Educating The Adults In The (DC) Room

Whether we adults agree with our public school governance, our children are moving on. Every day, week, month, and year, our children show up to hundreds of publicly funded schools in DC with the democratic expectation that there will be trained teachers to teach them; decent desks for them to sit at; accurate and timely books for them to read; excellent lessons for them to learn; appropriate and plentiful supplies for them to use; safe, nurturing, and beautiful places for them to play and associate in; and buildings and surroundings that actively support all of those things.

Now that we have had widespread documentation that some adults in charge betrayed that expectation, and eroded civic trust in our public schools and their governance, it’s past time for the rest of us adults to get an education, too.

One primer is the notes below, created by Cathy Reilly from the 20th anniversary meeting of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E.) on February 27. Whether you have been in DC for 5 minutes or 5 decades, these notes serve as a template for beginning the journey to doing better for our kids and their publicly funded schools.

And should you find Katherine Bradley’s recent upbeat overview of mayoral control (starting here at 1:21:10), erm, out of synch with current scandals, study state board of ed. member Ruth Wattenberg’s primer, which documents the tragic connection of mayoral control and education reform to those scandals.

Both primers are full of ideas that city leaders need to ponder at the upcoming council hearing on the future of school reform.
S.H.A.P.P.E. Notes: February 27, 2018; by Cathy Reilly

This is our 20th anniversary meeting. We have learned a lot over these years; a grid is attached to give a sense of this time. The larger lessons learned are noted here:

–Definition of the problems matters.
–How we answer the question “why we think it is a problem” matters.
–A process that supports joint ownership of the problems and their analysis as well as the creation of the strategies going forward matters.
–An education plan that goes beyond aspirational goals matters.
–A DCPS and school culture built on respect for and trust between students, teachers, parents, the community, administration, and central office matters.

Over the last 20 years we have seen:

–Beautiful buildings–with a wonderful world of program possibility.
–City has more funds to invest.
–Dedicated staff we see at all schools.
–Security, Doors, and Calculators: The conversation has changed; we have many things that were top of the list 20 years ago.

These issues are also part of our current landscape:

–City now has 20 different school systems and about 42 schools educating high schoolers.
–Closed two DCPS high schools (Spingarn and MM Washington) and opened Ron Brown. We re-opened McKinley and Phelps.
–DCPS high school enrollment has dropped by about 3,000 students overall. It has increased in application schools and in Wilson by about 1600, including the opening of McKinley, now at 650 students.
–Increased Accountability:
Role of rewards and punishments for schools and personnel (IMPACT)
Federal role NCLB
ESSA: perverse incentives; no growth measure, enrollment in AP programs regardless of preparation level
Star rating system regardless of reading or math level of entering students
Reforms in the last 10 years have focused on teachers being the main leverage point
Pay for performance

–Greater standardization with curriculum in the name of equity.
–There has been a move away from any autonomy or seeing schools as different.
–Final grades are figured from downtown.
–Much less of a role for school communities and public without a local elected policy board for DCPS.
–The pendulum has swung back to retention. It was shown by research not to work and the policies formerly urged students to be placed with their social age group.
–High schools are still challenged by many students arriving at high school unprepared to do high school work–the causes are not just within the schools.

Feedback on Graduation Requirements:

–There is no support for removing DC Government from the required courses. As one member put it, there will be no civics instruction between 8th grade and when a student is old enough to vote.

–There is concern by many with the reduction of World History to one year. The concern is that there will be large gaps and that the standards are currently written for 2 years. Others noted that if flexibility were required this would be a better place than others.  It was also suggested to look at an English elective instead of English 4.

–Physical Education Requirement given for participation in sports.  Aside from the concerns already raised about who would give the credit, how much participation is enough, there were others.  Phys. Education is a course with standards. These are different than what is required in a given sport.  This parent shared that it is often athletes who benefit from a quality Physical Education course.

–There is support for requiring 2 credits in the same language.

–Demonstration of mastery for Math and World Language: there were question as to whether it allowed for a waiver of a course with 4 years of math and more advanced language still required.  How would mastery be verified?

–There was support for adjusting the community service requirement.

–The reflection activity would have to be done at the local LEA level, not part of graduation requirement policy.

People at the S.H.A.P.P.E. meeting were open to exploring different paths to graduation where all students would essentially meet the standards but there may be different paths. It would be crucial if this were done, to allow students to switch paths should they change their minds.  Texas was suggested as a model to look at.

Guest: David Grosso, Chair of the Education Committee of the DC City Council

Opening Remarks:

Mr. Grosso talked about the role of oversight of the Council. It is his feeling that the stability of our education system was undermined by the mistakes of a few people. There is a DCPS oversight hearing on Thursday [March 1, 2018] where the Acting Deputy Chancellor will be there. They have had the questions in advance and he will work his way through them. All responses will then be part of the public record.

The Council has enacted some important legislation. Schools are held to losing no more than 5% of their budgets, at-risk funds were allocated to help support schools responding to students with more challenges.

The Council convened a task force on behavioral health and looking at the need for greater supports. They have created a draft final report. Dr. Nesbit of the Dept. of Health and Dr. Royce of the Dept. of Behavioral Health do not support the final report composed of the data and discussion of the task force. This is terribly disappointing; Mr. Grosso stated that he needs the buy-in from the Executive to properly assess the need and the funds needed to address it.  He is convinced that trauma-informed strategies and restorative practices are vital to improving the educational outcomes for our students. The budget cannot come before we assess the need. It is not cheap.

Concerns communicated to Mr. Grosso by members present:

–It is fundamental to budgeting and support to have high schools that have the scale to support their students.  With over 40 schools and 20 LEAs serving high school, the city has not stepped in to limit supply so we can go a better job of supporting what we have.  We hope the city will seriously consider doing this.  With continued expansion and competition, it is hard to see how we will do a good job of improving and supporting what we have.

–This is a moment to fundamentally step back and take stock of where we are and what might be adjusted.

–The data and perceptions presented to the Council by DCPS are sometimes at odds with the reality at the local schools. Supports are mentioned that the schools do not see.

–We have huge turnover of staff even though the District is paying top dollar. The question has to be asked why and then we need to address it so that we can provide more stability.

–What we measure is what we get. Schools only get credit now for students that step over a high bar. There is no credit for student academic growth at the high school level. We even have a star system that essentially stigmatizes schools working with students who start high school at a low level.

–We hope that your committee will put the question on the table: How should we do accountability and evaluation so that it is honest and leads to incentives we can all agree are positive.

–It is a pivotal moment for public education in the District. There is a new public awareness that some things are not working and we have an opportunity to address them. Natalie Wexler recently wrote a piece highlighting the problems with the sole focus on math and English and some of the wrong incentives.

–It is a moment to make a shift in the way we do things, to take into account some of what the Council has been hearing. It does not have to change everything but it can evaluate practice and look to policy that will foster more trust and better incentives.

–In the Tier 1 schools or the 40/40 schools, there are many teachers right out of college. In these schools there are perhaps 25% of the students ready to learn and fully engaged. The remaining 75% present many challenges to a seasoned teacher, let alone a brand new teacher. Thus we have very high turnover and an inexperienced staff. Mr. Grosso noted that this is tough to address, we already pay folks in these schools more money. This is a tough but important issue.

–Could we look at reading and the effectiveness of our early literacy work? There should be data now that would let us know. Are there Reading Partners in every school? This is at the core of the issues in the high schools down the road. It is something that could be addressed in questions at a public hearing.

–The pressure to graduate in 4 years has forced schools to rush students through and exaggerated the level of under preparedness. This is especially true of some of our most vulnerable students–those coming with little English from other countries. While this is not directly under the Council’s purview, it may help for them to be aware and do what they can.

–As folks who have been living this and been close to it the question has come up, is it the structure itself that is preventing a greater freedom to embrace and solve the persistent issues the schools face?

–For many it feels that putting the schools under mayoral control has politicized education. We need to return the ownership of the public schools to the public in some demonstrable and real way. It can feel like a lot of what we hear is spin because jobs depend on progress being made.

Chairman Grosso was adamant that he felt honest progress has been made and it would be unwise to start over. It is his belief that comments that call the reports spin miss all the good work that has been done. Mr. Grosso stated that continuing to increase the social services available to students would make a huge difference.

Others present felt there might be a miss in communication and stated that there is a desire to re-visit and evaluate. As teachers, principals and parents we no longer really own the problems or solutions to the issues in our schools. We would like to see a mid-course adjustment. The role of oversight and budget of the Council has limitations and opportunities, we understand. As our main elected representative on these issues, he ends up hearing all the issues. We are asking to work with him on the some of the barriers for our students that we see.

We hope to work closely with Mr. Grosso in the coming weeks and months as the future course of public education will again be decided with the appointment of a new Deputy Mayor for Education and a new DCPS Chancellor.

Mr. Grosso came after a marathon hearing with the Superintendent of Education [on February 27], and we conveyed our appreciation for his effort and look forward to working with him going forward.

We then composed the following questions which were sent on to Mr. Grosso for the oversight hearing on Thursday [March 1] for DCPS:

–Will Dr. Alexander continue with the Strategic plan as outlined by her predecessor?
–Will Social Emotional learning still be prioritized as had been outlined?
–Does the Office of Integrity still seem like the best response to the events of the past months as you take on the leadership?
–The school budgets are now out. The teacher contract last year was a victory. There is concern on how the average teacher pay is impacting local budgets. Are schools essentially losing vital funds? Parents fought hard last year for additional funds. We can see them in the Excellence through Equity allocations, how else were they allocated for this year?
–In the past the school system has made the spread sheet that shows the local budget allocations with far more detail available upon request. When will this be available? With the staffing model this enables the public to understand more fully the underlying assumptions and decisions.
–Custodians; these are important positions, responsible for keeping the buildings clean. In the budgets we can see a number of positions required. Can we see the chart that dictates the number and level of custodial positions and how it is figured? There is concern that RW-5’s might have been lowered to RW-3’s in some cases.
–What kind of initiatives are the At Risk funds being used to fund? There is concern with the funds being used to supplant versus supplement. Were you able in this budget to support the schools in using them toward providing additional support?
–There are questions from the public on the salary structure within DCPS central. Can you give us a sense of how many positions are funded above 100,000, above 125,000?
–While it is quite early in your tenure, do you have thoughts on how DCPS might reduce the turnover rate and keep more of our experienced teachers? We know this is difficult and that higher pay and other incentives have been instituted. However we still have a lot of first year teachers at some of our schools where the work is with students with a lot of challenges.
–You [Amanda Alexander] come with enormous experience and expertise at the elementary level. You are taking the helm as the DCPS high schools are under a microscope for substantial difficulties. Can you give us an idea of how you plan to address the culture of fear and pressure to pass or promote students despite their failure to master the necessary material as detailed in the Alvarez report? We have all learned a lot in the last weeks; do you have thoughts about how to proceed beyond more accountability?

There are many folks to thank as we honor the 20th Anniversary of S.H.A.P.P.E. Mildred Musgrove was present at the beginning, 20 years ago; so was Victor Molina of CHEC. Kerry Sylvia started attending soon after the founding. It has taken the sustained and dedicated effort of many. There is a lot to feel proud of in terms of ensuring that the local voices continue to be heard. The 21st Century School Fund has been the main partner and provided the main support to S.H.A.P.P.E. Thank you.

Mary Filardo read the following Resolution on the 20th Anniversary of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E):

“Whereas S.H.A.P.P.E. works to support the parents, principals and educators and residents of D.C. in their desire to sustain and grow a strong DCPS that delivers high-quality education and is democratically controlled and publicly managed;

“Whereas S.H.A.P.P.E. facilitates civic dialogue to discuss and decide what is important for our children to learn, how educators and schools will be evaluated, and what resources and supports are needed;

“Whereas S.H.A.P.P.E. promotes and equitable distribution of resources and services among public schools, expanded educational opportunities, a comprehensive approach to school safety and student health, and modernized facilities aligned with sound educational practice;

“Whereas S.H.A.P.P.E. has convened over 200 community meetings to enable direct communication between high school communities and the public and private agencies that affect their work with young people;

“Whereas S.H.A.P.P.E. has been a trusted voice for quality, equity, and civility in public education for 20 years;

“Therefore, be it resolved that the undersigned thank Cathy Reilly for her sustained leadership and dedication to supporting and improving our DCPS high schools and recognize her knowledge and skill in representing the parents, principals, educators and residents of Washington D.C.”

For those not at this meeting, the resolution will be available to sign at the next few meetings. It is important work to do, and I am so grateful to all of you who have continued to work toward these goals and inform the effort to put in place processes and policies that will improve the educational opportunities for our young people.  This resolution is high praise, thank you.

By Cathy Reilly

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