This past week, after more than a month, DCPS ended holding public feedback sessions on its strategic plan.
The only hitch: There is no strategic plan.
For sure, there were good questions asked of participants at the virtual session I attended, on October 1—and the slide deck presented at my session articulated goals as well as questions.
But neither questions nor goals are a strategic plan.
By my count, my session on October 1 featured at least 70 other DCPS parents and teachers. About 10 of those present were DCPS central employees. The meeting opened with a speaker mentioning that the strategic plan WAS the capital commitment of DCPS.
This appeared to be in direct conflict with DCPS’s 2012 capital commitment itself, inasmuch as there was nothing in that 2012 plan about expanding capacity in Ward 3 by creating a new high school; keeping boundaries, feeders, and out of bounds slots as they exist now such that thousands of students out of bounds every year attend Jackson-Reed feeders; and possibly creating another elementary in that ward.
Not to mention the other things that occurred since 2012 not mentioned in that capital commitment/plan, including closures, moving to PARCC from CAS, creation of the STAR rating, offloading of former DCPS buildings, charter encroachment (physically as well as enrollment-wise), and taking in charter students (and an entire charter school—hello Excel!).
In other words, what was presented by DCPS did not reflect current or past reality.
After the first questions were asked (what should DCPS be the most proud of and what is the biggest opportunity for DCPS to focus on in the next 5 years?) and several attendees gave their answers verbally, a DCPS central staffer went into a relatively long explanation of recent DCPS initiatives. That speaker’s session constituted about 25 minutes, which is relatively a lot of time for a meeting intended to last 2 hours and by which point we had heard about 5 minutes from attendees.
By that time, I had discovered that I literally had no way to speak at this virtual meeting—the “raise hand” feature did not appear to be working for me. I was also apparently not the only attendee with that problem.
The chat thus became my go to for communication—but for the fact that I initially could put my comments only to the individual DCPS central staffers in the meeting and not to everyone. (Happily, I later gained the ability to post to everyone, though I am not sure I ever gained the ability to raise my hand.)
Shortly after the slide deck presentation, we were broken out into individual small groups. Mine had two DCPS central staffers in addition to 6 attendees. The small group session lasted about 30 minutes or so—and then we were brought all together again and asked to report out by group.
While it was interesting to see the wide variety of topics discussed in response to the prompt questions for discussion, the reporting process was awkward, inasmuch as it had to be brief and likely didn’t get to all the topics discussed.
When it was time for our group to report out, the person we had selected to do so wasn’t available. So while I (still) had no way to raise my hand to speak, I began to post in the chat what I thought were some of the issues raised in my group. Then another person from my group did the same—but before I could finish, the entire session was declared over, 8 minutes before it was scheduled to be done. (When in our group, the two DCPS central staffers took notes and offered to present them at the reporting out—but when our selected presenter didn’t appear, the staffers remained silent.)
If all those procedural issues do not give you pause about DCPS strategic planning, certainly how DCPS is apparently dealing with what was raised should.
For instance, while my posted answers to the first questions went unacknowledged (I noted that DCPS should be proud of not closing schools since the last set of closures and that its biggest opportunity to focus on in the next 5 years is shoring up a SYSTEM of schools through the city and not closing any), mine was hardly the only material overlooked.
At some point, for example, someone mentioned in the chat about the principal of Garfield Elementary (88% at risk, 98% Black) being moved 2 days before school started, several grades not staffed, and no specials at the school. I noted that Garfield is one of several DCPS schools with <50% utilization (the others are Aiton, Nalle, Ron Brown, Sousa, Anacostia, Hart, Johnson, Kramer, Malcolm X, Moten, and Savoy) and that the increase in Ward 3 school capacity means underenrollment elsewhere because student population in DC is not growing.
Naturally, there was no response from anyone at DCPS to any of this—though in an email exchange with me a few days later, DCPS’s Interim Officer for Engagement and Partnerships, Sarah Parker, noted (boldface mine) that “for the more nuanced comments and questions we tried to message with individuals directly and address some comments broadly in the chat. We have already been in touch with the participant who had the concern around Garfield. We really didn’t want specific concerns and topics to take us down a different path as this engagement was not meant to be an open forum—but rather very much about the strategic plan.”
So, DCPS wants feedback on a plan that doesn’t exist–and only feedback of a specific type.
Nonetheless, in my small group session, we raised a number of good ideas in response to prompts, including
–the importance of play;
–equitable access to programming;
–having a citywide system of schools of right so that no one/no neighborhood is left out;
–taking a different look at budgets such that each school has a FIVE year budget (because DCPS may have some great initiatives, but they are never fully funded);
–more equitable offering of after- and before-care;
–more targeted interventions at younger ages;
–more supportive late policies;
–no punishment for minor infractions;
–better access to 504 plans and IEPs;
–more social workers and psychologists;
–ensuring that staff at schools are not used like “high-paid data entry clerks”; and
–reducing the demands of standardized testing.
I also raised the real, abiding fear that most adults in DCPS schools have about their jobs and how that fear percolates through all layers of every school, affecting students, teachers, and parents.
Days after my feedback session, that fear was front and center at a meeting of C4DC, when Chancellor Ferebee was asked whether he intended to close schools. The chancellor responded that he doesn’t envision closing schools, but that the DCPS budget bill promulgated by Phil Mendelson could result in difficult budget decisions.
That response suggests that Chancellor Ferebee is willing to wager the future of entire schools in order to fund schools the way he wants.
In such a climate of intimidation and lack of actual public collaboration, it can be no surprise that negotiations around the years’ overdue DCPS teachers’ contract have now gone into arbitration.
Or that a billionaire’s excellent adventure with DCPS high schools continues without parents, teachers, and students having directly demanded it.
Sadly, such anti-public actions in DCPS are matched by the council chair refusing to even hold a vote on legislation to ensure all DCPS schools have librarians.
Not surprisingly, at the teacher retention hearing on October 25, Garfield’s staff shortages were again raised, as many teachers (mostly DCPS, though a few charter teachers) outlined bad attrition and working conditions.
Notably, of DC’s 13 council members, only 1 besides the chairman showed up for more than 5 minutes out of the 7-hour hearing. That was at large council member Christina Henderson, there for about a total of 20 minutes by my count.
As DC charter advocates testified about the “burden” of data collection around teacher retention (despite a distinct lack of data for policy makers), the council chair argued with DCPS librarian K.C. Boyd about the reality that DCPS has no commitment to librarians. Yet, with almost 50% of DC students attending DC’s charters, no one from the charter board testified.
Nonetheless, council chair Phil Mendelson reconvened the hearing this week to get Chancellor Ferebee to confess—I mean, testify—about DCPS teacher retention, standardized testing burdens, the WTU contract, and public disclosure of teacher exit surveys in DCPS. Incredibly, Chairman Mendelson noted in the reconvened hearing that the DC Council has held three hearings on teacher retention since 2019 (when Mendelson assumed control of education oversight)—which was also the last time the WTU contract was in effect.
Mendelson didn’t mention that since then, there has literally been nothing to slow down high teacher attrition in both sectors (not to mention no exit surveys of charter teachers—but whatev).
All of this not only suggests that the DC Council believes that self-reported charter teacher retention data on individual annual reports is sufficient (and that librarians are expendable in DCPS schools), but that publicly browbeating the chancellor for hours while teachers leave both sectors at alarming rates is useful for anything besides mere political theater.
Thus, since no one in DC education leadership seems to know and/or care what an actual strategic plan for DCPS looks like, let me share my vision here, which I could not do during my feedback session:
Preserve and strengthen ALL existing DCPS schools going forward, not by closures or transformations but by REAL investing: keeping staff, keeping programming, keeping doors and dialogue open. Closures are NOT investments—they’re a failure of leadership and cost far more in human potential than they save in anything and do not build a better future. Closures PRECLUDE a better future entirely. DCPS right now has everything it needs to be successful—it doesn’t need any billionaire or XQ or special initiative for that.
All DCPS has to do is not turn its back on the very people and schools it has.
Indeed, I shared that strategic plan via email after my feedback session with Chancellor Ferebee and Sarah Parker.
I got no response.