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Posts about Poverty


DC's charter schools boost learning for poor and minority students

DC's charter schools do a better job than its traditional public schools when it comes to educating low-income and minority students, according to a recent national study. But the study indicates that white and Asian students fare better in the traditional sector.

Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

The study ranked DC's charter sector sixth in the nation among 41 urban school districts for its positive impact on student learning.

Overall, students in charter schools have had bigger gains in both reading and math than similar students enrolled in the DC Public School system, especially when it comes to middle school math. And while charter schools are still far from closing the achievement gap, it's smaller for charter students than for those enrolled in DCPS.

The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), looked at data from the 2006-07 through 2011-12 school years. It matched "virtual twins," students with similar backgrounds and test scores, some of whom went to charters and some of whom stayed in the traditional public school system.

Researchers then compared rates of growth for the "twins" in each sector, as measured by increases in standardized test scores.

Nationally, the CREDO study found that students in urban charter schools gained the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days in reading.

It's harder to quantify the gains on the local level, which the CREDO report frames in terms of standard deviations (SDs) rather than days of learning. But overall, charter students had gains of 0.09 SDs in math and 0.13 SDs in reading over their DCPS counterparts.

Results for different demographic groups in DC

Generally, the strongest positive results were for students who were poor and black or Hispanic, as compared to white non-poor students in DCPS. Charter students who were eligible for free and reduced price lunch, a frequent measure of poverty, were only 0.02 SDs below non-poor students in math. The equivalent gap for low-income DCPS students was .09.

The charter sector also improved the performance of Hispanic students and students learning English as a second language, as well as students who qualify for special education services, although the gains were not as large.

White and Asian students in the charter sector didn't fare as well. Both groups actually did worse than their peers in DCPS, by 0.06 SDs in reading and about 0.10 in math.

There are two possible explanations for that, according to Anne Herr, director of school quality for FOCUS DC, a charter advocacy organization. One is that the sample sizes are small. White students make up 12% of DCPS's student population and just 5% of the charter school population.

It's not clear how many Asian students attend DC's public schools, but the number is low. Last year, Wilson High School was the only one in the District with ten or more Asian students scheduled to graduate.

The other reason is that the DCPS schools with large numbers of white students are generally high-performing, so the base of comparison is much higher.

The negative results for white students in charter schools are consistent with CREDO's nationwide data. Nationally, those students lost the equivalent of 36 days of learning in math and 14 in reading, compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

The CREDO study praised DC as one of four cities that had few low-performing charters and also a majority that outperformed traditional public schools in both math and reading. The other three cities in that category were Boston, Detroit, and Newark.

Another recent report labeled DC's charter sector the healthiest in the nation. Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS DC, says the two studies prove the value of DC's charter schools.

"I don't see how people can try to ignore anymore that the DC charter movement is thriving," Cane said. "It's a combination of some really brilliant people who have started schools and a really good authorizer that's willing to close schools that are not closing the achievement gap. We also have a very good law that gives charters a lot of freedom of action."

Reasons to question data on charter success

While Cane has a point, some would counter that charters enjoy certain advantages that high-poverty DCPS schools don't: for example, a self-selected group of students that is more likely to be motivated, and the option of denying admission to students who arrive midyear.

And while DC may rank sixth in the CREDO study, it lags pretty far behind the top charter sectors. Boston ranked number one in both reading and math gains, with 0.324 SDs in math and 0.236 in reading. The comparable figures for DC were 0.134 and 0.097.

And, of course, given that these are comparative measures, even a charter sector that isn't doing a great job can look good against the background of a low-performing traditional school system.

Another cause for concern is that charter success, both locally and nationally, is greater in math than in reading, and seems to stall at the high school level. In DC, the highest gains were in middle school math, with charter students gaining 0.23 SDs. For middle school reading, the figure was only 0.02.

The gains for DC charter high schools weren't statistically significant, but at the national level high schools provided their students with the equivalent of 32 additional days of learning in math and only 9 in reading. As in DC, the highest gains nationally were in middle school math, with 73 additional days of learning.

It's generally easier to raise the performance of low-income students in math, probably because math doesn't require the background knowledge and vocabulary that reading comprehension does. But literacy skills are arguably more important, since they're fundamental to understanding all other subjects—including, to a certain extent, math.

While it's not clear from the report why gains drop off in the higher grades, one likely reason is that high-school-level work requires more sophisticated reading, writing, and analytical skills. And it's possible that even high-performing charter middle schools haven't really been preparing their students to handle them.

With the advent of the Common Core and its more rigorous standardized tests, which students in DC and elsewhere are taking for the first time this year, those deficiencies may soon become apparent at lower grades as well.

DC has much to be proud of in its charter schools, and many low-income students have received a better education than they otherwise would have thanks to their existence. But the achievement gap is fundamentally a literacy gap, and the jury is still out on how much progress the charter sector has really made in closing it.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


DCPS schools are more likely than charters to have high concentrations of at-risk kids

Students who are homeless, in foster care, or otherwise "at risk" are more likely to be in the DC Public School system than in charter schools are concentrated in a few DC Public Schools but are more spread-out in the charter sector. And the more at-risk kids a school has, the lower its standardized test scores.

Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

The sloping green line on this graphic shows that when a school has a lot of at-risk students, it generally has low test scores. That's no surprise.

But the graphic also shows something that's been hard to get at through existing data: DC's traditional public schools A subset of DC's traditional public schools are serving a disproportionate number of students who are likely to be the hardest to educate.

In addition to students who are homeless or in foster care, the at-risk category includes those receiving welfare or food stamps, and those who have been held back a year or more in high school. A DC law that went into effect this school year set up the at-risk category and appropriated additional funds for those students.

Data show which schools have the most at-risk students

Guy Brandenburg, a blogger and former DCPS math teacher, used the data generated by the legislation to create the graphic above and the ones below. To his surprise, he found that only three DC charter schools have 70% or more of their students in the at-risk category. Within DCPS, on the other hand, there are 31 such schools. (Originally, I did not realize that the figures Brandenburg used were estimates the schools submitted last year. As the note at the bottom of this post explains, actual enrollment figures show that ten charter schools and 38 DCPS schools have 70% or more at-risk students this year.)

Two of the three charter schools with over 70% at-risk students—Maya Angelou and Optionsare specifically targeted to kids in that category. The third school is Friendship Blow Pierce.

The usual yardstick for the degree of poverty in schools is the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But students in that federal program can have a family income of up to 185% of the poverty level. The at-risk measure identifies the subgroup of students who are likely to be living in the deepest poverty.

Leaders of DC's charter sector often point out that charter schools educate a higher percentage of low-income students than DCPS. But they're talking about students who are eligible for free and reduced meals, not those in the at-risk category.

Graphics showing school size and names

The graphic below shows the same data as the one above, but the size of the dots corresponds to the size of the school.

Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

A third graphic provides the names of some of the schools.

Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

Brandenburg has also posted a table with all the data that he used to create the graphics.

Based on the data, Brandenburg predicts that DC is moving to a tripartite education system. He sees wealthier students attending DCPS schools in Ward 3 or a handful of charters that appeal to more affluent families. Those "in the middle of the wealth/family-cohesion spectrum," many of them black or Hispanic, are largely in charters. And those "at the seriously low end of the economic spectrum," most of them black, are in highly segregated DCPS schools.

Correction and clarification: The graphics above are based on estimates of at-risk students that schools submitted to DC education officials last year. According to the Public Charter School Board, the actual enrollment figures for this school year show that at least ten charter schools and 38 DCPS schools have 70% or more at-risk students.

In addition, the PCSB has compiled data showing that the overall proportions of at-risk students in the DCPS and charter sectors are about the same (49.3 in the charter sector and 50.6% in DCPS). However, at-risk students are more concentrated in a subset of DCPS schools, while they are generally spread more evenly through the charter sector.


High-poverty schools need better teachers, but getting them there won't be easy

DC needs to increase the number of highly qualified teachers who work in high-poverty schools. But doing that could require a fundamental change in the way DC Public Schools evaluates and supports teachers.

Photo of teacher from Shutterstock.

DCPS teachers who get high ratings are more likely to work in schools serving relatively affluent students. That's typical of school districts across the country, and the US Department of Education has given all state education agenciesincluding the District's—until June to come up with a plan to correct the imbalance.

Under DCPS's teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, teachers in affluent Ward 3 get ratings that are significantly above those in lower-income Wards 7 and 8, according to a study based on data from 2010 to 2013. Another study shows that 41% of teachers in Ward 3 received IMPACT's top rating of "highly effective" in 2011-12, as compared to only 9% in Ward 8.

DCPS bases IMPACT scores on a number of factors, including classroom observations and growth in students' test scores for teachers of tested grades and subjects. Charter schools have their own methods of evaluating teachers.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education is currently trying to come up with a plan to bring more highly qualified teachers to high-poverty schools, in both the charter and DCPS sectors. It's not clear how OSSE will define "highly qualified," but when it comes to DCPS teachers, IMPACT scores are likely to be a factor.

More money isn't enough

The simplest approach would be to offer teachers with high IMPACT scores more money to teach in high-poverty schools. But DCPS already does that. Highly effective teachers in those schools can get bonuses of up to $20,000, as compared to $2,000 in other schools, and their base pay is higher as well. Obviously, it hasn't worked.

One reason for that may be that teachers generally care more about their working conditions than about how much money they make, according to a report from The Education Trust. And the report says students aren't the most important factor. Instead, good teachers want a school with a strong leader and a collaborative environment. That's especially true for those in high-poverty schools.

Another problem with DCPS's approach is that to get the additional compensation, teachers have to continue to get a highly effective rating after they switch from an affluent school to a high-poverty one. And some teachers say it's a lot harder to get that rating at a high-poverty school.

That not only explains why teachers who are highly rated at affluent schools are reluctant to move to high-poverty ones. It also may explain why there are so many fewer highly rated teachers at high-poverty schools in the first place.

For one thing, part of the IMPACT score for some teachers depends on how much the teacher has increased her students' test scores in a given year. But the tests are geared to a student's grade level, and many students at high-needs schools are several grade levels behind.

If a 10th-grader comes into a teacher's class at a 5th-grade level and the teacher succeeds in bringing the student's skills up to a 6th- or 7th-grade level, the test isn't geared to capture that improvement. Neither the teacher nor the school gets credit. And there's virtually no way to bring a student up five grade levels in a single year.

"No teacher wants to go into a school where you can only be told you've failed," says David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School.

Teachers at high-needs schools, where behavior problems are more common, are also more likely to get low ratings on the classroom observation component of their IMPACT scores. Tansey recalls getting a low rating from one observer because a student cursed in class.

Tansey pointed out that the student had corrected himself, something that reflected Tansey's efforts and was a vast improvement over the student's behavior at the beginning of the year. But, he says, that made no difference to the observer.

Teachers need to motivate disengaged students

More fundamentally, Tansey says, the IMPACT approach assumes that students are intrinsically motivated to learn. That may be the case at more affluent schools, or at selective DCPS or charter schools where students or their parents have made an affirmative decision to attend. It's usually not the case at a neighborhood high-poverty school like Dunbar.

Tansey's students often have traumatic home lives and don't see the point of school. So he tries to explain how any mathematical concept he teaches will be useful in the real world. One project has kids planning out their lives, from choosing a college and a job to figuring out what kind of house they can afford. The kids love it, he says, and along the way they're using math to make calculations.

But projects like that won't do anything for Tansey's IMPACT score. "I do a project like that despite the requirements, not because of them," he says. Rather than having to hide techniques that work with disengaged students, he argues, teachers at high-poverty schools should be encouraged to share them with colleagues.

Tansey actually is rated highly effective—one of five teachers with that rating at Dunbar, he says. And he concedes that teachers who are rated highly effective are "genuinely effective." But he says there are also many genuinely effective teachers in high-needs schools who don't get the "highly effective" rating.

And, he says, there are "highly effective" teachers at affluent schools who would no longer get that rating at a high-needs school. It takes a different set of skills.

All this suggests that it doesn't make sense to simply try to lure highly rated teachers from Ward 3 to Ward 7 or 8. A better approach might be to recruit new teachers who have been specifically trained to deal with high-poverty populations, preferably through a residency program that includes a one-year apprenticeship in a high-needs school. (Disclosure: I'm chair of the DC Leadership Council of one such program, Urban Teacher Center.)

But even that won't be enough to ensure they stay. If DC wants to retain excellent teachers in its most challenging schools, administrators will need to make them feel their efforts are valued as much as those of their counterparts at more affluent schools.


Removing the superintendent won't fix the broken culture at Montgomery's public schools

Montgomery County school superintendent Josh Starr resigned this week. Many community members are wondering what went wrong. While Starr had a lot of supporters, his role in a MCPS culture that didn't take criticism well may have been his undoing.

Starr at the March to Close the Achievement Gap. Photo by the author.

A week ago, Bethesda Magazine reported that four of the eight school board members didn't support renewing Starr's contract. Last weekend, Starr and the Board of Education quietly met to discuss his departure February 16, four months before his contract ends.

Some elected officials, along with parents and students were confused about what he'd done wrong, pointing to increased test scores since Starr arrived in 2011. Others felt that Starr didn't have a clear direction for the school system, and wouldn't listen to people he didn't agree with. Ultimately, that may have led to his dismissal. But the frustration with Starr reflects a larger issue with how MCPS deals with a rapidly changing school system.

Starr made promises, but didn't always follow through

Despite its reputation as a high-performing school system, MCPS also struggles with the suburbanization of poverty, which has made the achievement gap among minority and low-income students more evident. Starr championed the issue, boasting of his commitment to social justice and even appearing at a student-organized March to Close the Achievement Gap last spring.

But if community members or public officials tried to question him on this or other issues, Starr could be arrogant or dismissive. When the county's Office of Legislative Oversight found that growing segregation in the schools is exacerbating the achievement gap, Starr shrugged it off, saying the school system was already working hard to fix the problem.

In practice, that didn't always seem to be the case. MCPS spends less on its low-income students than other area school systems. There's been little talk about Starr's "innovation schools" program, which pledged additional resources and supports for 10 high-poverty schools, after a big announcement two years ago. And last year, Starr threatened to remove programs that could help close the gap from the budget if the County Council didn't give MCPS more money.

A reflection of the broader system

Meanwhile, the school system has struggled with other controversies over the past year, including widespread math exam failures, improper credit card use, and a sexual abuse scandal. Starr wasn't directly responsible for any of these things, but frustration grew with his aloof nature and unclear agenda for MCPS.

"Four years went by and people were still waiting to hear what the new direction was all about, where are we going," said Nancy Navarro, a councilmember and former school board member, to the Washington Post. "That was never really articulated."

This impatience made Starr an easy scapegoat when things went wrong, as Councilmember Marc Elrich notes. Yet his behavior is really a reflection of MCPS as a whole.

MCPS gets its high-flying reputation from a handful of high-performing schools in the most affluent parts of the county, even as many schools are doing much worse. This perception is one reason why the teachers' union has such a strong influence on local politics.

As a result, people assume that all of MCPS is doing fine and are unwilling to challenge the school system. Meanwhile, officials are reluctant to admit anything's wrong. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote Harvard researcher Gary Orfield in a 1994 study of segregation in MCPS, which is still relevant today.

To fix MCPS, recognize that it's broken

This culture is a big problem for MCPS, which is used to being the preferred school system for families with the means to choose where they live. Today, many of those families are moving farther out to Howard or Frederick counties, or taking a chance on the District's improving public schools. To keep MCPS competitive, the school system and its leadership have to acknowledge that it's no longer solely defined by its success, but its failures as well.

On the day he resigned, Starr retweeted a photo of a girl at White Oak Middle School, a high-poverty school in East County that I once attended in the 1990s, with the caption: "I want to be recognized for my work. I have been in the honor roll for a long time."

Like her, MCPS is used to being a well-regarded school system, and wants to be recognized. But the real test of its success is how it grapples with the great challenges facing it. Whoever replaces Starr will need to ensure that all the county's schools deserve the "honor roll" status that attaches to the more affluent ones on which the county has staked its reputation.


A book-of-the-month club for infants and toddlers aims to narrow the achievement gap

A new proposal to send a book a month to every DC child under five could help narrow the yawning literacy gap between poor and higher-income kids, which has its roots well before kindergarten. But ultimately, disadvantaged kids will need a lot more assistance than a book a month to catch up to their more affluent peers.

Photo of family reading from Shutterstock.

Spurred by low achievement among DC's low-income and minority students, Ward 6 DC Councilmember Charles Allen has introduced a bill modeled on similar programs in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Fewer than half of all third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the District's standardized reading test last year, and literacy scores in general have remained stubbornly flat since 2008. Allen and others say that exposing young children to books and language from the beginning of their lives is the key to solving that problem.

In some low-income households, Allen says, "the only book may be a phone book."

Allen got the idea about six months ago, while visiting his brother in Tennessee. Allen's two-year-old niece was "completely thrilled with this book that came in the mail," with her name on the address label.

It was part of a program called Imagination Library, based in Tennessee and founded by singer Dolly Parton. Imagination Library, which began in 1995, now sends monthly books to almost 770,000 children across the country.

DC would have its own local program

DC could have signed up to become part of Imagination Library, but Allen decided it made more sense to start an independent local program, which he's calling Books from Birth. One reason was that he wanted the books to reflect the diversity of DC's population.

Another reason was to involve the DC Public Library, which already has a program designed to get parents to verbally interact more with their children, called Sing, Talk, Read.

The legislation calls for DCPL to appoint a committee to recommend books. DCPL will then choose from the recommendations and send the books out along with information about library programs in each child's neighborhood, including literacy programs targeted at parents.

Allen hopes that pediatricians serving low-income families will reinforce the message that it's important to read to kids, and also help keep track of families as they move around the District.

Allen estimates that the cost will be $30 per child per year. With 41,000 eligible children, that comes to about $1.2 million annually. But the $30 figure is based on Imagination Library's costs. As Allen acknowledges, DC wouldn't be buying books in such large quantities, and it might not get the same volume discounts.

But even if the program ends up costing more, Allen says, "I think it's a sound investment."

Do the program's benefits justify the costs?

Sending free books to children certainly couldn't hurt, and even a couple million dollars a year isn't a huge amount in the scheme of things. But the question is whether that money might be better spent elsewhere.

One way to reduce costs would be to limit the program to low-income families, or at least to families who opt in. But Allen is adamant that the program should be universal and enrollment automatic.

Using a means test would create a stigma, he says. And parents who need the program the most might be the very ones deterred from filling out a form to enroll, in part because of their low literacy skills. (Allen is, however, anticipating that the program will be phased in beginning with younger ages, making the cost of the program $1.5 million over the first five years.)

A larger question is whether programs such as Books from Birth actually work. One study found that entering kindergarteners in the Memphis area who had been enrolled in the local Books from Birth program scored eight points higher on a reading readiness test that had an 86-point scale.

There's other data indicating that the programs have a positive impact on things like how much parents read to their children, but much of it is self-reported or anecdotal. On the other hand, as Allen points out, it may take many years before we know whether a program like this really works.

The 30-million-word gap

Allen ties the impetus for his bill to research published 20 years ago, which has come to be known as the "30-million-word gap" study. "Research shows," Allen said at a recent event, "that preschoolers who have access to books and adults who read to them will have heard 30 million more words at home by the age of four than children who do not."

But the study actually focused on income levels, not books or reading. It estimated that children in families on welfare heard 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families.

True, high-income families are more likely to have both books and parents who read to their children. But the study was looking at verbal interactions rather than reading, and not even just at the number of words children heard. Higher-income families spoke to their children differently, according to the researchers, giving them more praise and encouragement and asking more open-ended questions.

Some cities, most notably Providence, have tried to address the 30-million-word gap through programs that send home visitors to work with low-income parents so that they'll speak more, and more encouragingly, to their kids. Children in Providence are even fitted with devices that record the number of words they hear, and the kind of interactions they're engaged in.

While it's too soon to say whether that kind of home-visiting program will help close the achievement gap, it's clearly a more intensive approach than just sending out books—even if those books are accompanied by information about library programs.

Allen is aware of the Providence program and describes himself as "a huge fan" of literacy-focused home visiting. He sees the Books from Birth program as a first step in the direction of a comprehensive approach to early literacy that would include home visits.

He may be right to start relatively small. Home visiting programs are not only expensive, they're complicated to design and administer. And sending out books may well begin to prompt the kind of parent-child interactions that home visits could further develop.

With all ten of his colleagues on the DC Council having signed on to co-introduce Allen's Books from Birth bill, it has a good chance of passage. That's fine, and undoubtedly some children will benefit. But no one should be lulled into thinking that this program alone will solve the massive problem it's targeting.


The new chair of the DC Council's education committee promises a change in style and substance

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso plans to adopt a less aggressive style than David Catania, his predecessor as education committee chair. Grosso says his main focus will be getting disadvantaged kids the services they need to do well in school.

Photo from David Grosso website.

Back in December of 2012, David Catania was chomping at the bit to become chair of the education committee. "I'm so excited," he told the Post, "I can't stand it."

What followed was a two-year whirlwind of activity, during which Catania introduced myriad pieces of legislation, visited some 150 schools, and grilled DC education officials about their perceived lapses.

When the Council reconvenes in January, Catania's successor, David Grosso, will take the reins. He's also eager to take on the challenge of addressing DC's seemingly intractable education problems—most fundamentally, the gap in achievement between affluent white students and other groups. But he says his style will be different.

"I'm not going to introduce eight bills during my first few months," Grosso said in a recent interview.

He says he'll have his own priorities, but will work collaboratively with others, engaging them in conversation before holding hearings or introducing legislation.

"When I put something forward," he says, "I'm not sure I have the answer. I'm going to want to work closely to make sure everyone buys in."

A shift in focus

Catania's legislative legacy includes an overhaul of the District's special education system, the end of social promotion, and additional funds for students who are most at-risk.

His hearings and roundtables also provided forums for parents, teachers, and the general public to air their views on subjects like DCPS's controversial teacher evaluation system.

Grosso says that under his chairmanship, the education committee will continue to address legitimate questions about teacher evaluations, testing, and "what goes on in the classroom." He also says the committee will remain "a place where the community has a voice" in education matters.

But his main focus, he says, will be on ways to ensure that kids—especially poor kids—have access to services that will put them in a position to learn. Education, he says, is an area that is connected to many others and can't be siloed.

As an example, he mentions a story he heard about a high school freshman who was "acting out." When a counselor sat down with the student to find out what was behind her behavior, the counselor discovered she hadn't had running water in her house for four months.

It's unrealistic, Grosso says, to expect students living in such circumstances to be fully engaged in schoolwork. And research backs him up: studies have shown that the stress of living in poverty causes physiological conditions that make it difficult for kids to focus and control their impulses.

"People might say, how is this relevant to the work of the education committee?" Grosso says. "But in reality, it's imperative to education that we give kids like that an opportunity to heal."

Seeing the bigger picture

Addressing problems related to poverty and race is beyond the capacity of any school system, he says, and requires a concerted effort. That's one reason he's glad he'll also be sitting on the Council's new committee on health and human services.

"I don't expect my staff or I to become experts in what should be taught or how," he says. That's the job of the DC Public Schools Chancellor and other school leaders, he explained. But, Grosso added, "we can see the bigger picture."

One area where he sees a need is mental health. Last summer he visited a number of mental health providers and was particularly impressed with a program called Resilient Scholars, which provides counseling in 21 DCPS and charter schools. Grosso would like to expand that kind of in-school program.

Grosso says he's learned a lot in his two years as a member of the education committee, and his sister is a Montessori educator. But other than that he has no particular expertise in education.

However, his deputy chief of staff, Christina Henderson, has a master's in public affairs from Princeton, with a particular emphasis on education. She's also held several education-related jobs, including one at DCPS and another at the New York City Department of Education. Henderson has been Grosso's main adviser on education and will continue to play that role.

Which style will produce results?

It's too soon to know if Grosso's more collaborative and focused approach will produce better results than Catania's aggressive, let's-do-it-all-at-once style. But it sounds promising. Although Catania certainly kept education issues in the spotlight, it's not clear his efforts will result in any meaningful reduction in the achievement gap.

A case in point is Grosso's chosen issue, in-school mental health services. Back in 2012, the DC Council passed legislation setting a goal of having a mental health program in 50% of all DC schools by this school year, and in every school by 2016-17. The prime mover behind that legislation was David Catania, who introduced it in response to a shooting that left four teenagers dead.

But according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, only 36% of schools currently have such programs. The DCFPI estimates that it will cost $11 million to fully fund the legislation, and it's not clear that money will be forthcoming.

Would there be more mental health programs in schools by now if Catania had taken more pains to bring everyone on board before passing a bill, as Grosso promises to do? Perhaps. But even though the legislation is a fait accompli, maybe it's not too late for Grosso to use his influence to meet its goals.


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

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

Photo of graduation cap from Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC-CAP supports students after high school graduation

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

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

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

Charter schools visit freshmen

But some DC charter high schools that send many low-income students to college go even further. Three schools—Thurgood Marshall Academy, KIPP DC, and SEED—not only stay in touch remotely but also try to visit all students during their freshman year.

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

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

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

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

Finding the right match

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

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

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

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

OSSE will provide data on graduation rates and remedial classes

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

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

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

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


DC students flock to afterschool programs, but many low-income students are still left out

A new nationwide survey of parents shows the District has the highest afterschool participation rate in the United States. On the other hand, DC is 49th in the percentage of low-income children enrolled.

Photo of student from Shutterstock.

The survey, conducted by a nonprofit called the Afterschool Alliance, ranked DC second only to California on overall measures of afterschool, including both participation and quality. But DC achieved that rank partly because so many children here participate in an afterschool programs: 35%, the highest proportion in the nation. DC also ranked fourth in average time spent in afterschool, almost nine hours a week.

The percentage of low-income children participating in afterschool, however, is only 20%, putting DC near the bottom of the list in that category.

DC's low-income participation was lower than any of the other jurisdictions that made it into the survey's top ten. In California, which ranked number one overall in the survey, 47% of low-income students participate. In Florida, which ranked third overall, 52% do.

DC also does poorly in the percentage of children left unsupervised after school: 26%, the second-highest percentage in the nation.

In addition, the survey noted that DC has the highest unmet demand for afterschool programs. Two out of three children who are not enrolled in an afterschool program would participate if one were available to them.

Of course, as with many comparisons between the District and the 50 states, the survey's results are skewed by the fact that DC is an entirely urban area with a much higher concentration of low-income residents than most states have. Demand for afterschool programs is higher among low-income and minority families, which probably explains why there's so much unmet demand here.

The survey didn't break down the participants in DC's afterschool programs by racial or demographic category. So it's possible that DC's afterschool participation rate is so high because middle-class and affluent kids are disproportionately enrolled. But it's also possible that most participants are low-income, and DC has so many low-income children that the programs can still only serve 20% of them.

Mixed results on quality

DC also got mixed results on measures of afterschool quality. On the positive side, DC was fifth in the nation when it came to parents satisfied with their program's quality of care, with 95% putting themselves in that category. And while only 53% agreed that their program provided a "high quality of care," that was enough for DC to rank eighth in that category.

But the District ranked dead last in the nation in terms of parents who were satisfied with their program's variety of activities (55%) and its cost (45%). And it did almost as badly when it came to parents who were "extremely satisfied with their afterschool program overall," a category DC ranked 50th in after only 34% responded yes.

The Afterschool Alliance began doing the survey in 2004, but this is the first year that DC has been included. A research firm screened over 30,000 households across the country, with at least 200 interviews conducted in every state and DC. The interviews were done primarily online, with some conducted by phone.

The report on the survey gave credit to two nonprofits for raising awareness of the importance of afterschool programs: the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and the Youth Investment Trust Corporation.

Afterschool funding may be on the rise after a troubled past

The Youth Investment Trust has had its problems in the past. Last year, former DC Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling $350,000 from the organization.

According to the Washington Post, even before that incident there was a general perception that the public-private organization, designed to leverage private contributions for youth services, served as a slush fund for DC politicians.

More recently, the Trust has been putting reforms in place in an effort to regain public confidence. This week, in fact, the Trust is unveiling a new name and a new logo.

That reinvention effort may be paying off. According to the survey, investments in afterschool programs for DC Public Schools decreased from over $11 million in 2011 to about $7 million in 2013. But in 2015, that number will go up to $8 million.

Another factor in declining private funds for afterschool programs may be the availability of other options and a sense that the classroom experience is more fundamental to improving outcomes for children. Many philanthropists and foundations contribute to DC charter schools, as well as to a fund that DCPS has set up to funnel private donations to its programs.

But afterschool programs remain important, especially for low-income and minority students, who generally have less access to enrichment opportunities outside of school than their middle class peers. Some advocates for an extended school day have called for schools to partner with community organizations to provide those additional hours.

Some DC afterschool programs, such as Higher Achievement, have begun to move into that role and already have an impressive record of success with low-income and minority students.

It's fine to celebrate DC's overall ranking as second in the nation for afterschool programs, as Mayor Vincent Gray recently did. But that shouldn't distract us from the fact that many of the kids who need afterschool the most are still left wanting.

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