The Washington Post

Middle schools: What successful charters do

At Wednesday’s D.C. Council roundtable, several leaders of public charters with far more success than most DCPS middle schools described the elements they believe make their programs effective.

Susan Schaeffler, founder and CEO, KIPP DC (Wards 2 and 7, 1,000 middle school students in three schools, AIM, KEY and WILL. Average DC CAS reading proficiency: 62 percent, math 77 percent)

The foundation to KIPP’s model is the extended day, which runs to 5 p.m. It gives students about 35 percent more instructional time per year than DCPS, which knocks off at 3:15 p.m. It also costs an additional $1,100 per student per year, a shortfall that KIPP makes up with private fundraising. Schaeffler says KIPP and other schools with longer days deserve more money from the city.

Public charter schools, which are open to students from across the city, are frequently accused of “creaming” the best students from traditional public schools, a practice they consistently deny. In response to questions from Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Schaeffler said KIPP would be willing to consider opening a school under contract with DCPS in which students from the surrounding community would have the right to attend.

Schaeffler said the issue is not about serving a specific community, but about other factors that come with partnering with DCPS, including limits on their ability to hire, fire and evaluate teachers. Nearly all charter schools employ non-union teachers.

“There are a lot of factors that keep KIPP from entering into a contract,” Schaeffler said.

Jami Dunham, Head of School, Paul PCS (Ward 4, 600 students, grades 6-9, 64 percent reading proficiency, 72 percent math)

Dunham said their model revolves “intentional messaging,” a team approach to student support and a well-rounded program.

“Students hear every day and in every classroom that they are merit scholars, that they are being prepared to go to college, that they are being prepared to succeed in life,” Dunham said of the messaging. “It is developmentally appropriate for adolescents at this stage of development to question, to demand a rationale and to resist authority. We counter this with consistently providing the rationale that what we are expecting our scholars to do will prepare them for the next stage in their lives.”

Paul’s team approach involves developing small groups of students with teams of teachers. The teachers meet weekly to analyze student data, address student concerns and create individual plans for kids experiencing academic or behavioral challenges.

Dunham also stressed the importance of a diverse, well-rounded program of academics and extracurriculars. “Finding a place to belong is critical for middle schoolers,” Dunham said. “We have scholars who would label themselves as a techie, an artist, a dancer, a jock, a bookworm, an aspiring politician and an environmentalist.”

Martha Cutts, Head of School, Washington Latin PCS (Ward 4, 575 students, grades 5-12, 77 percent reading, 84 percent match.

Cutts cited careful hiring of teachers, low class size, clear expectations for behavior and school-home communication.

“Hiring is the most important thing I do,” said Cutts. “My goal is always to hire teachers who have not only expertise in and enthusiasm for what they teach, but also a genuine love of and interest in working with young people. Successful teachers will be able to communicate to their students their desire to know them as individuals and their commitment to seeing each of them succeed.”

Cutts said that while some research minimizes the importance of class size and student load, she believes they matter. “I don’t believe, for instance, that an English teacher can grade weekly essays or writing assignments and give substantive feedback for 150 students. I am uncomfortable if a teacher has more than 90 students to teach,” she said.

Staff members oversee small groups of students (10 to 12) so that there is “at least one adult overseeing a student’s school experience, both academic and social," Cutts said. That includes regular meetings in homeroom or during an advisory period and strong lines of communication with parents. “The goal should always be to have students connect with at least one adult at school whom they feel they can trust, ask for advice, or go to with a concern or question,” she said.

Staff takes time at the beginning of the school year to establish clear expectations for behavior, with a code of conduct that stresses character and values. “Taking time to discuss these issues is just as important as teaching reading an mathematics,” she said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.


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