Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Education

Education


Are long waitlists for DC's public preschools hurting the entire school system?

At some DC Public Schools, the programs that prepare kids for kindergarten by teaching pre-literacy and math skills, like learning the alphabet and counting, are in such demand that many neighborhood residents are unable to enroll their children. If DCPS doesn't expand the number of preschool slots where demand is highest, it risks losing those families to charter and other non-DCPS schools.


A preschool classroom. Photo by Herald Post on Flickr.

Officially called the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program, it offers Preschool-3 (PS3) and Pre-Kindergarten-4 (PK4) classes at elementary schools around the city through a lottery called My School DC. When it opens on December 14th, thousands of families from around the city will enter in hopes of securing a seat at the school of their choice.

To apply, families fill out a single online application for participating public charter schools (PS3 through 12) DCPS out-of-boundary schools (K-12), most DCPS ECE (PS3 and PK4) programs including programs at in-boundary schools, and DCPS citywide selective high schools (9-12).

Each student may apply to as many as 12 schools per application. The My School DC lottery is designed to match students with the schools they want most, and maximize the number of students who are matched.

As 3 and 4 year olds are not required by law to attend school, DCPS is not required to offer a seat for every in-bound child. Therefore a child must enter the lottery to secure an ECE seat. DCPS is current piloting program that offers guaranteed seats for in-bounds PS3 and PK4 student at six Title I (low income) elementary schools across the city (Amidon-Bowen Elementary, Bunker Hill Elementary, Burroughs Elementary, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, Stanton Elementary, and Van Ness Elementary) but families are required apply through the lottery to exercise this right.

Preferences are given to students that are in-bounds and have a sibling that attends the school, in-bounds students without a sibling at the school, and students that are out-of-bound and have a sibling that attends the school, in that order. A majority of elementary schools are able to offer seats to all of their in-bounds ECE students. If there is a waitlist, students are ordered by the lottery based on the algorithm, which accounts for any preferences a student may have.

The in-bounds waitlists can be very long

The list of schools that are able to accept all of their in-bounds students into their ECE programs is shrinking. Last year 25 schools had to waitlist one or more of their in-bounds ECE students. The schools on this list put an average of 25% of their in-bounds students on the waitlist, although in some cases it was much higher.

Of the four schools that waitlisted 50% or more of their in-bounds students, two were located in Ward 3 (Stoddert and Oyster-Adams) and offered only PK4 slots, while the others were located in Ward 6 (Brent and Maury) and offered positions for both PS3 and PK4 students.

Brent and Maury provide examples of how quickly things can change:


Table by the author.

These numbers offer a poor introduction to many families that DCPS is trying to attract and retain. The situation is worse for new families, as children with older siblings in the school receive priority over other in-bounds students. This past year, in-bounds students without siblings had a 24% chance of getting into Maury's PS3 class and no chance of getting into Brent as they had 39 students receiving the in-bounds with sibling preference for only 30 PS3 spots. While there is a chance that students could receive a PK4 seat the following year, the fact remains that a large percentage of in-bounds families will not experience the best recruiting tool DCPS has to offer.

Families are deciding about middle school when their kids are three years old

At a time when DCPS is taking steps to encourage families to stay beyond elementary school, potential new families can see these large waitlists as a deterrent. DCPS also risks losing these students to private schools, DC public charters, or other districts with more established middle school options.

Even if the student returns for kindergarten, DCPS has missed an opportunity to build loyalty with these students and their families, which matters in neighborhoods with unsettled middle school situations like Capitol Hill. Due to the increasing number of middle school options, some families are choosing to leave DCPS elementary schools as early as second grade.

Also, the charter middle schools that are popular with Capitol Hill families such as BASIS and Washington Latin start in fifth grade, which also pushes up the Middle School Decision timeline. As a result, DCPS may only have a few years with a student that starts in kindergarten to demonstrate they are a viable option beyond fourth grade.

Here's what DCPS can do about this problem

One option is for DCPS to eliminate PS3 classes in the schools with long in-bounds waitlists and convert those seats into PK4 seats. This still may not provide room for all in-bounds students, but by bringing in a larger percentage of the in-bounds population for one year it would offer a better experience for more families and would reduce the "Golden Ticket" feeling that divides communities into haves and have-nots at three years old.

It is notable that in Northwest DC, only two of the twelve elementary schools that flow to Wilson High School offer PS3 classes. While many of those twelve schools still have to waitlist in-bounds students applying for PK4 seats, in several cases they are able to accommodate a much larger percentage of their in-bounds students. As DCPS tries to create a "Deal and Wilson for all," Eastern High School and the schools that flow to it offer DCPS a chance to re-create that model, which starts for most families at PK4.

As more families choose to stay in the city, it is likely that DCPS will have additional schools that experience large increases in the number of in-bound applicants from one year to the next. However better demographic information in the school districts would allow DCPS to predict and then plan for these large increases in order to minimize the waitlists.

As DC changes, its preschool programs will need to as well

The DCPS ECE program is a great resource for District families, and is often the envy of our friends in Maryland and Virginia. While it is often derided as "free day care," ask parents with children in one of the classes around the city and instead they will talk about the excitement of their students describing metamorphosis and reading and writing their first words. They will also talk about the relationships their children have developed with the other students and the sense of community a neighborhood school can provide.

As DC continues to change, DCPS must be able to anticipate these changes and adapt as well. Investing in information gathering will benefit DCPS by allowing neighborhood schools to better predict how large rising classes of in-bounds three year olds may be.

DCPS has made significant strides convincing DC families that the DCPS elementary schools will provide an excellent education for their children. In fact, they have been so successful that families are clamoring for seats in their ECE programs. However, the next phase, persuading DC families to believe in DCPS middle schools, begins with families' first interactions with DCPS.

DCPS has the ability to make that interaction better.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that families who wanted to claim an in-bounds state at one of the six schools that guarantees admission to their ECE program did not need to go through the My School DC lottery. That's incorrect. Students must still apply through the lottery to claim their in-bounds seat.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Education


Education in multiple languages gives kids a big boost, which means high demand for DC's programs

Seven DC public schools and six charters teach children in not just one language, but two. It's an approach that helps native and non-native English speakers, poor and affluent children alike, the latest research shows. But 13 schools are far from enough to meet the demand.


Photo by sussex.library on Flickr.

Children pick up languages very quickly. When you think about it, it's quite an amazing feat to learn one language when you know zero. Their brains can easily pick up languages in the early years, and in much of the world, children learn multiple languages.

Traditionally, US education doesn't start other languages until middle school, when the window of best opportunity has closed. A once-a-week Spanish lesson isn't enough either. But a few DC schools offer true immersion, where many lessons are in a language besides English.

Unfortunately, those programs are so successful that some boast among the longest waiting lists in the city. With few such programs concentrated in even fewer neighborhoods, it's not an option open to everyone.

What is immersion and where is it in DC?

To be an "immersion," "dual language," or "bilingual" school, at least half of the instructional time has to happen in a language other than English, even for kids who are native English speakers. This isn't the same as teaching "foreign language" or "world language" as a separate subject; instead, students might have their math or history lessons in Spanish, or Chinese, or another language depending on the school.

DC Public Schools has seven bilingual elementary schools, all in Spanish: Oyster-Adams in Woodley Park, Marie Reed in Adams Morgan, Bancroft in Mount Pleasant, Powell in Columbia Heights, Bruce-Monroe in Park View, Cleveland around U Street, and Tyler in Capitol Hill.


Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

A number of charter schools also teach in two languages: DC Bilingual in Columbia Heights, Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) in Brightwood and Brookland/Woodridge, and Mundo Verde in Truxton Circle all teach Spanish. There's also Sela, which teaches Hebrew in the Riggs Park area; Stokes, in Brookland, which teaches in French and Spanish; and Yu Ying, near Catholic University, in Mandarin Chinese.

The only private immersion school in DC I'm aware of is the Washington International School, which offers Spanish, French, or a small Dutch program only for native speakers. Some private preschools teach dual language and some teach only in one. CommuniKids runs a Spanish-immersion preschool in Tenleytown as well as both French and Spanish in Falls Church and Loudoun.

When my family took a tour, the CommuniKids administrators explained that most of their students speak English at home, but they teach entirely in Spanish; kids at that age pick up Spanish very quickly, and the Spanish at school balances out with English at home.

Of course, that's not a good strategy for schools serving non-English native speakers, such as immigrants. Many of DC Public Schools's bilingual schools are located in areas with a high percentage of native Spanish speakers (such as Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights) because many started as a way to help "English language learners" (which was called ESL when I was in school) better participate.

However, according to Vanessa Bertelli of the DC Language Immersion Project, a group advocating for more language immersion education in DC, the latest research shows that immersion helps all students, native and non-native English speaking alike.

Is immersion good for native English speakers?

Once, many people in the US believed that if you spoke to a child in two languages, he or she would learn language more slowly overall. In fact, 30 years ago, some educators discouraged bilingual parents from speaking a language other than English to their children from birth.

Today, psychologists believe there isn't a disadvantage, and in fact are many advantages, to speaking multiple languages at home.

Bertelli says that new research shows the same for school. According to a longitudinal study of 85,000 North Carolina public school students, in immersion programs where close to half of students speak the partner language, students consistently outperform their peers by close to two grade levels, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and home language.

Other studies of immersion programs that don't start until grades 2-5 "show evidence of a temporary lag in specific English language skills such as spelling, capitalization, punctuation, word knowledge, and word discrimination," but after a year or two, these gaps disappear and there is no long-term disadvantage in English proficiency.

Some highly educated parents are able to help their children with reading and math at home, but they can't offer them instruction in another language. I've talked to parents in that position who felt that a language immersion program at their local DCPS school could keep them from leaving the system for a high-demand charter or private school, or even moving out of DC altogether.

For lower-income families, the value can be even greater. Start with the overall cognitive benefit: immersion helps close the achievement gap between children of high- and low-income families. Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Dahlberg write that "Children of color, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and English Language Learners make the greatest proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study."

Further, in an increasingly globalized economy, more and more jobs require other languages. The fastest-growing job categories in DC include health care, where bilingual workers command higher salaries, and hospitality and tourism, where the value of other languages is obvious. And knowing two languages makes it far easier to learn a third, compared to only knowing English.


Graph from the DC Immersion Project.

Unfortunately, there are currently no immersion programs east of the Anacostia River. This may originally have been because there are few native Spanish speakers east of the river, but evidence is growing that immersion is valuable even in schools with few children speaking the relevant language.

Immersion seats are in demand

DCPS is taking steps toward expanding bilingual programs, and immersion charter schools have created new options. However, space at immersion schools is not readily available. In fact, many immersion schools top the charts of the longest waitlists.

For pre-kindergarten at age three, LAMB and Mundo Verde lead the city with the longest waitlists, while three other bilingual charters are in the top 12.


Schools with the longest waiting lists for PK3. Bilingual schools highlighted in yellow. Orange bars are DCPS, blue bars are charters. Graph from District Measured.

For age four, bilingual Oyster-Adams in Woodley Park (and non-bilingual Janney in Tenleytown), which start at age four, both top the list. Yu Ying is the fourth highest among elementary schools which are not west of Rock Creek Park.



Schools with the longest waiting lists for PK3. Bilingual schools highlighted in yellow. Orange bars are DCPS, blue bars are charters. Graph from District Measured.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the value of immersion is to look at schools which have an immersion pre-kindergarten program alongside an English-only one, such as Marie Reed, Tyler, and Cleveland. The immersion waitlists are on average 2.2 times as long as the non-immersion ones.


Graph by the author.

Personally, while we are fortunate enough to live in boundary for a school (Ross) which has the second-highest DCPS waiting list at age three, it is not an immersion program. Our daughter is one-quarter Latin American and has been learning Spanish, but not from her parents. She speaks Spanish terrifically for her age, but we fear that in an English-only school she might lose it.

Unfortunately, the long waiting lists for immersion schools, especially nearest to our house, mean immersion may not be a viable option. If DCPS and charters are able to expand immersion programs, perhaps more children can benefit at just the time when their growing brains are ready to learn this valuable skill.

The DC Language Immersion Project is organizing a panel this Thursday, June 11. Greater Greater Washington education editor Natalie Wexler will moderate the panel, which is 7-9 pm at Tyler Elementary School, 1001 G Street SE.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Education


School waitlist data can tell us what families want

Charter and traditional public schools with the longest waitlists for the coming school year are clustered west of the Anacostia River, with bilingual programs generally leading the pack. But there's also a marked difference in demand for some schools that have similar test scores.

Earlier this month the District announced the results of the lottery that determines admission to many public schools, along with waitlists for each participating school. Families need to enter the lottery in order to apply to almost all charter schools and some DC Public Schools.

Students who want to go to their zoned DCPS school don't need to enter the lottery. But the lottery is the route for those who want to go to DCPS schools as out-of-bounds students or to an application-only DCPS school. Most families who want to send their children to a DCPS preschool program also need to use the lottery.


The size of the circles on the map correspond to the size of their waitlists. Click on map for an interactive version. All charts from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Families can list up to 12 choices. This year the vast majority were matched with one of them in the lottery's first round. But if families didn't get their first choice, they were waitlisted at any schools they placed higher than the one they were matched with.

Now that the lottery results are in, more than 8,500 students are on waitlists for charter schools, and almost 7,000 are on waitlists for at least one DCPS school. Families matched in the first round have until May 1 to enroll. Those who didn't get matched in the first round or who didn't participate can enter a second round until May 8.

Both DCPS and the Public Charter School Board have created tools to help families find schools that still have space available.

DC's Office of Revenue Analysis has published a series of interactive graphics illustrating the waitlist data on its blog, District, Measured.

Waitlist data roughly reflects demand

Roughly speaking, the waitlist data shows where the demand is for schools, both geographically and in terms of specialized programs. One caveat is that it doesn't reflect demand for neighborhood schools from those who live within a school's boundaries. If a lot of "by-right" students want to attend their neighborhood school, the school simply has to squeeze them all in.

With that caveat, the map above shows that demand is generally strongest for schools west of the Anacostia River. East of the river, there's more demand for charters than DCPS schools.


Click on graph to break down data by grade or ward.

For at least the second year in a row, Two Rivers, a charter school in NoMa, has the longest waitlist, with 1,381 names. The school will open a second campus this fall with 178 spaces in preschool through first grade. That campus, in a less central location at 820 26th Street NE, has a waitlist of 183.

The bar graph above also reveals how strong the demand continues to be for dual-language programs. With the exception of Two Rivers, the schools with the four longest waitlists are all bilingual.

Schools with similar test scores aren't always equally popular

Perhaps the most intriguing of ORA's graphics is the one that plots waitlist numbers against reading proficiency scores on DC's standardized tests.


Click on graph for an interactive version.

Generally speaking, the schools with the highest scores also have the highest demand. But there are exceptions that show families don't make decisions about schools just on the basis of test scores.

For example, Bancroft Elementary in Mt. Pleasant and Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary in Congress Heights have similar unimpressive reading proficiency rates: 31% for Bancroft and 32% for King. But Bancroft's waitlist has 460 names on it, while King has no waitlist at all.

Why the discrepancy? The Washington City Paper's Aaron Wiener opined that it's "surely because Bancroft feeds into well-regarded Deal Middle School and Wilson High School, while King feeds into lower-performing Hart Middle School and Ballou High School."

But there are almost certainly other factors at work as well. For one thing, while Congress Heights, in Ward 8, may be on the rise, it hasn't yet seen anything like the gentrification that's been going on in Mt. Pleasant for decades. And it's in a far less central location.

And the reason for the low reading score at Bancroft may be that 55% of the school's students are English language learners. The school's math proficiency rate is 56%—more than twice the 25% math proficiency rate at King.

And if Wiener is right about the importance of feeder patterns, the discrepancy between the waitlists of two other schools with similar scores doesn't make sense. In that case, the one with the longer waitlist is the one that doesn't feed into Deal and Wilson.

Shepherd Elementary—which feeds into Deal—and Capitol Hill Montessori both have respectable 73% reading proficiency scores. But the waitlist at Shepherd is 394, while the waitlist at Capitol Hill Montessori, which feeds into lesser-regarded Eliot-Hine Middle School, is 716. It seems that the demand for a particular educational approach, like Montessori, can trump a less desirable feeder pattern.

And then there's Brent and Ludlow-Taylor elementary schools, both in Ward 6. Both have high proficiency rates of 77% in reading, but Brent's waitlist is 880, and Ludlow-Taylor's is 413. The schools are of similar size and have similar facilities, and neither feeds into Deal.

One explanation for the difference in waitlists may be that middle-class parents tend to choose schools where there's already a critical mass of families like them. Brent, for example, is 64% white, and only 6% of its students are on welfare, homeless, or otherwise at-risk. Ludlow-Taylor, on the other hand, is 21% white and has 32% of its students in the at-risk category.

Of course, the difference in waitlists doesn't mean Brent is a better school. In fact, it seems Ludlow-Taylor is doing an amazing job with a more challenging population. And the bottom line is that a whole lot of families who want to go to either of these schools are going to be disappointed.

Meanwhile, there are many DCPS schools operating below capacity. The real trick is to figure out how to make enough schools desirable so that we no longer have hundreds of students being turned away from schools they want to attend.

Correction: Originally, this post said that Capitol Hill Montessori fed into Eliot-Hine, relying on information from the DCPS website. In fact, the school goes through 8th grade, so it doesn't feed into any middle school. Nor does it feed into any high school, because it's a District-wide school rather than a neighborhood school. When they leave Capitol Hill Montessori, students have a right to attend the high school their home address is zoned for, or they can apply to another high school.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Education


We visited 18 schools in 90 days to play DC's annual preschool lottery. Here is what we learned.

Parents all over DC are awaiting the results of the city's annual lottery to get into public schools and public charter schools, which are expected to hit inboxes Friday. The anxiety level is high.


Lottery image from Shutterstock.

My husband and I entered the lottery to get a spot in a preschool program for our three-year-old child. Not all 3- or 4-year-olds are guaranteed a spot in a school, even in the school they are zoned to attend. Only in kindergarten is there a secured spot for students in the District (and for preschoolers in five low-income areas as a pilot program).

That means applying to multiple schools in hopes of getting into one. For months or years, parents like us have pored over school data, researched curricula, visited school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents, and asked questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city.

We all want to get our children into the "best" school that is the "right fit." And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.

Here is some of what we learned about the process and about some of the schools in DC.

Lotteries are enormously competitive. At both charters and neighborhood schools, alike, we often heard the refrain of "Our school is more difficult to get into than (insert the name of the Ivy League school du jour)." Some of these elementary schools receive hundreds if not thousands of applications, with just a few spots to fill. (We tried our best not to even entertain the idea of going to places like Brent Elementary, where it seems a family must win the actual lottery to afford a house that is in bounds for the school.)

The largest number of seats for incoming 3-year-olds that we saw was in the low 60s. Most were in the 20s and low 30s, and that is before the schools take into account the sibling and other preferences. The lottery gives preferences to the siblings of students already at the school and, in some schools, children of the school's staff.

After hearing about the difficult odds, parents in the open house sessions murmured and whispered among themselves. And at the end of the sessions, these same administrators would smile and say, "We invite you to apply for our school and to put us in the No. 1 spot." While inviting to hear, it also made us wonder whether some schools are trying to goose the numbers of applications, so they can continue to tout their desirability to future parents.

There are some amazing schools in DC. Really amazing. Yes, it's an urban district with lots of unevenness and inequality—some painfully obvious—but there are many schools that are thriving and excelling. For example, one of the first schools we walked into was Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, and I was very impressed with what we witnessed. From the outdoor garden to the music class, it felt like a warm, friendly building where children would grow and be challenged.

The inequities of the system are real. Why can't all of DC's kids go to a school like Peabody? Some schools have old buildings, or school leadership that doesn't demand and provide excellence, or general poverty, or parents who aren't or can't be more involved in their children's education, or a whole host of other issues all combined. But it still hurts to know that not every child can go to the excellent schools that the District has to offer.

PTAs are providing enormous amounts of extra funding and other types of aid to schools throughout the District. Many of the schools we visited have signature fundraisers that they put on every year in the hopes of buying a new kiln, supporting a gardening program, updating the school library, etc., etc. This is both invigorating and frustrating.

It's wonderful to see parents come together to support their children's education, and I expect one day that we will be heavily involved with our son's school's PTA. But what about parents who don't have extra money or extra time to give? What happens to schools without those extra resources? How can we as a city support ALL schools with resources for the arts as well as for writing, reading, math, social studies and science?

Demand for the city's language immersion schools is high and only growing, as many parents want to see their children gain valuable skills and knowledge about other cultures in this globalizing world. We are keenly interested in these schools and this model of teaching and ended up putting many of these schools near the top of our list, even though the chances of getting in are so thin. District leaders—and others throughout the country—should pay close attention to this demand and find ways to meet it.

School data—or the lack thereof—can make you start to twitch. My husband, a statistician, eagerly dove into the data that he could find about the results of past lotteries to help us figure out where we'd have the best chance of getting in. (We have no sibling or other preferences for 11 of the schools we chose, and we put our zoned school, which is still struggling to find its way, last on the list.)

But even with all his expertise, we still couldn't get a great grasp on the numbers because many of the charters don't supply that information. And that's just the information about the lottery. We had to ask basic questions at every school—publics and charters alike—about things like whether there is a full-time school nurse, whether there is a separate library in the building with a dedicated librarian, etc.

For the most part, all of the public schools had these things, but many of the charters did not (especially the newer ones). Regardless, we shouldn't have had to ask for this information. All of this should available publicly in a place where everyone can peruse and compare easily and quickly. No one should have to go into a school building to figure out these basic things.

There is data in DCPS's school profile pages, on the Public Charter School Board's website, and on LearnDC, but not everything we wanted to know.

The charters we visited are offering a solid education and a caring environment to students. It's unfortunate that the public schools don't have the flexibility to do some of the things the charters can, but there are great schools of both types. However, I firmly believe that if the charters receive public money they must be just as accountable and transparent to the residents of the District and their children as the public schools.

It was dispiriting to hear one charter administrator speak with some level of hubris as if her school answered to no one, least of all the parents of the children in her school. (That only happened at one place we visited, thankfully.) We as parents and citizens in the District should demand more transparency from the city and Congress about the charter schools whose budgets come, at least in part, from our tax dollars.

The whole process is heavily weighted in favor of wealthier residents. My husband and I both took off time from work—which we later made up in various forms of working late or on weekends—to attend the open houses. We are grateful that our jobs allowed us the flexibility to do so. Only some schools offered visits after working hours. For anyone who works a job on a shift or with little flexibility, visiting these schools would not have been an option. The schools need to do a better job of finding other ways to open their doors to potential parents.

An organization called DC School Reform Now has been making videos, or "virtual school tours," to address this problem. There aren't a lot of videos yet, though, and it's not going to close the gap entirely.

DC doesn't really offer "school choice" today. Yes, we did make choices about which schools to put on our list. Yes, with the charters and publics taken together, the city offers a variety of different models and philosophies. (We really liked the Montessori schools, for example, but they aren't for everyone.) And yes, there are some truly excellent schools in the District.

But ultimately, with so many people competing for few spots, our ability to get into those schools is mostly due to chance, not choice. Rather than being a process of choosing what's right for one's child, the current lottery is mostly about hoping that child can get into any good school at all.

An expanded version of this article originally appeared on Medium.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Education


For one group of kids from Anacostia, a dream deferred is turning into reality

In 1988, a DC philanthropist promised a group of low-income 7th-graders in the Anacostia neighborhood that he would pay for their college educations. What's happened to the kids since then shows that the presence of a caring adult can alter a child's life trajectory.


Photo courtesy of Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post.

A thought-provoking new documentary called Southeast 67 will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival this Friday. It traces the lives of some of the 67 kids "adopted" by Stewart W. Bainum, Sr., as part of the national I Have a Dream program. While it's not a simple success story, the film suggests Bainum's initiative ultimately helped many escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Bainum, a hotel and nursing home magnate who died last year, randomly selected one half of a class at Kramer Jr. High School (now Kramer Middle School) in Anacostia to be his beneficiaries.

He hired two people to mentor and help the kids with their schoolwork through high school, and pledged to pay their college tuition if they graduated by 2000.

By 1994, 72% of the "Dreamers" had graduated from high school. That was significant. The graduation rate for the half of the class not chosen for the program was only 27%.

But the idea behind the program was that students would go on to college right away, and few did. Only six of the 67 earned a BA on time, according to an article in the New York Times, and 36 never used any of the tuition money that was available to them.

Growing up amid a crack epidemic

It's clear that designers of the program vastly underestimated the challenges facing kids in Anacostia at the time. It was the height of the District's crack cocaine epidemic, and violence pervaded the Dreamers' lives.

One of the two adults hired to mentor the Dreamers, Steve Bumbaugh, estimates that only 15 to 20 of the kids were abused at home or had parents who were crack addicts. But, he says in an oral history on the film website, "Every single Dreamer witnessed somebody being murdered. They were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war."

Obviously, tutoring alone wasn't going to be enough to ensure the success of kids living in such an environment. But Bumbaugh and his colleague, Phyllis Rumbarger, went way beyond tutoring—and even way beyond providing food, organizing basketball games, and rousing tardy students from bed, all of which they did.

Essentially, they gave many of the Dreamers the encouraging, reliable adult presence that was otherwise lacking in their lives. In some cases, they forced that presence on the kids. And as writer Paul Tough and others have detailed, research has shown that the presence of a caring adult in a child's life can counteract the effects of toxic stress caused by growing up in poverty.

Still, it wasn't enough to get many on the path to college immediately. One Dreamer in the film, Martece Gooden Yates, seemed to have it all together in high school. What no one knew—not even Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—was that her mother had become addicted to crack.

She couldn't go away to college, she says, because she was afraid her mother would OD. She did enroll at the University of the District of Columbia, but she was already pregnant by then and soon dropped out.

Tenille Warren, who I've written about before, was a talented artist and seemed to have a promising future. But she wanted to make money to get away from an abusive mother, so she took a job at Safeway.

And Antwan Green was one of ten Dreamers who went off to the conservative all-white boarding school in Ohio that was Bainum's alma mater. Green had no trouble making straight As there, but quit when an uproar broke out after a white girl invited him to a dance. He ended up dropping out of high school and dealing drugs.

Success can come later in life and extend to the next generation

You might judge these three, now in their late 30s, to be failures. But as the film makes clear, they're anything but. Yates is still married to the father of the child she gave birth to after starting UDC, and she's pursuing a nursing degree at Trinity University.

After Herculean efforts, Warren is now a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

And Antwan Green, after narrowly escaping a long-term prison sentence, has a GED, his own trash-hauling business, and a stable marriage. And it's clear from both the film and his remarks at an invitation-only screening a couple of weeks ago that he's at least as thoughtful and articulate as many college graduates.

So while a college degree is clearly important these days, it shouldn't be the only measure of success. Even if it is, maybe you shouldn't impose a time limit on it. In addition to Yates and Warren, two other Dreamers are currently in college, and a total of nine have graduated, according to the Times article.

More significant, perhaps, is what is happening in the next generation. Nineteen children of Dreamers are in college, three hold BAs, and two are in graduate school. The film shows Antwan Green's college student son hunched over his books. Green predicts he'll get a Ph.D.

In an oral history on the film's website, Bumbaugh provides more texture for these statistics. In the past 10 years, he says, the Dreamers have been getting married, keeping the same phone numbers, staying at the same jobs—in short, building the kinds of stable lives their parents didn't have, and passing the benefits on to their kids.

It's impossible to know how the Dreamers' lives would have unfolded if they hadn't been chosen for the program. But, as Bumbaugh says, "All of these outcomes cannot be coincidental. They're so radically different, unfortunately, from the kids who were not in the program." For many of the Dreamers, he suggests, the program was able to help break a cycle of poverty going back many generations.

No doubt things would have gone even better for them if their environment had been safer and they'd had more access to things like "a goddamn doctor if they got sick," as Bumbaugh says. They needed, he argues, more than "a cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be."

But, as the life trajectories of many of the Dreamers show, cheerleaders—or at least, cheerleaders with the ability and dedication displayed by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—can make a huge difference. Ideally, parents serve as those cheerleaders. But many parents are too stressed by poverty themselves to perform that role.

The question is: how do we find thousands more people like Bumbaugh and Rumbarger, and provide them with the resources to help the many kids who need them?

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Education


Mystery callers try to ensure that DC charters admit special needs students

Nationally, public charter schools serve fewer students with special needs than traditional public schools do, and some charge that charters are screening such students out. But for the past three years, DC's Public Charter School Board has been deploying a "mystery caller" program to prevent that from happening here.


Photo of mystery caller from Shutterstock.

Over the past couple of months, DC parents and guardians have been calling around to charter schools to get information about applying for this fall. But they're not the only ones. Staff members of DC's PCSB, which oversees the District's charter schools, have been calling schools as well.

Equipped with a suggested script and a cell phone, PCSB staff pretend they're calling about a child in their care who has an unspecified learning disability and isn't being well served by the school she's currently attending. They ask what they need to do to apply to the school they're calling and whether they need to submit any information about the child's disability.

The answers to those questions should be: apply through the My School DC website, and don't submit any information relating to the disability or even indicate that the child has one. Nor should school personnel say anything discouraging, such as that the school across the street might be a better fit.

If school staff give inaccurate answers, they get a second call a few weeks later. If they still answer incorrectly, and if the answer seems to result from discrimination rather than ignorance, the PCSB may set in motion a process that could ultimately lead to the school losing its charter.

That hasn't happened yet, according to Rashida Young, the PCSB's Senior Equity and Fidelity Manager. Usually, school staff just need training or coaching to understand what the law requires. And the situation seems to be improving: out of about 100 schools called annually, the number that failed the second round of calls was ten two years ago, eight the next year, and only two last year.

"After doing this for three years," Young said, "I think people are getting the message."

Aside from being effective, the PCSB's "mystery caller" program is inexpensive and easy to implement. It's attracted attention from charter authorizers around the country, and at least one state—Massachusetts—has copied the idea.

DC has an advantage over many other areas because nearly all charter schools now participate in a common application process. That means the PCSB doesn't have to scrutinize each school's application form to make sure they're not asking prohibited questions.

Charters may still discriminate after enrollment

That's not to say DC has solved the problem of ensuring that charters are serving students with special needs. Although schools aren't allowed to ask any questions about disabilities at the application stage, they can ask those questions when it comes time for the student to enroll. And some charge that charters "counsel out" students with disabilities after enrollment.

Federal law requires that all public schools, whether charter or traditional, provide every student with a free appropriate public education. Schools must place the child in the least restrictive environment possible.

If the school can't serve a student well, it needs to arrange for another placement, possibly in a private school where the tuition would be paid by the District rather than by the charter itself.

The PCSB also checks for discrimination after enrollment, for example by monitoring suspensions and seeing whether disabled students are disproportionately represented. But the primary responsibility for enforcing federal law on special education rests with DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Last school year, 12% of DC's charter students had disabilities, as compared to 14% of students in DCPS. Nationally, the special education population in charter schools is 8 to 10%, versus 13% in traditional public schools.

But it's not hard to find disparities between certain charters and certain DCPS schools. At BASIS DC, part of a charter network known for its academic rigor, only 5.9% of students are classified as having disabilities. At Hart Middle School in Ward 8, which serves roughly the same grades, that figure is 26.7%.

Disparities may not be the result of discrimination

Does that mean schools like BASIS are discriminating? Not necessarily. True, BASIS itself has been the subject of government investigations after parents complained it wasn't providing required special education services, and the PCSB continues to monitor it.

And it's undeniable that charters have strong incentives to limit their numbers of special ed students. Test scores for that subgroup are generally lower, and they count as part of the school's overall performance—even if students have been placed in a private school because the school can't serve them.

On the other hand, it can be tricky to compare numbers of students with special needs across schools, because some schools are more likely than others to identify students as being in that category. Plus, while all schools need to make reasonable accommodations, students with disabilities and their parents may simply prefer not to attend a school that demands a lot in terms of academic rigor or discipline.

And it may be unrealistic to expect every charter school, however small, to deal with every kind of disability, which can include anything from mild dyslexia to serious autism to uncontrolled seizures. Even DCPS, with its economies of scale, has received a low rating from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for its special education services.

But the law requires that charter schools admit all comers, regardless of disability, and the PCSB has been inventive in coming up with a program to help ensure schools comply. Still, it doesn't make sense to expect all charters to end up serving the same proportion of special needs students, or even to expect parity between the charter sector and DCPS.

What's important is to ensure that children with disabilities get the best education possible, in whatever setting works for them.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Education


Some needy DCPS students are getting a lot less funding than others

Last year, the DC Council passed legislation designed to ensure that additional funds would be distributed equally among the District's neediest students. A new interactive graphic shows that instead, some of those students are getting a lot less money than others.


Image from DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC.

The DC Council decided that schools should spend an additional $2,000 dollars per year on each "at-risk" student in traditional public or public charter schools. The at-risk category includes students who are in foster care, homeless, receiving welfare or food stamps, or at least a year behind in high school.

The Council didn't specify what kinds of programs the money should fund. Charter schools are free to spend it however they want, and the DC Public Schools administration is supposed to delegate the decision about how to spend the money to individual schools.

But DC Public Schools said it didn't have enough time to allocate the additional funding on a per-pupil basis this year, as the law required. Instead, it used the money to fund initiatives it had already planned, saying they lined up with the needs of at-risk students.

The result is that some DCPS schools are spending much less on each at-risk student than others, according to a data tool developed by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC, a volunteer group of data enthusiasts.

Mann Elementary in Ward 3, for example, spent over $15,000 on each of its at-risk students. That's partly because there are only two such students there, making up just 1% of the school's total enrollment, according to the data tool.

By contrast, Ballou High School in Ward 8 spent only about $5,000 on each of its 470 at-risk students, which represent 72% of the school population. And Beers Elementary in Ward 7 spent a mere $168 on each of its 259 at-risk students, 60% of its enrollment.

At-risk money is benefiting a broader range of students

Of course, as the data tool also reveals, that doesn't mean each at-risk student is getting exactly that amount of extra help. In line with DCPS's priorities, much of the additional money is going to efforts that benefit a broader range of students: expanding curriculum, enrichment activities, and mental health support for middle-grade students; extending the school day at schools that chose to do so; and focusing on literacy at low-performing schools.

At Ballou, for example, over $100,000 went to hiring an assistant principal for literacy. Middle schools got additional staff and money for field trips and extracurricular activities.

At many schools, though, it's not clear where the money is really going. Many DCPS schools received grants designed to increase student satisfaction, which count as part of their at-risk funding. Each school can use that money for things it determines will help students enjoy school more, such as extracurricular activities or technology.

But the data tool doesn't detail what exactly the schools did with those grants, called Proving What's Possible for Student Satisfaction Awards. Mann and Beers each got all of their at-risk funding in the form of one of those grants, so it's unclear what they're doing with any of the money.

The data tool also doesn't include charter schools, so it's also unclear what they are doing with their at-risk funds.

How will DCPS allocate at-risk money in the future?

It remains to be seen what DCPS will do with the at-risk money next year, when there's enough time to allocate it on a per-pupil basis and let individual schools decide how to spend it. Will administrators at the central office be tempted to continue using the money to fund priorities they have already set, like improving high schools?

Aside from the temptation to follow through on existing plans, DCPS may find it hard to come up with initiatives focused exclusively on at-risk students. If a school hires an additional reading specialist, adopts an extended day, or plans a field trip, can it—and should it—try to limit those services to kids who are homeless or on welfare?

A better approach might be to fund "high-dosage" tutors for kids in the at-risk category. When it's done intensively and integrated into the life of the school, tutoring can have a dramatic impact on achievement. A side benefit might be the kind of mentoring that at-risk students are likely to need.

Even with that kind of targeted program, there will inevitably be funding disparities. A school with only two at-risk students will probably have to pay more per pupil for on-site tutoring than a school that has several hundred. But it's unlikely to cost 89 times as much per student, which is the difference between what Mann and Beers are supposedly spending on at-risk students now.

It's great that DCPS wants to increase field trips, beef up the middle school curriculum, and do other things that will benefit a larger group of students. But the system should be funding those initiatives with its general operating money. The fact is, the law requires DCPS to funnel its at-risk money to students facing the greatest challenges. And that may be what's needed to give them a real chance to succeed.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Support Us