Henderson faces D.C. Council questions about achievement gap, middle schools

D.C. Council member David A. Catania recited a litany of data Thursday to illustrate the city’s large and persistent student achievement gaps, using an annual oversight hearing for the school system to ask whether officials are moving quickly enough to improve outcomes for poor and minority children.

“What I hear is this constant cheerleading . . . about this fantastic trajectory we’re on” without a straightforward accounting of how disadvantaged students are faring, said Catania (I-At Large), who is chairman of the council’s Education Committee and is contemplating a run for mayor.

The D.C. school system had the country’s largest math and reading gains on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, growth that drew widespread attention and praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But Catania said that the overall gains on national tests have largely been driven by population shifts that have left schools whiter and more affluent. Since 2007, for example, reading scores for fourth-grade black students have not budged, and the gap between poor and affluent children has grown.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who had earlier highlighted minority groups’ improvement on city tests, pushed back against the idea that demographics are driving the gains. But she agreed that the gaps are unacceptably large.


DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“None of us should declare victory in our work to improve schools,” Henderson said. “We’re making progress, and we still have a long way to go.”

Also at issue were several million dollars in federal Race to the Top funds that the District received in 2011 to help turn around its lowest-performing schools. The grant funds expire at the end of this fiscal year, but the school system is only now beginning to spend the money, she said.

Henderson attributed the delay to difficulties in getting school-improvement plans approved by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which administers federal grants.

Much of Thursday’s hearing was focused on the state of the city’s middle schools, which have drawn increasing scrutiny from politicians and from parents, who often leave the system in the middle grades for charters, private schools or the suburbs.

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) pressed Henderson to consider hiring private providers, such as charter operators, to run the city’s middle schools, while Catania said the focus needs to be on ensuring that students are prepared for middle-school academics when they graduate from fifth grade.

Henderson reiterated that improving middle schools and ensuring that there are equitable offerings across the city are key priorities for next year. But she also said that the system’s middle schools have been making notable gains in student achievement and enrollment.

City enrollment data released Thursday appear to bolster her case: There was a 2 percent decline at charters this year in grades six through eight, while the traditional system saw an increase of 2 percent in those grades, reversing a long trend.

“Contrary to popular belief, our middle grades have made big improvements in recent years,” Henderson said.

Citywide, enrollment in the District’s traditional and public charter schools ticked up 3 percent this year, the fifth consecutive year of growth, according to figures OSSE released Thursday.

The numbers closely mirror the raw count released in the fall and show that charter schools grew faster than the traditional school system, continuing a years-long trend that has given charters a larger share of students in the District than in nearly any other U.S. city.

But unlike in the past, when the traditional school system has fallen short of its projected enrollment, the system exceeded expectations this school year by hundreds of students.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) called the increase “proof that the public school system in the District of Columbia is a great place for young families.”

Enrollment is not only a barometer of parents’ faith but also a critical factor in determining how much public funding schools receive each year. Schools count their students each October, and city officials then hire an outside firm to audit the numbers. The audit typically results in a somewhat lower count because officials find students who have withdrawn from school, are not actually enrolled or are not D.C. residents.

Citywide, the audit eliminated about 380 students from the enrollment figure, which stands at 82,958, up from 80,231 last year. Most of the students eliminated by the audit were in charter schools, which grew by 5 percent. They now enroll 36,565 students, or 44 percent of all public school students in the city.

The traditional school system grew 2 percent, to 46,393 students, the second consecutive year of growth and the first back-to-back increase in more than 40 years. The growth comes despite the system’s decision to close 13 schools last year.

“I am proud that we have so clearly reversed a decades-old trend of declining enrollment,” Henderson said.

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