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Education


Some see the DCPS-charter relationship breaking down, but charter leaders disagree

Shortly before the advisory committee on school boundaries and feeder patterns released its final proposal, the DC Public Charter School Board's representative resigned in protest over one of the committee's recommendations. Does that move reflect a deepening rift between the charter and traditional public school sectors? It depends on who you ask.


Photo of arguing fingers from Shutterstock.

There's been a lot of brouhaha surrounding the committee's recent recommendations, their adoption by Mayor Vincent Gray, and their repudiation by both of his likely successors. The resignation of Dr. Clara Hess, the PCSB's official representative on the committee, has gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle.

But in interviews, members of the committee candidly expressed anger and dismay at Hess's resignation, seeing it as one more step in the apparent deterioration of the relationship between DC's charter sector and DC Public Schools.

"Everybody was disappointed," said Faith Hubbard, a member of the committee who lives in Ward 5. "It was like, all this work we did over a year, and you want it to come down to this?"

Others disagree that the once cordial relationship is breaking down. "I think actually relations between the sectors are better than ever," said Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB. "And I think the level of collaboration will continue to grow."

Priority for at-risk students

The recommendation that prompted Hess's resignation focuses on "at-risk" students, a new designation that includes kids who are homeless, in foster care, eligible for food stamps or welfare benefits, or a year or more below grade level in high school. The category includes 43% of DC students.

Beginning this school year, the DC government will provide additional funding to schools based on the number of at-risk students they enroll.

The committee recommended that all public schools, including charter schools, with fewer than 25% at-risk students give priority to such students for 25% of the seats they allocate through a lottery each year.

Pearson said the committee hadn't sufficiently analyzed the impact of that recommendation. The committee did produce data showing how many schools would be affected (19 DCPS and 13 charter schools) and how many seats at each school would be set aside for at-risk students (between two and 38).

But Pearson said the committee should also have analyzed whether at-risk students would displace others who are economically disadvantaged but don't fall into the at-risk definition.

PCSB's authority to bind charters

More fundamentally, Pearson said the PCSB did not have the authority to agree to a recommendation that would bind individual charter schools. There were no representatives of individual charter schools on the committee.

Hubbard argued that it would have been impossible to have representatives of all DC charter schools on the committee, just as it was impossible to have all DCPS schools represented. There was one representative from DCPS, she said, just as there was a representative from the PCSB.

But Pearson said those representatives were not equivalent, since all of DCPS is a single Local Education Agency, while each charter operator is its own LEA.

Part of the problem was that the committee didn't begin focusing on charter schools until fairly late in its 10-month process, so there wasn't time to canvass charter leaders on the at-risk issue. The committee's initial mission was to redraw boundaries and feeder patterns for DCPS schools.

But at community meetings on the first round of proposals in April, parents repeatedly called for comprehensive planning that would include both sectors, according to committee members.

Pearson said those meetings, held at DCPS schools and organized according to DCPS feeder patterns, didn't adequately represent charter school parents. Committee members responded that parents often switch back and forth between sectors, so there was more charter representation than was apparent.

"To say charter parents weren't represented in the process is erroneous and is convenient if you don't like what came out of it," said Eboni-Rose Thompson, a Ward 7 resident who was on the committee. Thompson has also been a contributor to Greater Greater Education.

The DCPS-charter relationship

The more important question, especially now that the future of the committee's recommendations is uncertain, is what the disagreement means for the DCPS-charter relationship. Thompson and Hubbard were pessimistic, feeling that a generally positive process had ended on a sour note.

But Pearson was more upbeat, pointing to another recommendation that calls for a task force to be set up by the end of December that will focus on collaboration and planning across school sectors. The PCSB still supports that recommendation, he said.

His perspective was echoed by Emily Bloomfield, a committee member and former board member of the PCSB who is in the process of launching a new charter school.

"I'm very optimistic about collaboration partly because I've seen more of it over time," Bloomfield said, citing the common school lottery and an annual school fair that used to be limited to charter schools and now includes DCPS.

But those who have called for collaborative planning generally envision a process that would impose some limits on charter growth and location. As Pearson has made clear, the charter sector is adamantly opposed to any limits that aren't voluntary on its part.

Hubbard feels that attitude will be a problem for the task force that the recommendations call for. "Charters have been allowed to grow without much oversight," she said, "and this task force is going to infringe on that. Anytime, they could say: we're going to take our ball and go home."

Both Hubbard and Thompson, an alumna of a charter school, say that things have changed since charters were a small part of the educational landscape. Now that they educate nearly half of DC's students, Thompson said, charter autonomy shouldn't be seen as sacrosanct.

"Now it should be about how we ensure we're making a good faith effort to serve all students," she said, "and not just buying into words that sound attractive like 'innovation' and 'autonomy.'"

Perhaps, as Thompson predicts, the DC Council will soon be ready to impose limits on charter growth, although so far there have been few signs of that. Or perhaps, as Bloomfield suggests, charter operators will be willing to voluntarily adjust their plans in exchange for a better way of obtaining suitable buildings from the DC government.

What's clear is that many in both sectors share a sense of mission about improving the quality of education for DC's low-income students. But they don't always agree on the best way to achieve that.

Let's hope the task force, which is scheduled to begin meeting before Gray leaves office, will provide a better forum than the advisory committee for hashing out differences between the sectors. Unlike the committee, the task force will most likely include representation from charter school operators, and it will be clear from the outset that its mission is cross-sector planning and collaboration.

Education


Anxious about the new school boundaries? Here are some things to consider.

Last week DC Mayor Vincent Gray accepted the new school boundaries and feeder patterns proposed by the advisory committee that has been working on the issue for the past 10 months. While some residents have legitimate concerns about the change, it may not prove as bad as they fear.


Photo of chewed pencils from Shutterstock.

Even after the committee backed away from the more radical proposals it floated in April, the plan still managed to disgruntle many residents who found themselves rezoned to less desirable schools. The charter community is ticked off as well, angered by the committee's recommendation that charter schools with more affluent student bodies reserve 25% of their seats for "at-risk" students.

But Gray, immunized from popular disapproval by his lame-duck status, has taken a statesmanlike position. As he said in his letter to the committee, "there will never be a good time to make changes to our assignment policies." Unless, perhaps, you're about to leave office.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the next mayor will undo the whole thing. While neither of the leading candidates has weighed in specifically on the proposal Gray has adopted, both have said they would prefer to delay the boundary overhaul.

But undoing the plan may take some doing. One senior government official told WAMU's Martin Austermuhle that Gray's adoption of the proposal will set into motion a process that will be difficult to reverse. The official cited the fact that the school lottery scheduled to begin in December would have to be started over again when a new mayor takes office in January.

And the Post's Mike DeBonis has suggested that Gray has done his successor "a huge favor" by making a decision that is politically unpopular but necessary. It might be convenient for the next mayor to say that his or her hands are tied.

As DeBonis points out, the current system has led to overcrowding in some schools and underenrollment in others, while many students are assigned to multiple schools. And putting off the change until all DC's schools are "high-quality," as some have advocated, is likely to mean that changes in the assignment system would be held in abeyance for a decade if not longer.

At the same time, I can understand why parents may feel apprehensive, or even panicky, if their children have been reassigned, say, from Wilson High School to lower-performing Roosevelt, or from Eastern to lower-performing H.D. Woodsonor even from Wilson to Eastern.

Such reactions don't mean they're bigoted or racist. Parents want what's best for their children. And no one wants her child to be the only one, or one of a handful, of any category in a school.

No doubt some parents will depart the system for charter schools or other school systems in the region. But I hope they'll consider the following factors before making that decisionand that DCPS will do whatever it can to ensure that they do:

Nothing is happening right away. While the proposals are set to take effect a year from now, no student who is currently attending her neighborhood school will have to switch. And students in 3rd grade or above will be able to stay in the same feeder patternas can younger ones with older siblings in the pattern. So there's time for middle and high schools, the sources of the most concern, to improve.

Your new school may be better than you think. It might be worth a visit, and DC Public Schools should make it easy for parents to tour a prospective school and sit in on classes. The quality of a school isn't necessarily reflected in its test scores. I've seen some impressive teachers and motivated students in relatively "low-performing" DCPS schools.

You may be able to band together with other parents in the same situation. In some neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill, parents have pledged to send their children to the local public school and sometimes worked together to improve a school even before their kids enroll. DCPS and individual school administrators should do whatever they can to encourage such commitments and work with prospective parents.

Your child may be challenged academically even in a generally low-performing school. No parent wants his child to be held back by classmates who require a slower pace. But AP classes are currently offered in all neighborhood high schools, and Eastern has just begun offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program.

Indeed, one of the advisory committee's recommendations is that all neighborhood high schools should "ensure that specialized and selective programs are developed and supported." But that won't be enough to ensure that more advanced students are challenged. Schools will also need to limit those selective programs to students who can actually handle advanced work.

Right now AP classes in DCPS high schools are open to all, and DCPS requires students to earn at least two credits in an AP or IB course in order to graduate. (Students can also fulfill that requirement with a Career and Technical Education course, but many don't.)

While some argue that lower-achieving students benefit from taking AP or other advanced classes even if they don't perform well in them, they would probably benefit just as much if not more from a truly rigorous class pitched at a level they're equipped to handle. And they'll almost certainly hold back the students in an advanced class who are better prepared.

Some may object to this kind of sorting by ability as "tracking," and perhaps it is. But if the alternative is socioeconomic segregation on a school-by-school basis, tracking doesn't seem so bad. And it may be the only way to keep higher-achieving students in the system.

While middle schools generally don't engage in as much tracking as high schools, technology is making it possible for learning to become more individualized there, enabling each student to move at her own pace. The same is true at the elementary level.

No doubt some parents will object that all of this is easy for me to say, since I don't have a school-age child who has been reassigned. They certainly have a point. I can only say: I hope that if I did, I would be willing to take my own advice.

Education


Does education reform have to be impersonal?

Do education reformers rely on "impersonal" solutions, as a recent New York Times op-ed argues? Not from what I've seen in DC. Teachers care about students, but the effects of their caring are hard to measure. And caring may not be enough.


Photo of teacher and student from Shutterstock.

Today's education reformers ignore the "inherently complicated and messy human relationships" that are at the core of education, says Berkeley professor David Kirp in Sunday's New York Times. Instead, he claims, they turn to ostensibly simpler and neater strategies that rely on competition between schools or the transformative power of technology.

Predictably, Kirp's piece has unleashed a storm of commentary and an avalanche of tweets. Those who place themselves in the ed reform camp have assailed the flaws and oversimplifications in Kirp's argument.

They note that few if any education reformers treat test scores as "the single metric of success," as Kirp asserts. They point out that Kirp overlooks the fact that many charter schools actually do get better results for low-income African-American students.

And they express bafflement at his claim that reformers focus on "markets and competition" to the exclusion of factors like talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum. In fact, much of education reform (a term so broad and loaded it should perhaps be retired) is directed towards creating those very things.

I agree that, like many articles that get a lot of attention, Kirp's suffers from exaggeration and a lack of nuance. At the same time, though, he's hit on something, albeit with a blunt instrument.

The importance of caring

Kirp's basic point is that for education to be effective, schools need to foster personal "bonds of caring" between teachers and students. I imagine most if not all teachers and administrators, including those who consider themselves education reformers, would agree.

I've met teachers in DC's charter and traditional public school sectors who have not only formed personal bonds with students, but who probably would have done so even if some misguided "reformer" had explicitly tried to prohibit them. And I've seen those teachers chafe against a system that doesn't always acknowledge the importance of those bonds or reward their formation.

At a high-poverty DC public high school, one teacher told me about a student who had come to him with a request. Holding out the program from a funeral, the boy asked if the teacher could "fix" it. Eventually the teacher came to understand what the problem was: The boy's mother had told him that the deceased was his father. But the program failed to include the boy's name in the list of survivors.

The teacher recruited a more tech-savvy colleague to try to figure out a way to insert the boy's name so it would look like part of the program. In the end, the only way to do that was to retype the whole document, carefully matching its font and formatting. The teachers stayed far past the end of the school day in order to have the new program ready for the student by the next morning.

The teacher who told me this story was making a point: the DC Public Schools teacher evaluation system has no way of taking into account teachers' willingness to extend themselves on behalf of their students. And no doubt stories like this could be found many times over, in DC and elsewhere.

I'm sure students benefit in many ways from knowing their teachers care about them personally. And a teacher who doesn't care about her students as individuals probably isn't going to be very good at her job.

Caring may not be enough

But it's hard to know, and especially to measure, what effect those personal bonds have on students' ability to learn. Even the most caring teacher may not be equipped to teach effectively, possibly because of a lack of training or support.

And, surprisingly, in some instances personal bonds can actually get in the way of teaching. One study found that a computer program that gave students feedback on their writing actually produced more positive feelings, and more improvement, than feedback from a human instructor. Apparently students didn't take the criticism so personally when it came from a machine.

In a broader sense, of course, Kirp is right that personal connections between teachers and students are crucial. But, as with any one element of education, they're not sufficient. We also need to figure out ways to assess whether teachers are actually teaching and students are actually learning.

The tension, as always, is between the bright clean lines of standardizationwhether in testing, curriculum, or teaching methodsand the messy individualization that's necessary when you're dealing with real people who vary greatly in their needs and capabilities.

We haven't yet figured out the right balance between the two, but peopleincluding some who identify as education reformersare definitely working on it.

Education


Test scores are not improving for at-risk student groups

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the system's 2014 test scores yesterday, saying "we're continuing on an upward trajectory." However, a closer look at the scores reveals a stagnant or downward trajectory for black, Hispanic, low-income, English language learner, and special education students in the last five years.


Reading scores have declined among at-risk groups since 2009. Graph from DCPS with emphasis by the author.

It's true that reading test scores overall have increased since 2009, and slightly overall since last year. However, it's a different story for many demographic subgroups, including every at-risk subgroup: students receiving free or reduced price lunch (FARMS), black students, Latino students, special education students, and students whose first language is not English (called "English Language Learners"). For those students, scores have declined since 2009 and further since last year.

Math scores are mixed among at-risk subgroups since 2009

While reading scores have declined since 2009 among all at-risk subgroups, math scores look better.

Black and Hispanic students have gained on average since 2009, though white students have gained even more. Lower-income (FARMS) students and special education students gained slightly, while English language learners lost considerable ground.

The achievement gap is widening

The decline among at-risk subgroups, along with gains among white and Asian students, has widened the achievement gap in DC. The every-other-year federal test, NAEP, reports the gap between students eligible and not eligible for free and reduced price lunch.


2013 Department of Education report of 8th grade NAEP test scores with emphasis by the author.

However, this gap is nowhere in the 2014 CAS score reports by the Office for the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) or by DCPS. The Department said the following about this achievement gap in its most recent report on DC NAEP scores.

In 2013, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 31 points lower than students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 1998 (25 points).
What does this mean for reform policies?

Can we draw any conclusions about DCPS's reform efforts from this data?

Scores did increase substantially in reading as well as math from 2007 to 2009, and are still above 2007 levels in all categories. DC Public Schools (DCPS) officials argue that 2007 should be the baseline (and therefore we should consider their reforms a success) because mayoral control of DCPS began in 2007.

However, the IMPACT teacher evaluation system went into effect in 2009. The first round of DCPS school closures was announced in the spring of 2008, and implemented over the next two years, well after students had taken the 2008 CAS test.

Most students taking the CAS tests in the spring of 2007, 2008 or 2009 were still unaffected by the IMPACT system or by school closures.

On the other hand, it may still be too early to judge the effects of any particular reform. Still, we must ask, how long will it take to know for sure?

Is DCPS really "on an upward trajectory"? If DC's education system is slowly growing but not for those groups where public education is most likely to make or break success in life, it is not doing its job.

Education


We're moving to California because DC schools can't or won't serve our son's special needs

This summer my family is moving to San Francisco so that my disabled son can attend kindergarten. While we are excited about the next chapter of our lives in the Bay Area, we expected until recently to live in DC, and in Georgetown, the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, that plan changed when we ran into obstruction and hostility from DC Public Schools and local private schools regarding our son's special needs.


Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

My 5-year-old son, Martin, is the joy of our lives. He is the sweetest little boy you will ever meet, with a passion for life that inspires me every day. Martin also has epilepsy.

In the past year, Martin has had over 2,500 seizures. Most of them are drop seizures, in which he drops to the ground like a puppet whose strings are cut. After every drop seizure, he gets right back up and resiliently soldiers oncoloring, playing with toys, eating his food, undeterred.

When the seizures began breaking through his medication last year, my wife and I spent every evening on our laptops, immersing ourselves in pediatric neurology. Helping our boy fight seizures was our primary activity, at least it was until we discovered how much we would have to fight DC Public Schools to secure his rights to an equal education.

Coping with epilepsy

Martin has miraculously not regressed cognitively despite his seizures, but must be kept safe. He has had drop seizures in which his face collides into his cereal bowl during breakfast, into the toilet bowl while going to the bathroom, into the sand table while playing at his preschool.

After several bloody and bruised faces, we made the difficult decision to put a helmet with face guard on our boy. Even with his helmet, he is still not safe on stairs, which pose a real risk to his life and limb.

Martin attends an amazing preschool, St, Columba's Nursery School in Tenleytown, whose teachers unflinchingly provide him any accommodation needed to keep him safe and help him learn with the other children. They go far beyond what the law requires.

This past year, we asked DC Public Schools (DCPS) for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) ahead of his entrance into kindergarten this fall.

An IEP is a list of the accommodations that a public school provides to ensure a child's civil right to equal access to the curriculum. A federal law, the 1975 Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), protects the civil right of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

DCPS, through its Early Stages division, initially committed to including a dedicated aide in Martin's IEP to keep him safe. They were unable to put him in a building without stairs. Instead, an aide would hold his hand on the stairs or take him to elevators, as well as logging his seizure count and caring for him when he injures himself.

"Martin will obviously get an aide; he's dropping 10 times per day," was the assessment of our IEP team lead. "Just give us a letter from his neurologist, and we'll include an aide in his IEP." We provided letters from two neurologists, and expected to send Martin to DCPS kindergarten this fall.

DCPS throws up a wall

Two weeks after our IEP meeting at DCPS Early Stages, I received a startling call from our IEP team lead that would signal the beginning of the end of our time as DC residents. "I'm so sorry to have to tell you, apparently we were not authorized to put an aide in Martin's IEP. So we've taken it out."

She was unable to explain why Martin's IEP team couldn't give him an aide. She said to me, "I wish I had answers to your questions. I'm so sorry." When I pointed out that, by law, only members of an IEP team can determine what accommodations go into an IEP, she agreed, and repeated, "I'm so, so sorry."

A week later I received a call from Amanda Parks-Bianco, a DCPS special education administrator who manages all dedicated aides, asking me what my questions were. Parks-Bianco said, "Dedicated aides and nurses are never needed to provide FAPE. If you accept our offer of FAPE, then aides and nurses are additional services that your child may qualify for."

When I cited several court decisions stating that IDEA does sometimes require dedicated aides, she insisted that "IDEA is vague." Several times Parks-Bianco told me, "I know I must sound like a horrible person."

Private schools give the cold shoulder too

My wife and I retained an attorney, who advised us to find a private school that would keep Martin safe. We would then sue DCPS to pay the tuition. However, we were unable to find a general education private school in DC that would accept a child with uncontrolled seizures.

For example, we visited Lowell, known as one of the most inclusive private schools in town. When we mentioned to the Head of School that our son has 10 drop seizures per day, her response was, "You would need to purchase tuition insurance." She then explained that "a school with a smaller student-teacher ratio might be better, with more eyes on your son to keep him safe."

The Lowell Head of School never technically violated the federal law against discrimination towards those with disabilities, but made it clear that my child was not welcome at her school.

We visited Sheridan, also known as an inclusive private school. While they said they embraced children with disabilities, their building is still not ADA-compliant, requiring children of all ages to walk up and down a long staircase with no elevator. When we noticed the facilities they had invested in, such as a campus in the Shenandoah Valley, their true priorities seemed clear.

We considered suing DCPS to accommodate my child with an aide to keep him safe at school, a suit that our attorney said we had a 95% chance of winning. But he also said we would likely have to retain counsel multiple times over the years, as DCPS would try to remove the aide from Martin's IEP.

My wife and I were considering moving to California last fall in order to try a strain of medical marijuana that had helped other children control their seizures. A friend from San Francisco had been urging me to consider schools there that were inclusive of children with disabilities.

In March, I flew to San Francisco, and within a month enrolled Martin in a private school that embraces children with disabilities and was committed to keeping our son safe. Even our special education attorney recommended that we accept the offer of the school in San Francisco.

My family is privileged to have the means to move when our son's civil rights are denied and physical safety threatened by DC Public Schools. DC is full of thousands of special education students who face the obstacles our son faced and have far fewer options.

How can DC be a truly inclusive city?

While we are sad to leave our adopted hometown of 16 years, we are excited to embark on a new journey. We feel deep gratitude to the Bay Area for its inclusive culture, and hope to give back in spades.

One of the hardest parts of leaving DC, besides the friends we leave behind, is walking away from the fight to make DC a just city whose success is shared broadly. As DC's amenities have grown over the past decade, so have the growing gaps in wealth and educational outcomes in our city. This creates a moral imperative to advocate that we can either hide from or accept.

It's easy for elected officials in DC and other east cost cities to promote the influx of new residents, then take credit for the improved joblessness numbers and school test scores that inevitably follow.

My deepest fear for DC has been that in 30 years, all 8 wards will have stellar economic and education numbers, but those numbers will be the result of turning over half the population in the city.

There are few battles more critical to creating an inclusive DC than the fight for the 13,000 students, predominantly poor, who receive public special education.

DC can move forward in one of two waysby displacing DC's recipients of special education, or including them.

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