Vincent Gray says city must ‘stay the course’ in improving schools

June 20, 2013

The District must “stay the course” in its efforts to improve its schools, Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Thursday, arguing that the city needs to tweak its policies, not overhaul them.

“We’ve already made revolutionary changes in our public education system. These were the right things to do,” said Gray (D), referring to the rise of charter schools and the advent of mayoral control of traditional schools.

“Now we must have the courage of our convictions to stay the course and the smarts to know when to make refinements and adjustments,” he said.

In his first mayoral address devoted solely to education, Gray offered several new ideas, including the development of procedures that would allow charter elementary schools to feed into traditional middle schools and vice versa. But he largely described initiatives already underway, saying that although those efforts “may not send out seismic shock waves or make big headlines . . . they will make a real difference to District families and students.”

He had to raise his voice at times to be heard over a handful of activists, including a half-dozen children, who shouted in protest of Gray’s decision to close 15 traditional schools. The activists blame the closures on Gray’s support for fast-growing charter schools.

Speaking in an Anacostia gymnasium shared by Savoy Elementary, a traditional neighborhood school, and Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter high school, Gray said the two sectors should view themselves as collaborators instead of competitors.

“We must embrace a spirit of partnership between DCPS and charter schools to take education reform to the next level,” Gray said.

Gray’s move to lay out his education agenda comes as D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, has mounted his own campaign to improve the schools. Catania introduced a seven-bill package that touches on issues including student retention, school funding and principals’ autonomy.

Catania said he sees some common ground between his proposals and the mayor’s, but he said he had hoped to hear more specifics Thursday about Gray’s plans to boost student achievement.

“What was missing were specifics aimed at addressing the core deficiencies in our system,” Catania said.

Gray administration officials have said that some of Catania’s proposals would replicate current efforts and that others could interfere with mayoral control of the schools. “To the extent that any of those bills, individually or collectively, lead to people not working together, it could be a problem,” Gray said.

The mayor used his address to outline his administration’s plans to “scale up, strengthen and simplify our city’s public education enterprise,” including adding more vocational programs and developing, by fall, a blueprint for “reengagement centers” to get dropouts back into school.

Gray said he has directed Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education, to ensure that per-pupil funding follows students who transfer between schools midyear, a change that would allow schools to be compensated for the students they actually serve.

He described efforts to expand high-performing schools, transfer surplus buildings to charter schools, and ease school choice for parents by developing a unified enrollment lottery and standardized report cards.

Gray also reiterated his interest in giving Chancellor Kaya Henderson the authority to approve new charter schools and in allowing charters in high-need areas to offer neighborhood children guaranteed admission.

The latter could allow for student-feeder methods that mix charter and traditional schools, Gray said. He said he has asked Henderson and Smith to explore that idea as part of their efforts to overhaul the city’s school boundaries.

Gray offered no timeline for those boundary revisions , which were initially slated to be decided by this summer. “We must tread carefully here, but we must not shy away from the challenge,” he 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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