D.C. parents raise concerns about middle schools

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Mary Melchior secured placement for her sons in the Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan school through a lottery. She enrolled them there by exercising her transfer rights under the No Child Left Behind law. This version has been updated.

September 25, 2011

Alice Deal Middle Schoolin Northwest Washington is bursting at the seams, and with good reason.

For foreign language, students can choose French, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. The school offers football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, track, baseball, softball, volleyball and fencing. The list of after-school clubs includes international cooking, African drumming, gardening, Scrabble and Gay-Straight Alliance. This fall, the school has 1,014 students in a building designed for 980.

At Brookland Educational Campus at Bunker Hill, serving preschool to eighth grade in Northeast’s Ward 5, the menu of offerings for middle-grade students is quite different. There is one part-time Spanish teacher. Students are offered basketball, track, cheerleading and chorus. And there are parents who say the situation in their community is untenable.

“I spent five years driving across town . . . so my kids could have a decent education,” said Raenelle Zapata, who sent her children to Deal, Hardy Middle and Eaton Elementary, all in Northwest. “There are parents who don’t have the opportunity to do that. . . . We’re going to have to clean this up.”

Middle schools are the latest hot spot in D.C. public education. With preschool and elementary enrollment ticking up for the first time in decades, parents and policymakers are scrutinizing the lack of attractive middle-grade options with increasing urgency.

Everyone agrees that far too many poorly prepared students are entering D.C. high schools. An Education Week analysis has found that more than half of the city’s public students fail to graduate from high school on time. Many drop out in the ninth grade.

Without dramatic improvement in middle school quality, the long-term prospects for reform are bleak.

“Every child entering the sixth grade should have access to the same quality of education,” said D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who will convene the second of two hearings on middle schools Tuesday. “Their science lab should look the same, the same computer lab, offerings of foreign language. Clearly that’s not happening.” Brown, a Ward 7 resident with a son at Eaton and a daughter at Deal — seats in cross-town schools he secured through the annual out-of-boundary lottery — said at a recent hearing that on a tour of a PS-8 school in Northeast, he told the principal that he would never send his children there.

“And the principal said, ‘I agree with you,’ ” Brown said, declining to name the principal.

Middle schools pose Chancellor Kaya Henderson with sticky political and educational questions in virtually every quadrant of the city. In Georgetown, Hardy Middle has a heavy out-of-boundary enrollment and has been roiled by recent leadership changes. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has called for a new middle school for her Northwest constituents.

On Capitol Hill, where hundreds of new students are moving through revitalized elementary schools that now have waiting lists, parents say the dearth of traditional middle school options imperils that rebirth.

The best middle school in the neighborhood, Stuart-Hobson, is aging and packed. Two others close by, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, have plenty of room but moribund academic records that make them unattractive.

“Let me be very frank with you. My husband and I are not willing to stay in the District if we don’t see significant improvement in our middle school options,” Ana Maria Linares, a parent at Maury Elementary, told the council this month.

Henderson, who is scheduled to appear before the council Tuesday, said school systems across the nation have historically struggled with middle schools, when grades and discipline falter as students make the often-turbulent transition into adolescence.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Henderson said. “We have to figure out what works best in each community.”

The locus of discontent is Ward 5 in Northeast, where the closing of seven under-enrolled schools in 2008 — part of a citywide round of 23 closures — left the community without a traditional middle school. The District instead consolidated some of the remaining schools into six PS-8 “campuses.”

Then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee promoted the hybrid model on several fronts. She cited research — widely disputed — that showed improved academic performance. Rhee also saw it as a way to retain families that tended to leave the system after fifth grade for public charter or private schools. PS-8 schools aimed to offer comfort and continuity for parents leery of the middle school options — either because of the schools’ poor academic records or because parents felt their rising sixth-graders were not yet prepared to deal with the adjustment.

On that count, the 17 PS-8 schools created in 2008 have been a modest success, officials say. District data show that as of this year, fewer students are leaving the system after fifth grade than were doing so in 2008.

While the growth of Deal, Hardy and Stuart-Hobson have contributed to that trend, PS-8 schools “have been a major factor in stemming that enrollment loss,” said Abigail Smith, the District’s outgoing chief of transformation management.

On other fronts, the PS-8 model has not shown success. Standardized test scores are no better overall than at traditional middle schools, according to a study by veteran D.C. schools analyst Mary Levy. In some cases, they are astonishingly poor.

At Browne Education Campus, a Ward 5 amalgam of a middle school and two shuttered elementary schools, less than 16 percent of the 49 sixth-graders read at proficiency level or better on 2011 city tests. Six percent of 33 eighth-graders at Wheatley Education Campus were proficient in math last year. Deal produced pass rates of 83 percent in reading and 89 percent in math.

The other issue is size. Although retention has improved, middle grades in most PS-8 campuses do not have high enough enrollment to generate the per-pupil funding necessary for the rich academic and elective offerings that experts say children at that age need. Fifteen of the city’s 18 PS-8 schools had a middle grade enrollment of fewer than 120 in the last school year.

That means that schools such as Langdon Education Campus in Ward 5 offer no foreign language and few sports teams. Laboratories and libraries at many of the consolidated schools also remain threadbare. There are no regulation-sized athletic fields or gymnasiums with locker rooms. Adolescents sweat through physical education classes in their school uniforms.

There is widespread sentiment in Ward 5 in favor of a new freestanding middle school. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) introduced legislation this month that would allow D.C. public school students in grades six through eight to attend any middle school in the city without entering the out-of-boundary lottery.

“This is our issue in Ward 5, and we’re not going to go away,” Thomas said.

Many educators say a skimpy middle school program can alienate kids at a crucial moment in their lives.

“It’s the time when we need to sort of hyper-engage them so we can carry them through high school. If they are not hooked by sixth grade, it gets progressively harder,” said Jennifer Niles, founder and head of E. L. Haynes, one of several public charter schools that has had more success with the hybrid model. One big reason is that Haynes and other charters built gradually, starting at the lower grades, allowing staff to build a cohesive school culture and bonds with families. The plan is to eventually expand to PS-12.

The public PS-8s were pressed together because of closures that generated considerable bitterness and mistrust.

Haynes’s well-appointed Georgia Avenue NW campus has 250 middle-grade students and will expand to 300 next year. It offers Spanish and Arabic, with electives that include robotics, songwriting and video game strategies. Its middle grades show strong achievement compared with those in other city schools.

Henderson defends the PS-8 programs, citing pre-algebra and algebra at Langdon, Browne and Brookland, and Chinese and Spanish at Langley Education Campus, also in Ward 5. But the low enrollment has forced some parents to make painful decisions.

Mary Melchior acknowledges that she pushed for Langdon to become a PS-8 as an alternative to the available middle school options. She invested years of energy as an active parent, serving on the parent-staff committee that reviewed school budgets. Her triplet sons’ third-grade teacher last year, Perea Brown-Blackmon, was one of the District’s “highly effective” educators honored last week at a lavish Kennedy Center ceremony. The boys were scheduled to have her again in fourth grade.

But Melchior pulled them from Langdon, securing fourth-grade seats this fall at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan through her transfer rights under the No Child Left Behind law. Melchior said she wants her children to get a middle school program that will help them compete for a top academic high school, such as Banneker or School Without Walls.

Last year, one Langdon eighth-grader made it to Banneker, but none went to School Without Walls. But nine Langdon students were admitted to McKinley Technology High School, one of the city’s other application-only high schools.

The spots at Logan put Melchior’s sons in the feeder pattern for Stuart-Hobson.

“I would have loved to stay [at Langdon],” she said, “but I know we’re not going to get the funding we need to provide a decent middle school.”

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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