Remaking DC High School Education . . . Somewhere, Somehow

In April, like tens of thousands of other DCPS parents, I received an email from DCPS about the Advanced Technical Center (ATC). The email discussed classes in cybersecurity, general nursing, and health information technology starting in fall 2022 for DC high school students who will be juniors or younger.

According to ATC director Richard Kincaid, the programming will begin in August, with entry-level career and technical education courses. The classes will take place at Trinity Washington University until the former DC library warehouse, at 1709 3rd Street NE (the Penn Center, also listed at 326 R St. NE), is converted to classroom space, which is expected by August 2023. (Here’s a one-pager on ATC.)

But that email was hardly the only communication in the first part of 2022 that I received about changes to high school education in DC.

For instance, in February I received this DCPS email, extolling the virtues of the XQ Initiative. That is billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’ excellent adventure in directing 0.2% of her fortune to “disrupt” the public high schools that partner with her organization. Naturally, Powell Jobs was never a teacher. Though XQ makes clear it works with entire communities around the schools it partners with, the fact that someone thinks public schools need more disruption after a pandemic, school shootings, and decades of defunding suggests not only that they have never been a public school teacher OR public school parent, but that they are actively working against (not with) both.

Anyhoo, setting aside a concerning failure rate of XQ schools (and a slightly checkered history), I signed up for XQ’s virtual information session on March 7—only to never receive a link (which apparently was not unique for that session).

Weeks later, I received another email (this time from XQ directly) that thanked me for attending the March 7 meeting (that I had signed up for but had no link to use to actually attend the meeting). About the same time, I learned that Duke Ellington HS was being, um, forced by DCPS to submit a proposal for an XQ redesign. The irony writes itself: while the initiative itself is intended, per the March 7 meeting video, to make graduates ready to “succeed in life,” Duke has for decades sent 90% or more of its graduates to college.

But that all may have been explained by the next email I got from XQ, in May. It featured a list of 10 DCPS high schools that, the prose eerily noted, “raised their hands to further explore the redesign opportunity this spring.” It went on to note that all DCPS high schools “eventually” will have the same “opportunity.” (Praise be the euphemisms!)

And that’s not even getting to the fact that none of those efforts at transforming our high schools appear to mention the “reimagining high schools initiative” that was introduced in the FY22 budget, including ATC, internships, and middle school grants.

The underlying premise for all these varied initiatives is that there are problems that need fixing, which will inevitably improve the DC high school experience.

That is truly a good premise—because DC is clearly not meeting students’ needs in all quarters.

But the idea that we need new programs (much less non-educator billionaires) misses the larger point, which is that while we know we have deep, abiding needs in all our schools, DC has treated, and continues to treat, its schools horribly while not addressing those needs well or at all.

Whether with annual funding shortfalls; structurally inadequate oversight; structurally inadequate at risk funding; heavy emphasis on test scores; tying test scores to teacher evaluations (resulting in, among other things, high teacher turnover); and an absolute belief in school choice even as it wastes resources in duplicative schools and results in more segregated schools, DC’s leaders have an unbroken streak in treating our schools, teachers, and students as impersonal products–not integral parts of democracy–to be manipulated and/or monetized for some end, which is often said to be the students themselves but more often is adults outside our schools entirely.

The XQ initiative is particularly obvious in this regard. Really, no one thinks that our teachers, principals, students, and families themselves could figure out what they want and need from their high schools and then work with the people already employed here in DC? Do we really need a billionaire-funded initiative from Oakland, CA to do that? I mean, isn’t that what democracy is for: public oversight of public institutions? (I know, I know—another one of those radical things that a small cabal has decided we need to get rid of–like bodily autonomy for half of all Americans.)

But it may be that what our schools need more of—say, stability and money—isn’t ever going to be in the offing in all directions, and no one wants to say that. So someone has to come up with something else that is new and shiny, but definitely not money. And what better than a billionaire-funded initiative out of Oakland, CA, filled with charismatic folks like this?

Indeed, XQ went out of its way to be part of DC’s Something in the Water music festival, ensuring its presence before hundreds of thousands who—just a guess here–probably weren’t thinking of public education as they ponied up $400 for tickets. In that way, XQ’s brand was strengthened, even as the schools it purports to help were not directly the beneficiaries.

But one need not focus exclusively on XQ to see how our approach to high school programming seems, at best, unfocused and, at worst, manipulatively parsimonious.

Consider the myriad ways that ATC–much smaller and less conspicuous than XQ–appears to go in.

ATC director Richard Kincaid is part of the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE). The scope of his work concerns CTE (career and technical education) coursework from grade 5 through associates degrees. His office sets the course sequence for DCPS’s NAF academies (which offer career-specific courses, spawned from the national program shepherded by—naturally—a billionaire banker, Sanford Weill) and created the CTE system currently existing in DC. NAF academies and CTE programs are distinct, Kincaid told me: CTE is a system of courses, while NAF courses are what he termed an “enhancement”: nice to have, but not a prerequisite to work in a trade.

Despite concerns from council members that ATC is duplicative with current offerings not only in high schools but also in UDC (i.e., see the March 3 oversight hearing with at large council member Elissa Silverman at the 3 hour, 9 minute mark and the March 30 oversight hearing with Ward 4 council member Janeese Lewis George at the 3 hour, 43 mark and council chair Phil Mendelson at the 4 hour, 30 minute mark), Kincaid assured me that ATC will not supplant NAF academies; that every school currently with CTE doesn’t necessarily also have a NAF academy; and that ATC is not intended to be competitive with any currently offered CTE courses.

Here BTW is a chart listing all the publicly funded schools in DC offering CTE courses (and the names of the courses) this just-finished school year.

Kincaid noted to me that for ATC, his office started looking at wards where students were enrolled in CTE courses to address what he termed the “opportunity gap” between schools with, and without, CTE courses. He specifically noted that charters with small enrollments often don’t have CTE courses for lack of funds. For ATC, Kincaid noted, OSSE is starting their focus on trades with “cost-prohibitive courses.”

(Fun to recall how the deputy mayor for education and DCPS chancellor both have decried the expense of small schools . . . in DCPS. So small charter schools get support and small DCPS schools get . . . closed.)

Yet, despite the announcement in March that the closed DCPS campus of Winston would be demolished to make way for a facility for citywide “career-oriented learning,” Winston is not at all part of what Kincaid is helming.

In fact, an entire blog post could be dedicated to all the pronouncements of using existing facilities, including Spingarn, for programs like CTE or ATC. For instance, the 2015 document linked here (or more permanently here) identifies Spingarn for CTE and Winston for use by . . . DPR. Two years later, in 2017, Winston was characterized here (and here, more permanently) as used for DCPS administration, even though the 2015 document said that it was an “error” to characterize it as part of the DCPS inventory. At no point did any actual community member have any input, as the community around Winston, literally for years, had very different plans for that building (here’s their latest effort).

What all of this underscores is that no one around Mayor Bowser has ever made any actual, long-term plan around any of these buildings, much less any long-term plan for the CTE (or CTE-like/lite) programs intended for them or any effort to incorporate the wishes of the communities around those buildings.

In fact, the only thing that has changed appreciably since that 2015 document was created is that with more DC schools and seats—notably, a lot more charter seats—DC’s ed reform crowd is now at a crossroads. After decades of saying how much better DC’s publicly funded schools would be under the bracing strictures of charters and ed reform (no excuses, emphasis on tests and basics, school choice, more schools to choose from, pushing hard on teachers), it is clear that DC’s poorest kids are not doing much, if at all, better.

And what is also clear is that charters themselves are in large part responsible for that reality, given their growing share of DC students.

In other words, we met the enemy—and it is us.

Coincidentally (or not), the same year that charters started in DC, two DCPS career tech high schools—Burdick and Chamberlain—were closed. Since then, a wide variety of schools and programs have come about, but none as far as I know dedicated to specific trades, like those were.

Perhaps the apparent desire to expand CTE by way of ATC represents a turning point for high school programming as much as 1996 did for DC’s career tech high schools.

Regardless, it also represents a lot of oddity.

For one, ATC may—or may not—be duplicative. Who really knows at this juncture? The head of OSSE, Dr. Christina Grant, repeatedly noted in oversight hearings that UDC offers courses for residents “in community college,” while ATC is for high school students. But UDC also provides courses for high school students (many of whom are presumably “residents” too). 

For another, it’s unclear what, if anything, the mayoral effort at/with Winston has to do with anything else currently offered or planned. Is it a site driving a use or a use driving a site? Or neither? And if the mayor’s stated plan for it goes forward, how would it logically NOT be part of ATC?

Third, despite the fact that about 3000 students have been enrolled in CTE courses this school year, no one at OSSE has the exact numbers of students in each course—even as an entire office at OSSE plans to expand CTE offerings! How can anyone rationally plan to expand CTE courses without knowing who’s taking what courses and why? And that’s not even getting into the fact that delineating course offerings by ward ignores that students travel everywhere for school already, such that a student’s school is as likely as not to be in a ward they don’t reside in or even near.

And then there is the fact that the ATC courses have to accommodate a typical secondary school day—which means that every single ATC course will require handshakes from the high schools that its students are enrolled in. That is not merely to cover that time outside their high schools (amounting to hours every week), but also transit time and safe passage.

And utterly none of that gets to very basic questions around this focus on our high schools, for which I have struggled to get answers from both agencies and elected officials. To wit:

–For FY23, $4 million was moved from the DC infrastructure academy to fund the renovation of the former DC library space at Penn Center for ATC. What was it going to be used for at the academy—and what’s being done instead at the academy? (Here’s a link for the reprogramming and here is a link to the capital plan, which on p. 197 outlines what the reprogrammed funds will be used for.)

–In one of the hearings this spring, OSSE head Dr. Grant mentioned that the first location for ATC didn’t work out. So: what was that location? Why didn’t it work out—and what is it being used for instead?

–And what constitutes the “reimagining high schools initiative”? Page 4 of this July 2021 testimony (from Dr. Grant’s predecessor at OSSE) is literally the only thing I could find about it:

“Pathways to the middle class depend on making sure that students are prepared and aware of in-demand jobs, and the Mayor’s FY22 budget makes a significant investment in that effort through Reimagining High Schools: Work Based Learning Environments. This $29 million, four-year investment begins with a $11.5 million investment in FY22. Through this program, we aim to support 1,200 high school seniors enrolled in college and technical education with internships. Further, we will expand early career and technical education programming to 20 middle schools over three years. And we will launch an Advanced Technical Center, a regional hub of CTE programming and innovation that will be able to serve up to 600 students in programs of study such as licensed practical nursing and cybersecurity.”

Undoubtedly, someone somewhere knows how those internships and middle school programs are going–but the section of OSSE’s recent responses to council oversight questions on postsecondary and career readiness (p. 299FF) not only is silent on the subject, but is devoted almost entirely to college programs and readiness.

The only certainty with regard to this earnest planning appears to be none at all—except for the bright and shiny new initiatives that await a billionaire’s magic touch.

One thought on “Remaking DC High School Education . . . Somewhere, Somehow

  1. Thanks for posting about this. It makes for awful reading, as in yet more attempts by the mayor to remake DCPS in the charter school image–but I appreciate being informed about these latest efforts. No one else writing about education in DC is doing that.


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