D.C. parents raise questions about funds for at-risk students, school renovations

D.C. parents and education activists on Thursday praised Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposal to invest tens of millions of extra dollars to help at-risk students in the city’s traditional schools next year, but they criticized Gray’s administration for failing to explain how and where those dollars would be spent.

“We are highly supportive of the new funding for at-risk students, but we’re concerned that the funds are not equitably distributed,” said Soumya Bhat, an analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who was one of more than 80 people who testified on the school system’s budget before the D.C. Council. “We want to make sure that the D.C. schools with the biggest concentration of need are seeing their fair share of this investment.”

In his fiscal 2015 budget, Gray (D) proposes sending the school system at least $9,492 per student, with additional dollars for special education students, children learning English as a second language and, for the first time, at-risk students — those who are homeless or in foster care, are on welfare or receiving food stamps, or are a year or more behind in high school.

The school system is slated to receive an additional $2,079 per at-risk student, a total investment of $44 million meant to help close enormous achievement gaps between affluent and poor children.

In December, the council passed a law requiring those dollars to be distributed based on the number of at-risk children at each school, with principals deciding how the money should be used. But the school system has taken a different tack, investing in three priorities that Chancellor Kaya Henderson laid out last year: strengthening middle schools, offering longer school days and other services at more low-performing schools, and improving students’ satisfaction with their school.

As a result, some high-poverty schools are not slated to receive more money next year. For example, nearly 80 percent of students at Anacostia High in Southeast are considered at-risk and the school is projected to have nearly 100 more students next year, but its budget is projected to shrink slightly.

David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s education committee and a candidate for mayor, said he is “willing to give DCPS the benefit of the doubt” because the funding bill — which he wrote — was passed so late in the year that the school system might need more time to implement it.

“I want to believe that next year’s budget will be better and next year’s budget will follow the law,” Catania said. “I will be pushing the chancellor on that.”

Henderson is scheduled to testify before the council April 28, and she was not at Thursday’s session. In written responses to the council’s budget questions, schools officials said that distributing at-risk funds proportionally on such short notice would have been difficult and disruptive, making some new investments impossible and eroding other important programs. But they said the investment in low-performing schools has increased this year, and 90 percent of at-risk funds will be used in schools with a high concentration of need.

“We are proud of the investments we have made, grateful to Mayor Gray for his continued belief in and support of DCPS students and staff, and excited about what we will be able to do using these funds in a strategic and smart way,” spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said.

Also a subject of much discussion Thursday was Gray’s proposal to spend $400 million for school renovation projects next year. Many parents complained that Gray’s plan delays renovations that had previously been planned for next year.

“Our school has so many issues that need to be addressed,” said Bernetta Reese, a parent at Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill. The school’s fire alarm system is not up to code and there is no sprinkler system, Reese said, while its faulty heating system leaves students shivering in winter coats on cold days.

Catania signaled that he will seek to fund promised renovations at Watkins and other schools by shifting money away from a proposed renovation of the old Spingarn High.

Gray is seeking to spend $62 million during the next two years to reopen Spingarn as a vocational education center with a special focus on training for transportation-related careers.

Catania said it makes no sense to spend those capital dollars on Spingarn because another career-oriented school — Phelps ACE High — is next door and underenrolled.

Ann McLeod, a parent leader at Garrison Elementary in Logan Circle, said that modernization decisions seem to be random and politically motivated and that the constant shifting of renovation schedules — and testifying before the council -- takes parents’ time and energy away from volunteering in schools.

Garrison’s renovation funds have been yanked and restored several times in recent years, and the school is now scheduled to be fully modernized by fiscal 2016, a victory that McLeod compared to surviving a plane crash in which others are not as lucky.

“We don’t understand what happened or why, and why we are the ones who survived and others did not,” McLeod said, adding that decisions should be driven by hard data and transparent analysis. “There is currently no strategy whatsoever in the whole modernization planning.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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