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Posts about Tommy Wells


Vote for mayor with your heart, or strategically?

It's a perennial question in DC politics and one that's likely to arise in this year's mayoral race: If your favorite candidate isn't considered highly likely to win, should you vote for your favorite, or pick the best of the frontrunners if you feel there is a clear difference between them?

Photo by Keith Ivey on Flickr.

Reader Max faces this dilemma. He wrote this letter (before the Washington Post endorsed Muriel Bowser):

The race is highly congested with none of the candidates really gaining much momentum. The candidate doing the best is probably the worst on GGW issues and that's Bowser (exhibit A).

As I see it, its a choice between Gray and Wells. ... I am personally torn. I gave Wells a small contribution, but right now would vote for Gray because he has a better chance of beating Bowser. Is it worth the risk to support a guy that may peak at 25%, instead of backing Gray who has been a very solid mayor and who could lose to someone that stands for absolutely nothing.

Note: Neither I nor Greater Greater Washington have made any endorsements yet, and we will be posting video of interviews with the candidates so that readers can make up their own minds. You will be able to see my discussion with Bowser, so that you can decide for yourself if she is bad on Greater Greater Washington's issues, or not, before hearing the contributors' opinion. But I have certainly spoken to a number of people who feel the same way as Max.

The Washington Post's endorsement really should not come as much of a surprise, whether you agree with it or not. Muriel Bowser is one of the most closely aligned to the Post editorial board's view on a number of issues. For example, she is a more conservative Democrat on fiscal matters, as are the members of the editorial board. Harry Jaffe predicted this outcome weeks ago. Still, their choice will influence many voters who have less personal knowledge of the candidates and the Post editors.

As a result, some voters who prefer a candidate other than Gray or Bowser have considered switching their support to the candidate among those two who they consider best, or at least not worst. What do you think Max, and voters thinking along similar lines, should do?


Hear the candidates: Ward 6 on education

We interviewed candidates in the April 1 primary and recorded the conversations on video. Over the next few weeks, we will be posting excerpts here about their views on education. Here are the discussions with DC Council candidates for Ward 6. See all of the segments here.

Images from the candidate websites.

If you live in Ward 6 and like your current councilmember's views on education, you'll probably like those of Charles Allen. There's a reason: Allen was Councilmember Tommy Wells' chief of staff. Opponent Darrel Thompson's ideas on education are less specific, but both (not surprisingly) support making all schools high-quality.

Both Allen and Thompson, whose background includes working for Senator Harry Reid, had similar answers on what to do about redrawing DC school boundaries and feeder patterns, and the anxiety caused by the process: make sure that every school is great.

As for how to do that, Thompson said we need to be "smart about our resources and our allocation."

Allen talked about the need to target additional funds to students with higher needs in order to bring up struggling schools. He also pointed out that current feeder patterns often don't make sense, noting that he could see Eastern High School from his front porch but was nevertheless zoned for Dunbar.

But he stressed the need to keep parents involved in the process and to keep politics out of it. The role of Councilmembers, he said, is to ensure some predictability for parents, as they did by requiring at least a full year's notice before any changes go into effect.

Many of Thompson's answers on education had to do with "looking at options" and "providing opportunities." He often responded to questions about specific policies by saying "all options should be on the table."

On how to increase the proficiency rate of DCPS students on standardized tests, currently at about 51%, he mentioned "expanding our options for pre-K" and ensuring that "we provide opportunities for parents that have children with disabilities."

Other than that, Thompson called for increasing opportunities for students at all grade levels and closing the achievement gap between wealthier and white students and poor black students. Engaging parents, he said, is also crucial.

Asked about ideas like expanding the role of high-performing charter networks or extending the school day, he expressed qualified support but also called for caution.

On expanding charters, he said there was a need for proper oversight to guard against low-performing schools. "Not every charter school is like KIPP," he said. On extended day, he said "we should look at it," but we need to make sure that teachers, administrators, and parents are on board.

Allen, who has clearly been steeped in DC education policy, had answers at the ready for a number of questions. Asked what he would do about middle schools, which have recently been the subject of concern for their difficulty attracting families, he rattled off a four-point plan.

The points he listed were modernizing school buildings; recruiting dynamic school leaders and giving them more control over their budgets and programming; introducing rigorous academic programs such as the International Baccalaureate; and vertically aligning programs so that there is continuity within feeder patterns.

On the role of charters, Allen called for greater coordination between the charter and traditional public school sectors. Each sector should learn from the other, he said. And, he said, "If we've got a charter that is looking to open up in a certain place, it shouldn't come as a surprise to DCPS."

Last year, he said, 40 families that had enrolled students at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Ward 6 ended up going to BASIS, a newly opened charter school. The result, he said, was a significant loss of funds for Stuart-Hobson. He said the newly created unified lottery should help avoid such situations in the future.

Allen also came out against the recently floated plan to turn Dunbar into an application-only high school, expressing concern about what that kind of "skimming" of the best students would do to other neighborhood schools. Instead, he urged measures like creating different tracks, or instituting specialized "academies" within the school, to accommodate students at different levels.

To get your own sense of where the candidates stand and how they present themselves, you can watch the videos in their entirety by clicking on them below. Allen's runs about 21 minutes, and Thompson's about 13 minutes.


Get ready for Greater Greater politics coverage

Perhaps you've heard: there is a primary in DC on April 1. Over the next few weeks, Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education will be posting a series of video interviews with the candidates for DC mayor and the DC Council Ward 1, Ward 6, and at-large seats.

Photo by Larry Miller on Flickr.

I spoke with almost all of the candidates over the past 2 weeks, and Martin Moulton recorded the conversation on video. We'll divide it into a series of topical posts for each race, looking at what each candidate for a particular contest said about housing, transportation, education, and more.

As we post each portion, this post will include a link to that segment. Below is the list of races, candidates (arbitrarily, in the order they spoke to me), and topics for posts.

Ward 6 council: Charles Allen, Darrel ThompsonWard 1 council: Jim Graham, Brianne NadeauCouncil at large: John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio (and see note below)Mayor: Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Muriel Bowser, Andy Shallal (and see note below)All races:How did we select the candidates to speak to? We polled contributors on which candidates they wanted to hear from, and included anyone that contributors nominated.

Mary Cheh is unopposed for re-election in Ward 3. Kenyan McDuffie's Ward 5 re-election contest appears unlikely to be competitive, and contributors did not feel they needed to hear more about that one. There are no competitive primaries for mayor or council outside of the Democratic Party. Finally, we did not include races for Delegate, Shadow Senator or Shadow Representative, or state party.

Besides the candidates listed here, we reached out to Anita Bonds, Vincent Orange, and Andy Shallal. Shallal was scheduled to speak with me on Thursday, February 13, but the interview was canceled due to the snow and we have not yet been able to reschedule we were subsequently able to talk with him.

Orange returned one voicemail and expressed interest in the interview but never followed up from multiple subsequent attempts to reach him. We never received any response from Bonds to any of our inquiries. We would, however, still be happy to speak to any of these candidates before the relevant interviews go live.

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood.


Most mayoral challengers oppose reducing parking minimums

At a forum last month, four candidates for DC mayor argued against a proposal by the Office of Planning to relax minimum parking requirements in transit-rich areas of the city. Andy Shallal and Tommy Wells didn't address it directly, though Shallal argued for more parking capacity while Wells argued for reducing parking demand.

The Office of Planning (OP) is proposing changes to the zoning code that would let property owners choose the right amount of parking in the highest density downtown neighborhoods, including developing areas like NoMa and Capitol Riverfront. Elsewhere, the zoning code would require one space per three units in apartment and condominium buildings away from transit corridors and half that near transit.

This proposal is the result of multiple compromises by planning director Harriet Tregoning to satisfy opponents' concerns. If the response of mayoral candidates is any indication, Tregoning's compromises have resulted in only more demands for compromises, an outcome that many predicted.

At the forum, moderator Davis Kennedy, editor of the Northwest Current, asked the following question:

Some have criticized our city planners for reducing the amount of required parking in new apartment buildings in some neighborhoods and for allowing apartments in single family homes. The fear is that it will substantially reduce on street parking availability. Others feel if we did not reduce the new apartment parking requirements, as underground parking is so expensive, it would contribute to much higher rents. What do you think?
Kennedy asked a good question that fairly represented both sides of the issue. Here are the answers of each candidate, with the portions that directly answer the question in bold:

Muriel Bowser:

Bowser directly opposes OP's proposal, then argues that expanding alternative transportation is the better solution:

I think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong, and that's why I introduced emergency legislation that in some cases would limit the expansion of visitor parking. Walking in Georgetown neighborhoods, walking all around ward 2, people tell me that DDOT got it wrong and we stopped it working with your councilmember who joined me in that effort.

This is what I know: our city's roaring. We'll have 200,000 new people here by the year 2040 and not everyone will be able to drive. I approach our transportation system in a balanced way. We have to have excellent public transportation. We have to have excellent bikeshare or bike parking, bike lanes. And we have to have roads that work and the ability to park.

It's very important that we approach our entire transportation system with a balance. We asked the Office of Planning not to eliminate parking minimums, because that was their first plan, but to look at a way to manage it in a better way.

This has become the standard way for elected officials opposing OP's proposal to frame the issue, and Evans and Orange follow suit. But fewer parking requirements and more multimodal streets solve different problems. Reducing parking requirements prevents regulatory-driven overbuilding of parking, which induces greater demand for parking and streets and makes housing less affordable. Bike lanes won't do that.

What's also concerning is that she sees alternative transportation as needed because "not everyone will be able to drive." Everyone I know who uses bike lanes, buses and so on also is able to drive and does whenever they want to.

Jack Evans:

Evans goes the furthest in opposing OP's proposal, saying he would keep the 1958 minimum parking requirements currently in place:

The Office of Planning definitely got this wrong. I agree with keeping the parking requirements just as they are, and I'm joining with Councilmember Bowser and Councilmember Cheh to address that with the Office of Planning. Taking away more parking spaces in this city is a terrible idea.

What we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation, something I've done in my 22 years on the Council. I served on the Metro Board and was the advocate for not only completing the 103-mile system that currently exists but for expanding Metro and someday we hope to have a Metro in Georgetown.

Secondly, bike lanes—we have more bike lanes in Ward 2 than in all the other wards combined and we will continue to promote bike as another alternative transportation. Light rail—again something this Council has supported, building the light rail system that will connect Georgetown to downtown and to the eastern parts of this city. So the alternative means are very important but keeping the parking as it is is also very critical.

He repeats Bowser's framing by saying that "what we have to do is focus on alternative means of transportation," taking credit for bike lanes in Ward 2 that everyone knows would have happened without him.

Reta Jo Lewis:

Lewis addresses the issue the least directly, offering general arguments for more parking. She says it would be "unacceptable" to "eliminate any parking inside of buildings," but minimum parking requirements apply to new buildings.

I served as the chief of staff in the Department of Public Works when it used to be called DPW. I want you to know that parking is one of the most important things any agency does when it deals with transportation.

Now I live right downtown, right on 5th and Mass. And I've watched everything get built. And what I've watched is not any more parking spaces coming on. And it would be unacceptable to allow our offices of administration to eliminate any parking inside of buildings.

What we have to do is continue to offer a comprehensive strategy, a comprehensive plan, of how residents, not just downtown, but in all of our neighborhoods, especially like Georgetown. In your 2028 Plan you specifically talked about parking. It is fair for us in communities to have parking spaces.

Vincent Orange:

Orange, like Evans, specifically supports the existing minimum residential parking requirement of one space per unit. His unique bit of unhelpful framing is to pit new residents against long-time residents:

I also think that the Office of Planning got this one wrong. There needs to be a proper balance. If you're gonna keep building units, then there at least should be a parking spot per unit. Clearly there needs to be a balance here in the District of Columbia. We're getting more and more residents.

But also that balance has to include those residents that have been here during the bad times, to still be able to be here in the good times, and allowed to travel throughout this city and be able to find parking. So there has to be a balance.

I applaud those that really are really studying this issue, to make sure there are bike lanes, there's light rail, there's transportation needs being addressed by Metro and others. But there has to be a balance. And I believe that balance can only be maintained by when you build units there should be parking associated with those units.

It's at this point that one notices none of the candidates have responded to Kennedy's argument for reducing minimum parking requirements, that it promotes affordable housing that enables long-time residents to stay in DC. Bowser and others have complained about the high rents on 14th Street for example, but part of those rents are needed to pay for minimum parking requirements.

Andy Shallal:

Shallal doesn't address minimum parking requirements, but offers complaints about insufficient parking:

I agree there's a problem, obviously, with parking. Owning a business in the District, it's very difficult as it is. And when my customers tell me they're having a hard time parking, it really makes it even that much more difficult to attract business and keep business.

It's very interesting: often times I will get a lease for a space to be able to open a restaurant, and then all the neighbors get upset because there's no parking there. I have nothing to do with the way that it was zoned and suddenly I am the one that's at fault and needs to find parking for all the people that have to come in.

The other I think we can't really address parking unless we address public transportation. I think that's one of the major issues is the fact that a lot of people want to see the Metro open later, especially on the weekends. They want to see it later. Maybe we can go for 24 hours. A lot of my patrons and my customers, my employees, would like to be able to see that.

The other thing is that increasing the hours of the parking meters is not working for many of my customers and I think we need to bring it back to 6:30.

This is concerning given that Shallal has made affordable housing a central tenet of his campaign. His platform doesn't include any positions on transportation.

His only position on parking that he offers in his response is that parking meters shouldn't be enforced after 6:30pm. However, this a peak period of demand for scarce on-street parking, and pricing on-street parking according to demand would be a better solution.

Tommy Wells:

While Wells is the only candidate to not offer arguments against OP's proposal, he also doesn't argue in support of reducing parking requirements. Instead, he uses the opportunity to argue for his bill to give OP the power to not allow residents of new buildings to receive residential parking permits:

I think that on something like parking, like everything else, we have to work smart. First thing is that if a building does put the parking space in there and everyone gets a residential parking sticker, we're going to wipe out all the neighborhood parking in Georgetown if they have the neighborhood right to park in the neighborhood. We have to be a lot smarter than that.

You know you've adopted a plan in Georgetown that does say that there be a new Metro station here. We'll bring in a streetcar system which I've been a champion of. As the city grows if our businesses are going to survive, and our local businesses, people have to come into Georgetown and out and they all shouldn't come in a car.

One of the bills that I've proposed (which I proposed last time, and this Council killed, and I've re-proposed) is when we have infill development and we put a building in there and they want anything from the government they negotiate that the residents at the building will not get residential parking. We can't build any more residential parking. And so, on the streets, we cannot add more spaces. So its more important to be smart.

While Wells' bill is good, it's disappointing that none of the candidates offered any arguments in support of scaling back parking requirements. Georgetown is a difficult audience with which to discuss minimum parking requirements, but if we are serious about affordable housing and not allowing our city to turn into a car sewer we have to address parking requirements directly instead of changing the subject.


Worried about redrawing school boundaries? Why not try controlled choice zones instead?

DC Councilmembers voiced anxiety about an impending change in school boundaries at a hearing last week. But instead of redrawing boundaries, maybe we should replace them with school choice zones.

Photo by Cedward Brice on Flickr.

Three education policy analysts recently penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for "controlled choice zones" in parts of DC. They suggested that in certain gentrifying areas, students should no longer be assigned to their closest neighborhood school.

Instead, families would list their preferences within a certain zone, and an algorithm would match them with one of their preferred schools while simultaneously taking family income into account. The objective would be to ensure that all schools within the zone have a mix of socioeconomic groups.

The concept is intriguing, but why limit it to certain neighborhoods? We should consider extending it to include all students enrolling in public schools in the District, in any part of town and any time of year.

The San Francisco plan, modified

Currently, DC students have a right to enroll in their in-boundary DCPS school at any time. They can also apply to enroll in out-of-boundary DCPS schools or charter schools through a lottery. Under a District-wide controlled choice model, there would be no more school boundaries.

San Francisco has a city-wide controlled choice model, with no school boundaries and algorithmic school placement. But the city isn't divided into zones, so conceivably a student could be placed at a school on the other side of town.

This system aggravates many San Francisco parents, but the resulting educational diversity has created one of the highest quality urban school systems in the country.

That's because research has shown that a balance of socioeconomic status produces the best educational outcomes, both overall and for students at each socioeconomic level.

There's already evidence of that in the District. The top elementary school in terms of student growth is not Janney, Mann, or another school populated entirely with students from within a wealthy boundary. It's Hyde, whose students are evenly split between affluent Georgetown families and out-of-boundary lottery applicants.

Obviously, the central political hurdle to this system is getting people to give up the right to buy their way into a good school district. But the only way to provide diverse schools is to eliminate the property right to the school closest to your house and place students using an algorithm. There's no way around it.

But that doesn't mean we have to adopt the San Francisco system. With controlled choice zones, we could have many of the educational benefits of greater diversity without the anxiety of possibly being placed in a school far from home.

Benefits of District-wide controlled choice

The authors of the Post op-ed suggest that parents be allowed to choose any DCPS or charter school within a given zone. They limit their proposal to "strategic parts of the city (namely, Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Dupont/Logan Circle, and Petworth)."

This would promote greater diversity, resulting in school quality and test score growth. And it would create a system that values strong neighborhood schools, regardless of whether they are charter or DCPS.

However, expanding controlled choice zones to the entire District would deliver several additional benefits. Imagine if the lottery website allowed you to prioritize all of the elementary schools within 2 miles of your home, middle schools within 2.5 miles of your home, or high schools within 3 miles of your home.

Again, these schools would include both DCPS and charter schools. If the radius runs up against the District line, you could extend the radius in the opposite direction to compensate so as to have the same amount of choices. The algorithmic placement of students within these zones would generate the following additional benefits:

  • No parents would have to watch kids from across town attend a nearby high-performing charter school that didn't admit their own kids.
  • More affluent families moving east would be integrated into existing schools, raising the performance of all students.
  • If this enrollment system includes mid-year enrollees, students who move to town or are expelled from a school mid-year would be placed using the same algorithm. Charters would thus grapple with the same mid-year enrollees as DCPS.
  • Students wouldn't be allowed to transfer within their zone during the year, putting a stop to the practice of "counseling out" students with greater educational challenges.
This proposal isn't as far-fetched as it may seem to some. Chancellor Henderson has floated the idea of creating multiple District-wide high schools open to all, in addition to more District-wide magnet schools. And the three leading challengers to Mayor Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary—Councilmembers Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, and Jack Evans—have all committed to supporting neighborhood preference in charter school admissions.

Some may object that confining students to schools within one zone would limit choice, making zip code one's education destiny. But the reality is that most students already travel within the distances I'm suggesting.

In fact, a DC government task force cited the short commuting distances of charter students as a reason that neighborhood preference in admissions is unnecessary.

Furthermore, what if the choice one wants is a diverse school? Under the District's current system, families don't always have that choice. Schools that begin to attract affluent students can quickly "flip" from overwhelmingly low-income to the opposite.

Will all zones in DC benefit?

Another objection is that some zones in DC wouldn't have nearly enough non-poor students to create the diversity this plans aims for. However, it's precisely in these poorer parts of town—Wards 5, 7, and 8—that the plan would deliver the most support.

Because the plan would force charters to share the burden of mid-year enrollees and would stop mid-year "voluntary" transfers, enrollment numbers in DCPS schools in high-poverty areas would stabilize.

Also, as more affluent families move into these parts of town—a trend that many consider inevitable—this model ensures they will be integrated into existing schools for the maximum benefit of all students. There will be no more "flipping" of schools.

Some affluent families may not move into poor neighborhoods because they don't want to share in the work of supporting community institutions. The result will be a slower migration into these neighborhoods, but one that is more equitable for all and prevents displacement of long-time residents.

Finally, the controlled choice model would solve the intractable problem of overcrowding at Wilson High School. DCPS officials seem hesitant to solve the problem by returning Ellington High School in Georgetown to its original function as a neighborhood high school drawing students from Hardy Middle School.

That has left parents in Ward 4 whose elementary schools feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson particularly nervous. DCPS may decide to route those students into a less desirable feeder pattern.

And if that happens, it could generate a federal civil rights lawsuit, as school officials will have drawn boundaries that reflect racial and socioeconomic fault lines in the District. In fact, it was just such a civil rights lawsuit in San Francisco that led a judge to require the controlled choice model they have today.

Let's consider adopting the controlled choice model for DC. It works because it prioritizes both school choice and neighborhood schools. What do you think?


The DCPS middle school plan, pt. 1: District-wide rather than piecemeal, with a chance of charter collaboration

This week's DC Council hearing on school boundaries and feeder patterns gave the public some clues to the kinds of changes Chancellor Kaya Henderson has in mind for DCPS middle schools as she works on a plan to improve them.

Photo from DC Council website.

The ongoing review of how DC students are assigned to public schools has generated a lot of anxiety. With a number of low-performing elementary schools now on the upswing, parents are focusing on the state of DCPS middle schools. That's the point at which many families have either been leaving the system or competing to apply for out-of-bounds spots at one or two desirable options.

Appearing at an education committee hearing on Monday, Henderson made no commitments to any particular package of reforms. But her exchanges with Councilmembers point up some of the questions she's grappling with as she devises a middle school plan she has promised to incorporate into her budget proposal for the 2014-15 school year.

Here are two of the issues that came up. We'll take up some of the others in another post.

Timing and the pace of planning

At a previous hearing in November, Catania chastised Henderson for not already having a plan in place to improve middle school quality. (At Monday's hearing, he also pointed out that much of the anxiety surrounding the boundary review process would disappear if schools were of the same quality across the District.) He gave Henderson a deadline of mid-December to come up with a plan.

Instead, Henderson responded with a letter outlining the system's "measured approach." The overarching DCPS plan, she said, was this: First, improve the quality of teachers. Second, align the curriculum to the Common Core State Standards. Third—this year—standardize elementary school offerings. Fourth—next year—do the same thing for middle schools. (High schools will be the focus the year after that.)

Catania and others have expressed impatience with this deliberate pace. A parents' group in Ward 6 has complained that there's already a DCPS-approved plan to improve that area's middle schools and wants to know why it can't just be implemented. Ward 5 parents have questions about another middle school initiative there, apparently stalled in part because of concerns about attracting students.

Catania has urged that DCPS beef up the academic offerings at Hardy Middle School in affluent Ward 2, which draws almost 90% of its students from other neighborhoods, many of them from Wards 7 and 8. If more neighborhood families could be drawn to Hardy, it would relieve the pressure on the overcrowded Deal Middle School in Ward 3, which is currently the only DCPS middle school that is in high demand.

But Henderson prefers a District-wide approach. These "one-off" improvements, she said at the hearing, would lead to "inefficiency" and the "disproportionality that forced us to close schools last year." In other words, if you put desirable options at some schools and not others, you'll end up with an exodus out of the unimproved schools and into the improved ones.

As evidence that the across-the-board approach eventually works, Henderson pointed to the fact that some previously undesirable elementary schools, such as Powell and Bruce-Monroe, now have students "flocking to them." She also pointed to some middle schools that are seeing increases in enrollment, including Jefferson in Ward 6 and Hart in Ward 8.

There may be another reason for Henderson's District-wide approach: making improvements at some middle schools and not others might also produce negative political consequences in the areas that get left out. But by holding off on individual changes, Henderson may lose parents who already have their kids enrolled in neighborhood elementary schools that are improving and want a high-quality middle school option immediately, if not sooner. It also seems that she's reneging on, or at least delaying, some plans that DCPS set in motion years ago.

Cooperation between DCPS and charters

Henderson waded into this subject with some apprehension, noting that she got "clobbered" when she suggested at a previous hearing that DC could "funnel" some students into charters for middle school. This time, however, she got a warmer reception, at least from Councilmember Tommy Wells.

Wells made it clear that, like Henderson, he sees DCPS and charter schools as part of a common fund of public schools for District families to draw on. When a student leaves a DCPS school for a charter school, he said, it doesn't have to be viewed as DCPS's "failure." For the student that ends up with a high-quality free education, it's a success.

Against that background, he asked whether the committee that is currently reviewing boundaries and feeder patterns is considering patterns that would include both traditional public and charter schools.

"That is certainly on the table," said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who also appeared at the hearing and who is chairing the advisory committee. (The committee may need to get an additional table, considering how many things Smith said were on it.)

Smith issued one caveat: While the mayor has the authority to change school boundaries, and Henderson has control over feeder patterns, neither of them directly controls charter schools. Smith indicated that the Council might need to step in before cross-sector feeder patterns could be implemented.

Henderson said she's been in conversations with charter schools about this kind of cooperation, including the possibility that a new language-immersion charter middle and high school might give a preference to DCPS students coming out of elementary-level language immersion programs. (DCPS has no dual-language middle or high schools two dual-language programs for middle-grade students, one at Oyster-Adams and the other at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC). CHEC is expanding the program upwards at the pace of a grade a year and is currently offering it to 9th graders.) While there's no agreement with the school on this yet, Smith said the advisory committee is also looking into the possibility.

More generally, Henderson said that DCPS has "learned some lessons" from charters, but she acknowledged that the system "still struggles with" some things that charters seem to do better.

Catania, who did some of the "clobbering" the last time DCPS-charter cooperation came up, made it clear that he had some cross-sector cooperation of a different kind in mind. He urged Henderson to go talk to the head of KIPP DC's KEY Academy middle school and ask him how they manage to achieve impressive results with a high-poverty student body. KEY, he said, is second only to Deal in student achievement among District middle schools.

Henderson said she would do that. That's a fine idea, but she probably already has a pretty good sense of what KIPP schools do to get their results. The problem, in a system as large and unwieldy as DCPS, is more likely to be the implementation.

DCPS has been trying to beat high-performing charter schools for years. And while the attempt has led to some improvements, particularly at the elementary level, it hasn't yet worked for middle schools. Maybe instead of trying to beat them, it's time—at least in some areas—to join them.

Still to come: making connections between schools in the same feeder pattern, K-8 versus stand-alone middle schools, and innovations in programming and curriculum.


Shallal and Wells air views on education at mayoral forum

At a debate among mayoral candidates in Georgetown on Thursday, Andy Shallal said DC schools need more social services to deal with the effects of poverty, and Tommy Wells vowed to put high-quality elementary schools within walking distance of every family.

The debate, sponsored by the Current Newspapers, featured 6 of the declared candidates, including Shallal and Wells, but incumbent Mayor Vince Gray was absent.

The video above shows Shallal's response to a question from moderator Davis Kennedy, publisher of the Current papers. Kennedy's question, which is hard to hear on the video, was essentially whether Shallal would retain DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, given recent signs of progress in the school system.

Shallal took issue with that premise, saying that the achievement gap between white and black students "has gotten wider since this so-called education reform has actually taken place." He also took a swipe at Henderson for her recently reported remarks that, as Shallal put it, "we cannot do middle schools."

Shallal called for a moratorium on closing neighborhood schools and said that schools must be able to offer "wraparound services" to counteract the effects of poverty on students.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells also addressed education, touting the success of elementary schools in his ward. He said that all of them have waiting lists and that they are the most economically integrated schools in the District. As mayor, he said, he would extend that success to all other wards as well.

Wells didn't address the question of middle school quality. Parents, including some in Ward 6, have recently been complaining that there are few good options for their children after elementary school.

Public Spaces

Can Eastern Market park become a gathering place?

Barracks Row Main Street is studying ways to redesign the public space around the Eastern Market Metro station. While many neighbors see the potential to make a great gathering place, others don't want anything to change at all.

Councilmember Wells leads a meeting about the park. Photo from Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates is leading the Congressionally-funded Eastern Market Metro Park study, which will explore ways "to renew and upgrade" the two trapezoid-shaped public plazas, medians and two smaller triangular plazas on Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 7th and 9th streets. Despite their location between busy Barracks Row and Eastern Market, the spaces are underused and poorly maintained.

Weinstein led another study in 2010 that explored ways to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue around the public space, making it a complete square. But that effort ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and those concerned about the plan's traffic impacts.

The new study will look at function, aesthetics, and the best way to accommodate all modes of transportation, including better pedestrian pathways, the location of the Capitol Bikeshare station and the Metrobus stops in the south plaza, and managing pedestrian/vehicular conflicts. It will also produce detailed designs for a children's play area in the north plaza, and look at an innovative storm water retention system as part of the effort to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Anacostia River.

Planners say that "nothing is off the table," except for consolidating the square by rerouting streets around it.

Will more activity mean more noise, or a better public space?

In July, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells hosted a pair of public meetings to hear about the types of changes residents would like to see around the Metro station. After a brief presentation, we broke into small groups where we discussed our thoughts on the current square and what we would and would not like to see in it in the future.

Aerial photo of the parks today from Google Maps.

My group seemed opposed to any changes at all. They questioned why money was being spent on this, whether it was legal and who this was to help. Some people seemed mainly concerned about stoplight timing, which did not seem to allow for the speedy movement of cars and pedestrians through the area.

They scoffed at the idea that the project had the word "park" in it. "Who said they wanted a park here?" one person asked.

One major concern they voiced focused on the lack of maintenance within the existing plaza. Trees went unwatered, rats were allowed to nest and several items like benches and lights had fallen into disrepair. "Why not fix what we have first?" some asked. For the same reason, group members also opposed any kind of water feature, along with music, food trucks or eating areas, which would produce noise and trash.

Group members seemed resigned to the idea of a children's play area as long as it wouldn't kill any trees, but their primary point was that it should be "a park, not an amusement park." But we did find universal support of better storm water management, lots of trees, more benches and non-polluting lights.

How to embrace space's potential

While many residents place an emphasis on creating a quiet place that is easy to traverse, what the neighborhood really needs is to activate the Eastern Market Metro Park with an emphasis on creating a place for people to play, work, shop, eat, and rest. By making it into a great place, the kind that people wanted to stay in instead of pass through, it would have a greater constituency that could push for better maintenance.

The space today. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

It seems my group was the outlier, because when other groups reported what they had discussed, they strongly supported the idea of an interactive water feature like those at Yards Park or Canal Park. Several suggested adding a stage for live performances and various gatherings. Others mentioned food trucks and more dining tables. One group focused on tying the public space in with the library at 7th and Pennsylvania.

The meeting's organizers are collecting additional comments about what should happen here. In my comments, I suggested that an interactive water feature and playground area in the north plaza was a natural way to attract kids and families. It's also a perfect area for a statue of a local person. In the eastern median, I recommended installing a dog run.

The south plaza should become a space where people will linger. Furniture, like movable chairs, benches, and permanent fixtures like tables with chess boards on top, will help draw people. A low stage for music and events could support programming while doubling as a seating area the rest of the time. The city should allow food trucks to use the parking spaces along D Street.

We should also use the western median to connect Barracks Row and Eastern Market with a brick walkway down the middle and to add spaces for vendor booths on the weekends, creating a stronger connection between the two commercial areas. The smaller triangles could become larger by removing the sections of D Street that separate them and then improved by adding benches, more permeable surface, and rain gardens.

Finally, a mid-block crosswalk across Pennsylvania Avenue with an advanced stop line and even a traffic light will help people cross. People want to walk here, and we should let them do it safely.

Future meetings, design work planned

The meeting's organizers will put a recap of the meeting on their website, but it's not up as of yet. There are also several ways to offer comments, including an interactive map and a suggestion box at Eastern Market, though the deadline is today.

However, there are more public meetings planned for later this summer. Planners hope to complete two alternate master plan concepts for the Eastern Market Metro Park within 6 months.

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