Increasing Enrollment–And The Role Of The Public–In DCPS

The other week, during its monthly meeting, the Senior High Alliance for Parents, Principals, and Educators (SHAPPE) met with the deputy chancellor for DCPS to discuss what DCPS could do to increase its enrollment, given its rather sad enrollment goal in the DCPS strategic plan (54,000 students by 2022, or roughly the same percentage as DCPS currently has now).

The 28 recommendations the group formulated are below (see the meeting minutes here). These recommendations deserve wide dissemination, not merely because they are excellent and do-able, but also because they come on the heels of testimony before the council about the desperate need for DCPS to increase its enrollment goals beyond 54,000 in 2022 (see here and here).

Perhaps most importantly, these recommendations come directly from ordinary DC citizens, whose connection to our public schools otherwise is, well, tenuous.

For instance, I found out simply by happenstance that DCPS held two public sessions the other week to discuss DCPS’s new strategic plan (one at Smothers and one at Kelly Miller).

I found nothing about either meeting on the DCPS website, the deputy mayor for education’s website, or any update email that I (and presumably most DCPS parents) receive on a weekly basis from the DCPS chancellor.

The other day, in response to my asking, DCPS sent me the following tentative outline of community engagement on elements of the strategic plan, with times and other details to be confirmed at a future point:

November 7: AM Luke C. Moore (1001 Monroe Street NE); PM Columbia Heights EC (3101 16th Street NW)

December 12: AM Eastern HS (1700 East Capitol Street NE); PM Savoy ES (2400 Shannon Place SE)

January 9: AM LaSalle-Backus EC (501 Riggs Road NE); PM Lafayette ES (5701 Broad Branch Road NW)

February 6: AM Oyster-Adams EC @ Oyster (2801 Calvert Street NW); PM Hardy MS (1819 35th Street NW)

March 6: AM Union Temple Baptist Church (1225 W Street SE); PM Woodson HS (540 55th Street NE)

April 3: AM Payne ES (1445 C Street SE); PM Woodridge Library (1801 Hamlin Street NE)

May 1: AM Garrison ES (1200 S Street NW); PM Cardozo EC (1200 Clifton Street NW)

June 5: AM Whittier EC (6201 5th Street NW); PM Latin American Youth Center (1419 Columbia Road NW)

Now, don’t get me wrong: community engagement with public schools anywhere, any time, is great!

But such weirdly silent outreach underscores what has been a longstanding truism of all our public schools (and not just DCPS): entire communities, including parents and students, have been explicitly written out of any public school governance.

(See here and here for starters.)

Naturally, DCPS, as our system of by right schools, has a public responsibility that goes beyond the four walls of each of its schools. Unfortunately, DCPS’s track record with the public continues to be rather, um, pathetic.

For example, as a DCPS parent, I would have liked to have known before now about the recent DCPS re-org. (see here and here), which apparently happened in September. (Still cannot find details about this on the DCPS website.)

And as a citizen and parent, I would have liked to have been able to easily access this version of the strategic plan, presented at the last cross sector task force meeting–as opposed to the much simpler, anodyne version on the DCPS website and widely presented to parents.

Yet, as annoying as all this is, it doesn’t even address the biggest missing piece of all: the person responsible.

(And it’s not the chancellor.)

As you may recall, before mayoral control of our schools, we had an elected school board with whom the buck stopped–except when it didn’t.

Then we got charter schools not because we demanded them, but because Congress said so (using our own money, naturally, but without the benefit of having direct control of those schools or the money that goes to them).

And then we got mayoral control, wherein we got chancellors (selected not by the legally mandated public process) overseeing massive (and unpopular) DCPS closures, with the result that more than a third of our charter schools currently occupy former DCPS schools, most of which were closed for low enrollment that occurred in the wake of the opening of more seats at charter schools.

You could say that leaving the public out of DC’s public schools is, well, a cherished DC tradition!

In this brave new world of DC public education, children and schools and teachers are held vividly and publicly accountable (pick your acronym: ESSA, IMPACT, PARCC), while the officials actually in charge of those education systems remain in the shadows (quick: name the deputy mayor for education! name the charter board members and the mayors who appointed them!). Our city council acts often like a school board, holding public hearings and pushing officials for change, but the council’s actions are at a distinct remove from actual schools and those in charge of them. And while we do have an elected board of education, it has no power to enact or really change anything.

All of this undemocratic ugliness is rather ironic for our city, filled and controlled as it is by people affiliated with one political party that likes to distinguish itself from anything Trumpian or DeVosian, but that nonetheless embraces school choice and public education authoritarianism in exactly the same ways.

So, look at these 28 possibilities for DCPS below and applaud them for being not merely original and unarticulated by most education leaders in our city, but also that most rare thing in DC: the will of the people.

1. Expand early childhood: PK4 by right should not be lottery but guaranteed. PreK 3 should be expanded in Title I DCPS schools to accommodate all the children in that boundary.

2. Bilingual education widely offered: There are two models of bilingual education used within DCPS. One is full school dual language where everyone n the school participates and the second has an immersion strand within a regular school. This one with two co-existing programs has had unintended consequences at a few elementary schools. In these schools the bilingual strand has become identified as more elite. The suggestion was for DCPS to explore additional models so that bilingual education could be more widely offered.

3. Change perception: Some of our DCPS schools almost have a stigma attached to them. They may have lower test scores than others but are supporting students in improving more than others and offering a more personal experience. However, the perception is that they are worse. We will need to address this full on.

4. Use universal advertising: DCPS does a decent job of marketing the brand of DCPS, however there is not much about individual schools. Most of what any individual school can do is dependent on their own resources and creativity. This is inadequate against the budget and resources of competing charters. A lot of what is going on in our DCPS schools is excellent.

5. Reputations matter: Parents often choose schools based on reputations of strong leaders or the reputation of special teachers. The turnover in DCPS of both has hurt.

6. Local knowledge matters: People in Ward 5 don’t even know McKinley exists as an optional application school.

7. After school is vital: After school is a huge issue for elementary and preschool parents in DCPS. Charter schools have done a far better job of providing continuous affordable care.

8. Expand course selection: Some DCPS students have the option in middle or high school of many electives, including a philosophy course. Others have almost no choice. DCPS is a system. If we used hubs and creative scheduling as well as shared teachers, we would have far more options than a single school LEA.

9. Amplify feeder patterns: DCPS could amplify their predictable feeder patterns by investing more heavily in supporting them. Could those who want a bilingual option have the chance to attend one of those schools in their feeder pattern? Could we insure that every DCPS feeder pattern had desirable options?

10. Ensure safety and equal access: These are two of the main drivers of choice. First and foremost parents are concerned that their students are safe. They also want them to have access to opportunities and a rich selection of programs.

11. Increase what parents value in schools: Parents at all levels value getting information in a timely manner well communicated. They also value schools that are not crowded and strong programming.

12. Access to STEM: This should not be reserved for certain DCPS schools. All schools should have a good instruction in these areas.

13. Connect schools: Ballou does a drum line down to Simon–very powerful. The 2017 graduating class also does a walk. Very powerful. Buddy days between elementary and middle school and middle and high schools have also been excellent if they are well planned.

14. Compassionate discipline: If DCPS can effectively implement socio-emotional learning in a way that changes the way discipline is delivered, it would be an amazing strength. It cannot be just something pushed to the children–the adults have to truly believe it and change some of the language and ways they relate to our young people. They have to live by it.

15. Metal detectors: Metal detectors may be a deterrent to crime, but they also mean that each student starts their day that way. As indicated by a student who was present at the meeting, metal detectors were introduced for a reason, so it will have to be really thought through how we address all of this.

16. Preserve friendships: It can be very helpful if families choose to attend a school together. Friendships matter for both young people and their parents. Is there any way to market or better support this?

17. Reduce teaching loads: Small class size is one thing, but if a secondary teacher’s full class load is 150 students, they are not able to provide the level of individual attention and personal relationships that are necessary. This is definitely a metric that should also be examined.

18. Equitable staffing: Some DCPS schools have the staff to fully take advantage of so many resources. It is currently terribly unequal. As a system, DCPS could be doing so much more to share resources across schools, create hubs, so that no one is locked into what is happening solely at one school.

19. Accept where students are: Many of our DCPS high schools are now serving students with far more need than previously in their history. Dunbar is an example. We need to face that and meet all students where they are, instead of requiring they be taught a certain way.

20. Maintain stability and relationships: Families value stability. They have this in Ward 3 and in some other DCPS schools that have not been hit as hard by the extreme turnover. It matters to be able to have the continuity–students look forward to having a particular teacher, or working again with a leadership team they know and trust. Relationships are extremely important.

21. No more shaming: We are hopeful that the Chancellor’s emphasis on schools being welcoming will have a large impact on the way our DCPS schools operate with students, parents and teachers. It cannot be just a phrase and a few professional development sessions. There is a whole way of speaking in some of our schools that can be seen as shaming.

22. Autonomy: DCPS schools need more autonomy; the chains should come off the principal. They know their schools and communities.

23. Middle school in 5th grade: What about starting DCPS middle schools at 5th grade where there is a lot of crowding?

24. High school reputations: How do we get parents to think beyond the DCPS high schools they see as the top? Visits, encouraging friends to attend together?

25. DCPS and real estate: We need to pay attention to how DCPS is noted on Zillow and on Realty One; new parents who come to town look at these kinds of sites.

26. Affordable housing is key: DCPS and Chancellor Wilson will be reaching out in the near future to get more input. DCPS employees do extend themselves, with the office of family engagement making many enrollment calls to find out why children have not shown up who were registered. One of the big reasons is the lack of affordable housing, which is forcing folks to leave DC.

27. Need marketing: DCPS principals do not have separate funds for marketing like many charter schools do. Their livelihood is tied to their ability to increase the enrollment in their schools. There is no shortage of motivation. Keeping our system of neighborhood schools is going to require families to take a stand and to attend these schools. Many have been modernized.

28. Eliminate fear: There was a lot of fear with the previous administration; that will need to abate for us to move forward. We will need to be able to speak honestly to one another in order to move forward.

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