Provide equal educational opportunities across a city that is divided by one of the largest income gaps in the country — that’s the plan, according to D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
“We are now able to say, for the first time, that all elementary schools will get art, music, foreign languages and libraries — not just the ones with PTAs that can pay for those things,” Henderson said in a recent interview. “The goal is to get kids who are below grade level up while at the same doubling the number of kids who are advanced. I’m not going to sacrifice the advanced kids for the ones who are behind, nor vice versa.”
Hers is a lofty vision, but one that has been blurred, at least to me, by one dust-up after another over nearly everything except what is supposed to be happening inside those students’ heads. Even as a dispute over planned school closures drags on, another battle looms over proposed school boundary changes. Next week, details of her proposed school budget will be released — and wrangling over that will begin.
And if current trends continue, Henderson’s public schools could well be eclipsed by the District’s rapidly expanding charter school sector within a few years in what could be the biggest dust-up of all, raising a host of new — and profound — equity issues.
I thought it would be helpful to at least hear Henderson say what she is trying to do for the kids.
“Parents across the city told us that they wanted more international baccalaureate programs and more gifted and talented programs, and we have begun what I feel are radical expansions of both,” she said. “We are bringing in and keeping teachers who can create amazing and engaging experiences for students. We are creating incentives to encourage the best teachers to go into schools where they are needed most and providing opportunities that will help retain those who are already there.”
These improvements are being made possible, in part, by monies and resources garnered through school closures and consolidation. Other cities have also tried that approach but the savings never materialized and student achievement did not improve.
Moreover, the vast majority of schools being closed are in black neighborhoods — adding to the suspicion that the buildings will be sold to condominium developers as the firestorm of gentrification continues to spread.
Henderson insists that the vacant buildings won’t be sold but used for a range of purposes. They include community centers and expansion of successful schools such as the School Without Walls in Northwest Washington. Then, as the city’s elementary school-age population increases within the next eight to 10 years, the buildings will again reopen as schools that are better equipped than before.
“We are creating an accordion-like system that shrinks and expands as needed to maximize resources,” she said.
Henderson hasn’t been subject to nearly as much criticism as her divisive predecessor, Michelle Rhee. But she does take heat — and there’s more to come, no doubt. Last year, when she announced a bold goal of dramatically raising student test scores within five years, critics accused her of being unrealistic — even naive. Now, halfway through the school year, with the best charter schools seemingly out-competing their public school counterparts, they might very well gloat: We told you so.
“Even if we doubled the performance trajectory that we’ve been on, we won’t make it,” Henderson conceded. “So what do we do to double down? I’ve begun a huge focus on literacy across the District. When kids are reading on grade level, we can do what needs to be done.”
But even that will be a huge challenge. Asked what vexes her the most, she said, “The ninth-grader coming to you with a third-grade reading level.”
In a school system with one of the nation’s highest per pupil allotments, how could that be? Turns out, there is no satisfactory answer.
“When kids don’t get what they need in the early grades, they fall behind and you end up with students at six or seven different reading levels in one classroom,” she said. “Teaching that range of kids is nearly impossible.”
The situation is deplorable and has persisted for years. And yet, there has been very little in the way of parental protest over it — certainly nothing comparable to the outcry over school closings.
“I think it’s hard for people to articulate their frustration with academic failure — beyond pulling their children out of a school and sending them someplace else,” she said.
“Sometimes, people don’t know anything beyond their own academic experiences, which can be quite limited. They just want things to stay calm and predictable. Some just want the school to be a safe place.”
Henderson’s vision is powerful and inspiring. She embodies Rhee’s best reform instincts without any of the arrogance.
I like her approach. But I worry about her prospects for success, with charter schools inevitably siphoning resources and talented students from the public system in a country that has all but given up doing anything about poverty.
It’s not too late to draw a line in the sand and say public education is too important an equalizer to undermine. Henderson is the kind of leader who can make students — and a city — believe.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/milloy.