocks.

This focus on sustainability draws like-minded teachers like Ms. Kathryn, who's finishing her second year at Mundo Verde. She appreciates the school's focus on environmental appreciation and stewardship.

Mundo Verde focuses on community-building

Part of Mundo Verde's emphasis on sustainability is getting students out into their community. Each day, students spend an hour outside, whether for PE, yoga, unstructured play, or neighborhood walks. Each month, the entire school spends half the day in Rock Creek Park. During a recent trip, students used the natural environment as inspiration for art class.

Mundo Verde partners with groups like City Blossoms, DC Greens, and Friends of the Park, along with the US Forest Service, to improve the school and its curriculum. Students have also worked with Eco City Farms, Fat Worm, and the DC Office of Recycling to decrease the amount of landfill-bound waste. They organized a letter-writing campaign to the city and the school's board of directors asking for more and bigger recycling bins.

By teaching its students to act with their community and the environment in mind, Mundo Verde and other Green Ribbon winners are leading the way for schools around the country.


Future of Sharpe Health School still uncertain

Sharpe Health School, a school for disabled students in Petworth, could close, sending students to the former River Terrace Elementary School in Ward 7. Not only is River Terrace inaccessible to disabled students, but parents fear its location could put their kids at risk.

Photo by Healthnewsnet on Flickr.

Sharpe and Mamie D. Lee, another school for the disabled in Fort Totten, will be combined in fall 2014 and moved to River Terrace, which closed in 2012. Tamara Gorham, whose son has attended Sharpe Health School for the past six years, believes that students will be worse off at River Terrace.

She cites a number of reasons including the limited input from parents, the short timeline and inadequate funding given for River Terrace to accommodate students with disabilities, and the emotional toll these changes will take on the students.

DCPS, community already invested in Sharpe

Sharpe, located at 13th and Upshur streets NW, is a part of its community. It's located less than a mile from the Petworth Metro station on a tree-lined street with wide, ADA-compliant sidewalks. The school is adjacent to Upshur Park, several other public and charter schools, and the newly renovated Petworth Library. Sharpe has relationships with local businesses where students can receive job training, and is located close to Children's National Medical Center, which many students visit frequently.

In addition, DCPS has already invested in physical improvements to the school, recently refurbishing its therapeutic pool.

Sharpe parents say teachers have developed a rapport with students and tend to their needs beyond what is expected of them. Teachers at Sharpe change soiled diapers for incontinent students and clean their tracheal tubes frequently.

While DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she doesn't "believe effective teachers will lose their jobs," there's no guarantee that they'll be rehired at River Terrace or that they'll want to teach there.

Parents worry about River Terrace's location

The playground with unused smokestacks from the power station in the background.

Even if Sharpe teachers come over to River Terrace, the school's surroundings could put children at risk. The school is one block away from the 100-year-old Benning Road Power Plant, which is being decommissioned. Pepco is currently trying to figure out how polluted the soil and water are in the surrounding area.

Meanwhile, the nearby Minnesota Avenue Metro station is a repeat offender on the list of Metro's 10 most dangerous stations. Students taking the bus may have a hard time finding a space on one, as each bus only has two spaces for wheelchairs. And those who walk will have to cross over the Anacostia Freeway on a narrow sidewalk.

Gorham worries that disabled students could endure teasing from people on the street while going to school. She also fears that students in need of medical help would be taken to nearby Prince George's Hospital Center, which has poor ratings.

River Terrace isn't ready for disabled students

The entrance to River Terrace is still locked up.

Meanwhile, renovations at River Terrace haven't even started yet. Today, a high, chain-link fence surrounds the shuttered building. The school isn't wheelchair accessible, and there's no guarantee that it will be before opening day.

DCPS has set aside between $15 and $20 million for the work to be completed in a piecemeal fashion, though parents estimate it could cost as much as $30 million to provide everything they feel their kids will need. They recently gave a wish list of things they'd like to see in the new school to the architect hired by DCPS, but were told he was "trying to work [their requests] into the budget."

There are also concerns about plans to co-locate a community center with the school, which neighborhood residents asked for after the school closed. Sharpe parents wonder if the community center will be open to the public during the school day, which they feel could be a safety risk.

Last week, a federal judge decided not to grant a preliminary injunction against DCPS closing Sharpe and 14 other schools across the city. Judge Boasberg argued that students could go to better schools, citing several examples of students who would be moved to schools with better test scores.

However, that won't be the case for Sharpe Health School. If DCPS wants to do school reform right, they should take a second look at the closings list. For now, parents and students are hoping the judge will see things from their perspective and allow them to have input into decisions that so drastically affect them.


DC CAS can still benefit students, like it's supposed to

Like many standardized tests, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System isn't the magic bullet many had hoped it would be. But by understanding what its limits are, we can turn the DC CAS from a weapon against teachers into a tool to help students.

Photo by the author.

Any mention of standardized testing produces a range of reactions, from praising the accountability it provides to those who decry its use as a way to weed out "bad" teachers. But the CAS can, and should, do much more than just evaluate teachers. DC needs to use the results to help students.

Mandated in 2002 by No Child Left Behind, the DC CAS's original intent was to help identify students in DC Public Schools needing additional assistance. Students in grades 2 through 10 take the test in reading; 3 through 8 and 10 in math; 5 and 8 in science; and 4, 7 and 10 in writing.

Students are slotted into one of four categories based on their scores in each subject: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. Those in the proficient and advanced categories are considered to have mastered grade level material.

From 2007 to 2012, the percentage of both public and charter school students scoring in the proficient and advanced categories jumped by 18.4% in math and 9.5% in reading. While gains are certainly worth celebrating, this still means that only 49.5% of students in math and 45.6% of students in reading have mastered grade level material.

With less than half of students mastering grade level material, DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) should jump at the opportunity to get more from their standardized testing. They can, but only if they do it right.

Photo by the author.

Lack of continuity hurts DC CAS

It's hard to find out what's being done to help students who score in the basic or below basic categories. For the 2012-2013 school year, DCPS gave $10 million in Proving What's Possible (PWP) grants to help schools improve DC CAS test scores.

Schools submitted their ideas for how to do so, ranging from lengthening the school day and providing summer school to investing in math and reading programs. Larger schools or those with students who need to make significant gains could apply for grants between $250,000 and $400,000, while other schools could apply for grants between $50,000 and $100,000 for more targeted interventions.

One problem, however, is the program's lack of continuity. 15% of the money from the PWP grants went to 8 schools that will close this spring: Marshall, Davis, Winston, Ferebee-Hope and M.C. Terrell/McGogney elementary schools, MacFarland Middle School, Spingarn High School and Prospect Learning Center. These schools are closing before their new programs will even have a chance to work, preventing them from being used as examples for other schools in need.

While it's likely some of the materials purchased can be reused, Students at these schools will barely have an opportunity to learn how the new programs work before they are shuttered to other schools. The first year or two of a new program can be a steep learning curve while hiccups are worked out and procedures are streamlined.

Tests don't tell the whole story

Many people incorrectly assume that a good test will measure all that a student knows. In reality, it's just a snapshot in time used to estimate a student's knowledge. As a result, small differences are less meaningful than large or repeated differences. Standardized testing also cannot measure the intangible qualities of teaching such as student engagement, preparation for class, and the personal relationships between the students and teachers.

As it's currently set up, the DC CAS isn't being used to understand individual students, but to unfairly categorize entire schools with broad brushstrokes.

Both the math and reading results of the DC CAS are subdivided into categories. Depending on the grade, math tests have four or five subcategories. Based on how many students score low on certain areas, this could be an easy way to identify whether teaching should be improved or whether specific students are struggling. If most students test low in fractions, a change in teaching style is necessary, but if just a few scores are low, those students may just need additional attention.

For reading, the subcategories are not quite as distinct as for math, but are still more helpful than simply being told a student needs help with "reading." The test writer, McGraw Hill, could possibly provide more detail what specific skills are being tested, which would help to further identify specific areas for improvement. I believe my fifth-grader took 7 or 8 tests for the DC CAS this year, so it seems likely that more specific analysis could be provided.

With the new IMPACT in-class teacher assessments, DCPS is wisely distancing itself from teacher evaluation based solely or mostly on standardized testing, though they are still a factor. Other area school districts are shying away from standardized testing altogether. Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, has even called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing.

With another testing season in DC coming to a close, the opportunity to really delve into the results is upon us. The possibility to provide more targeted and specific assistance to DC students should not go to waste.


Chancellor Henderson: We're listening, tell us more

Chancellor Kaya Henderson reassured people via an op-ed that she is still pushing hard to make DC schools better. Unfortunately, her 535 words gave few details about her plans for school reform.

Photo by Melvin Gaal ( on Flickr.

The chancellor said, "People must think that if we are not angering the community, clashing with unions, creating discord in our schools and making headlines, we must not be making change." It's true that some residents who don't have children in the schools simply assume nothing is happening if education isn't in the headlines.

But to myself and many parents, this isn't the problem. The issue is that Chancellor Henderson's plans remain too opaque. Her current strategy of holding all the cards close to her chest and expecting parents to believe she's got a winning hand is causing unrest and distrust among the community.

Many families are still stinging from elements of Michelle Rhee's tenure as school chancellor, and were further disenfranchised when Chancellor Henderson continued along the Rhee path of continuing to close schools. Parents are not yet ready to support the chancellor's leadership sight unseen.

Henderson writes that "we spent tense and contentious years fixing the most immediate problems" after she joined DCPS in 2007. I'm left wondering what problems she is referring to, and what they did about it. Highlighting a success could go a long way.

She also writes that the district needs great teachers and staff, to support the teachers with "rigorous content," and motivated students and engaged families in order to "give students and families the education they deserve." Her three main bullet points give no real detail.

The chancellor briefly references specials (art, music, and PE), foreign language instruction, and librarians. In fact, many schools are losing funds for librarians in next year's budget. The op-ed contains no details on what, specifically, is changing about these programs.

This issue goes beyond this one op-ed. Maybe the Washington Post imposed a length limit. But families have not heard the answers they need in other forums either. Nor have city leaders. In his opening statement at a DC Council hearing on the recent cheating scandals, Councilmember David Grosso said,

It has been six years since the implementation of mayoral control over our schools and there is still not a citywide plan for education.

Six years into this reform process and we still have embarrassingly low proficiency numbers in reading and math.

Six years into this reform process, and what amazes me is that we still don't have a simple, unified public measure for parents to understand how an individual school is performing.

Six years into this reform process and it's hard for parents to plan for their child's education because our policies and the landscape of offerings change every year. ...

This may appear to be a harsh assessment, but I have to ask: Who is guiding our education reform? Why does it seem that there are no guiding principles—NO PLAN?

A lot will be changing in DCPS in the near future. There will be fewer schools next year. Boundaries will likely soon change. Budget and facilities will shift. Enrollment is rising in many parts of the city. If Chancellor Henderson wants engaged families, she will need to give us more than a wink and a nod.

Families want to understand where the district is going so they can make decisions about whether they will keep their children in DCPS. They also need to feel heard and valued. That is where Chancellor Henderson can really make change happen for DCPS students. We're listening.


Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.


Chef Herb cooks up a healthier future for DC children

Children like Chef Herb for his engaging food demonstrations and visually appealing creations. Adults like Chef Herb because his lessons encourage children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, all with the hope of reducing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other associated ailments.

All photos from Herb Holden used with permission.

Chef Herb, whose real name is Herb Holden, works in the SNAP-Ed program, part of the The Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health at the University of the District of Columbia.

Herb engages children, and sometimes parents, with hands-on demonstrations and tactile presentations. A favorite demonstration is an eggplant penguin creation, but students also get to see the food packaging and labels in an effort to teach students what they are consuming and to form habits the students will take with them long after the demonstration.

Herb Holden, a self-described "good old country boy," grew up on a farm in Delaware cooking meals using fresh fruits and vegetables and has been a chef and educator with the center for two years. He regularly visits 12 DC elementary schools and works to help children understand how to make healthy food choices. He knows that students who eat more fruits and vegetables are healthier, have more energy, and work more efficiently.

I was treated to a showing of Chef Herb's talents on a recent visit at Langdon Education Campus in Ward 5, where Chef Herb regularly works with preschool students and their parents. On the menu:

  • African Punch with Guava, Papaya, and Orange Juice and Lemonade
  • Rice noodle w/ veggie stir-fry
  • Red Thai curry with veggies over rice
  • Watermelon and dragon fruit
Chef Herb started by introducing the students to the food on the menu, making sure that everyone had a chance to see what a dragon fruit or pitaya looks like. His hope is that students will remember the dragon fruit or the eggplant when shopping and include it in their meals. The students were clearly drawn in by his hands-on teaching style.

You can see Chef Herb in action, teaching about fresh fruits and vegetables from A to Z, at the UDC Farmer's Market from May to October in front of UDC's campus at Van Ness Metro.

In addition to making fantastic food, Chef Herb teaches students and parents how to turn unhealthy meals healthier, how to stretch a budget by using fresh produce, and how to shop in season to reduce costs. In between visits, head-start teachers are trained in 48 "color me healthy" lesson plans to teach to their students. My plate and the importance of exercise are also included in the lessons. He also teaches some of the less flashy skills including hand washing, teeth brushing, and food safety.

Obesity rates, particular among African-Americans, are on the rise and the earlier students are taught healthier eating habits the less likely they are to become obese. Along with reducing rates of obesity and related diseases, this program will save money on later medical treatment. It is an investment in DC's future that is worth every penny.

Benefits from this program is not limited to preschool families. Chef Herb and others from the program visit local health fairs and are involved with Chartered Health Plan. They even have requests from churches to give food preparation demonstrations and information on healthy eating.

Another program at the center for adults is the DC Professional Food Managers/Food Handler Certification Program, which covers a variety of topics including food safety, food storage, and personal hygiene. After successfully completing the course, participants are eligible to sit for the national exam, thus providing an opportunity for job training. The program currently has a 100% passage rate.

Other programs under the Center for Nutrition, Diet and Health provide dietitians and nutritionists and others engage with teens and seniors all aimed at improving the health of community, educating DC residents, with a focus on SNAP recipients, on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and ways to prevent obesity, heart disease, and related ailments.

Funding for this program is provided from the USDA through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City