Teacher: D.C. schools forcing ‘us to swallow a magic pill’

Ninth-graders Lloyd Rodgers, left, and Myja Darby, wait to present their… (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Ninth-graders Lloyd Rodgers, left, and Myja Darby, wait to present projects in science at Dunbar High in June. (By Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

My colleague Emma Brown wrote a recent story about a plan by D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to create ninth-grade academies, which are essentially small schools within schools that are intended to give extra support to first-time high school freshmen. Here’s a reaction to the 9th grade overhaul by a D.C. teacher, Laura Fuchs, who is the chair of the Social Studies Department at H.D. Woodson Senior High School.

By Laura Fuchs

Most of us know that ads touting miraculous weight-loss solutions are empty, sometimes dangerous promises. Healthily losing weight takes time and effort; you have to come up with a diet plan that works for you and then stick to it. The question I have is this: If we know that a magic pill won’t make us lose weight, why do we think it will fix high schools in Washington, D.C.?

In The Post’s June 30th article: “D.C. to overhaul ninth grade, separating out students who failed,” the high schools are getting their own magic pill compliments of Kaya Henderson and the D.C. Public Schools’ central office. DCPS saw a program that appears to be working at Dunbar High School and decided that all the other high schools should do the same thing. For 2013-2014, struggling DC high schools will have to separate out the “true ninth graders” and their teachers from the rest of the population and put them in an “academy.”

At H.D. Woodson High School, where I serve as the Social Studies Department chair, we had a fully separate “true ninth grade” academy for three years starting in 2008. It was a chaotic failure. Ours was held in a different building, with dedicated teachers and a separate administrative team. You can read Bill Turque’s Post article from March 13, 2009, called “Disorder in a merged D.C. School,” to get the full story, but to sum it up: It was designed and run so poorly that it resulted in a host of major problems. Students took classes that did not promote them to the next grade, classrooms were overcrowded, and students did not have access to older students as role models. So much frustration and anger built up that on multiple occasions students literally threw books at teachers’ heads. Needless to say, ninth grade academies were dissolved when H.D. Woodson moved in to its new building in 2011.

Why is Dunbar’s program a success where Woodson’s failed? Buy in. Dunbar made their ninth grade academy by choice. They had a dedicated team of teachers who came up with the idea and worked tirelessly on it so that it was tailored to them and their students. The teachers involved chose to be there and went in knowing fully well the hard work that lay ahead of them. They created it step-by-step as a team. It took time and effort, and they stuck to it. It worked not because it’s the perfect solution, but because together they came up with a plan they could all follow.

This year H.D. Woodson spent one month collaborating as a staff with administrators, counselors and teachers to create a model we called “shared responsibility.” Our plan involved multiple teachers each having 1-2 sections of ninth grade students during a five-period day. Under our model, we would collaborate to create lessons and support each other with classroom management strategies within our departments and across the grade level. This idea was to spread out a very high stress grade-level to reduce teacher burnout and give students access to experienced teachers performing at their best.

After putting an entire master schedule together based on this idea and carefully building buy in from a large number of teachers, our school received a phone call from DCPS with two weeks left of school. This phone call informed the school that we would be having a ninth grade academy next year. This eliminated most of our “shared responsibility” model and singled out certain teachers who would exclusively teach ninth grade. There was no room for discussion, and no time to build buy in from the teachers who would be in this academy and who will need to put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort to truly make it work.

H.D. Woodson should have the same opportunity as Dunbar to build a program that works for us. Instead, DCPS forced us to swallow a magic pill. We need to look at the underlying reasons why Dunbar’s program is successful—not hastily take some cure-all on DCPS’s orders.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | July 18, 2013