December 20, 2013

Nationally, the District has long been regarded as an educational embarrassment, one of the top spenders on kindergarten to 12th grade with little to show for it. The story used to be familiar: Better-off families flee to the suburbs or apply to one of the many private schools; low-income parents from the “wrong” side of the river desperately seek schools on the other side. It was sad but true.

But that was then. The education momentum has shifted so dramatically in the past few years that most Washingtonians have no idea why D.C. students suddenly are being singled out for making remarkable progress, as seen in federal testing results released Wednesday. D.C. Public Schools showed significant increases in math and reading scores in both fourth and eighth grades — the only city school system to do so. Earlier federal test data that included charter school students paralleled these gains, which means all students are advancing. Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it best: “A remarkable story.”

Allow me to flesh out this story. The first thing to know is that the rapid progress in Washington can be attributed to three school chiefs. Everyone knows about Kaya Henderson, the D.C. schools chancellor, who is so widely admired that she was approached about taking over the New York City schools. Henderson is the kinder, gentler version of controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee. As a Rhee deputy, Henderson relentlessly championed improving teacher quality. She hasn’t changed.

Then there’s the lesser-known Scott Pearson, who oversees the city’s charter schools, which educate 44 percent of the city’s students. The important thing to know about Pearson: He has relentlessly cleaned up the mess left by the old school board, which approved too many lousy charters. Thanks to his clear accountability system ranking the effectiveness of schools, and his efforts to lure top performers, the District has moved to the top ranks of charter school innovators.

The third key player is Susan Schaeffler. Who? Schaeffler oversees the network of KIPP charter schools in the city, a system that has grown from 80 fifth-graders in 2001 to 3,600 students in neighborhoods that include Anacostia, Shaw and Trinidad. That number sounds small, but if you could calculate which of the three school leaders is most responsible for boosting the number of college-ready D.C. students from tough neighborhoods, my money would be on Schaeffler.

Together, these three leaders have dug the D.C. schools out of a very deep hole.

Preschool is also a big part of the improvement story. Members of Congress debate what really high-quality preschools might look like, when all they have to do is walk a few blocks to any AppleTree Learning preschool to see excellence in action. I once spent a day in an AppleTree classroom in Columbia Heights, watching three teachers, all of them college-educated, walk the students through the organization’s carefully scripted Every Child Ready curriculum. This is what preschool is supposed to be. And it’s being done right here in the District.

One interesting overlap with the charter growth story: AppleTree is likely to team up with Rocketship charters (a pairing Pearson suggested), which in 2015 is scheduled to open the first of eight charter schools it is planning for the District. AppleTree would handle the preschool years; Rocketship would pick up in kindergarten and seamlessly carry students through fifth grade.

In the District, education trends aren’t playing out as predicted, and that’s a good thing. Conventional wisdom holds that charter schools will suck up all of the motivated low-income students, leaving Henderson’s system with the special-education students and disruptive students who need parole officers. But a different future appears to be unfolding. Aggressive charters are gobbling up huge numbers of poor kids, and not just those with the most motivated parents, creating an unlikely narrative whereby DCPS could end up as a redoubt of wealthy, Ward 3 students. There’s a shocker for you.

The real education story here is just beginning to play out. The District may be the fastest-gentrifying city in the nation. Are all of those educated, middle-class couples snapping up homes in once-dicey neighborhoods really going to flee or pay expensive private school tuition? Not likely. For a glimpse into the future, watch what’s already playing out in elementary schools such as Ross and Brent and emerging in schools such as Garrison, Amidon-Bowen and J.O. Wilson.

Having a mix of low-, middle- and high-income students of all races and ethnicities is something to be cheered, not feared. The school districts in the country making the most progress with low-income students, places such as Tampa, Charlotte and Long Beach, have middle-class kids in the mix.

I’m not suggesting everything will always go smoothly. Inside DCPS there are those who yearn for the days when work rules favored teachers over students. Outside the District, many Rhee haters appear to be quietly rooting for D.C. kids to start failing again so they can paint Rhee as a failure. But while the naysayers can make noise, they have little influence over the outcomes.

Good education news out of D.C. approaches a man-bites-dog story. My advice: Embrace it.

Richard Whitmire is the author of “The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District” and the forthcoming “On the Rocketship,” about high-performing charter schools.