Readers Respond: Can D.C. Schools Improve?

By Natalia N. Farrer
Special to
Monday, August 27, 2007 9:08 AM

Can D.C. schools be fixed?

That's the question on the minds of many in the District as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the first Washington mayor to be granted direct control of its public schools, reshapes its leadership.

It's also the question the Washington Post examined in a three-part series titled Fixing D.C. Schools. As a part of that series, we asked you what, if you were in Fenty's shoes, you would do. Which problems would be your first priority if you ran the D.C. schools, and how you would solve them?

Readers emailed us with more than 100 "top fixes," demanding that school buildings and technology be upgraded, incompetent and uncertified teachers be fired, and accountability for D.C.'s children be extended to parents, school faculty and central administration -- immediately. Some of the respondents were from outside the District, but had connections to, or a history with, the school system. In order of readers' priority, here is a sampling of the recommendations we received:

Repair and Maintain School Buildings

The Washington Post's analysis of school records showed that principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs wait an average of 379 days for the problems to be fixed. readers identified this is their top problem with the D.C. school system.

Matthew S. Johnston of Frederick, Md. wrote, "For many students, through factors beyond their control, their school may not be the cleanest and safest place for them and the city should not disappoint them through bureaucratic failure."

This 'bureaucratic failure" includes the Post's report that 113 schools have unfulfilled requests for repairs on a leaking roof.

"Breakdowns happen and we all know it, but barring a major storm, a roof doesn't spring a leak overnight," Johnston said.

Regular maintenance inspections, Johnston continued, will help D.C. school locate and fix potential problems before they become huge and more costly to repair. Johnston suggested putting the school buildings on a periodic maintenance schedule and making the schedule available to the public.

"Bureaucratic failure ends with transparency, when the public can see what is being done or not done," he said.

Betsy Kelly of Chevy Chase, Md. suggested that central administration take charge of building maintenance to allow principals to focus on education in their schools. A former DCPS teacher, Kelly has seen firsthand what happens when schools are not systematically maintained.

"I've seen routines in schools around students taking trash out at the end of the day," Kelly said. "One Monday morning I walked into a school with a group of teachers only to find trash everywhere ¿ no cleaning was done over the weekend."

On the other hand, Patricia McGuire, president of D.C.'s Trinity University, said that maintaining school buildings should be the duty of the principals.

"I'd give the principals significantly more authority and responsibility along with greater accountability for results -- authority for everything in the building, including the building itself," she said. "Education takes place in classrooms, not board rooms, and the principals are the people most responsible to manage the classroom environments."

Fenty has hired Allen Y. Lew to be executive director of the new Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization. Despite Fenty's goal of having repairs finished at all 141 schools before the first day of school, Lew said at a July 9 council hearing that only half of school building repairs are likely to be done by the time classes start on Aug. 27.

Improve Quality of Teaching

"Citywide, fewer than half of core courses are taught by teachers who are considered 'highly qualified' in their subject, which requires that they have earned a degree or passed a competency test in that subject. ¿ In most states, the figure was over 90 percent. Within the District, teachers are less likely to meet this 'highly qualified' standard at schools with poorer students."

This was the Post's analysis, and it tied with school maintenance for the most important issue identified by readers.

Many readers wrote in that the city should actively recruit better teachers with more incentives, fire those who are not adequately certified.

"The best teachers should be at the city's most challenged schools," said Alexandra Rucker of the District. "We should be aggressive and generous regarding tuition repayment, home ownership assistance, bonuses and higher pay in exchange for working in the most challenged schools."

David L. Hamer Jr., a Henderson, Nev. resident who was educated within D.C.'s public schools and universities, wrote that "the city should immediately refrain from hiring any teacher or instructor who is not certified and establish a standard where any teacher who is currently employed in the system must gain certification."

Newly appointed schools chief Michelle Rhee founded and served as executive director of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group which recruits and trains teachers in inner-city school systems. Rhee claims to have dramatically improved student scores while teaching in Baltimore.

Encourage Parental Involvement

The District is home to many children in poor and damaged families living in troubled neighborhoods, creating, as the Post's series pointed out, a large population of students that are unprepared for learning.

Parental involvement was readers' third most frequently diagnosed DCPS problem.

"The D.C. government fails to recognize the necessity of student and parental involvement," said Alterik Wilburn, a teaching assistant at the Juvenile and Special Education Clinic. "We all should recognize that the D.C. community is best resource for defining its educational problem."

Upon his election, Fenty declared his intent to increase parent and community involvement in D.C. schools in his first 100 days in office. According to the D.C. government website, that goal was not met on April 12, the 100th day of Fenty's term, and still has not yet been met, but Fenty recently appointed the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) to guide the Office of Parent and Community Involvement (OPCI). OPCI will work with parents, teachers and communities to launch a Parents' Academy, which will launch its activities in the fall.

Paula Chavez-Talley, a District resident, also said that Fenty should "pour a great deal of money ¿ millions" into a parent-education program.

"Thought-provoking discussions at home, access to books and reading materials, a quiet place to study and read and being read to are things that children of middle-class and wealthy parents take for granted," she said. "These things are often missing from the homes and childhoods of poor children."

Patricia McGuire expounded on the idea of a parent education program that includes "literacy education and GED completion, with incentives to engage parents in their own education, including postsecondary opportunities, so that they can be more effective learning role models for their children" because "the educational level of parents has a direct impact on the educational success of children."

Fenty also unveiled his administration's strategy for enhancing adult education in his 100 Days and Beyond, and according to the D.C. government website, that goal has been met.

Update Record-Keeping Systems, Eliminate Unnecessary Administrators

The Post reported that a $25 million computer system intended to manage personnel was discarded because DCPS had no accurate list of employees, but instead relied on paper records stacked in 200 cardboard boxes. The series also noted that the personnel office has failed to fill teacher openings and replace staff, has assigned teachers that principals don't want at their schools, and has placed teachers on the wrong payroll.

This was identified as problem number four by readers. readers were adamant that Fenty needs to put in all new equipment -- and perhaps even new officials -- to begin to solve these problems.

"If the accounting system is old and the computers are old and the lady that inputs the data is old, put all new equipment, skills and abilities and people in place!" wrote Gina McDonald of Oxon Hill, Md.

Among the 100 largest districts in the nation, D.C. ranks third in the amount spent per student each year ¿ but more of that money is spent on administration than on teachers and instruction.

Charlie Mayer, a District resident, is married to a former D.C. schoolteacher. He listed his top three problems with the schools as "administration, administration and administration."

"The new administration should employ half as many people and be at least twice as efficient," said Mayer.

He suggested that Fenty fire most of the administrators in the central office and temporarily hire an outside management consultant "to design and implement a modern system to centralize HR, student record keeping, purchasing, maintenance, everything. Every school office must be able to interact with this system."

Eliminate Violence & Discipline Problems

The Washington Post reported that more than half of teenage students attend "persistently dangerous" schools that meet the District's definition because of incidences of violent crimes.

Several readers speculated that preventive screening would serve to gauge the needs of students before problems occur, and should be one of the objectives of Fenty's education reform.

Alexandra Rucker suggested that D.C. schools deploy a team of school psychologists, social workers and counselors, and "full social, educational, psychological and medical screening with appropriate referrals and interventions made at scheduled intervals" throughout each student's academic career, noting that "prevention is always better than cure."

The D.C. Public Education Reform Act of 2007, which gave Fenty control of D.C. schools, included plans for the "Development and implementation of proven, evidence-based preventive and interventive programs for children and families by educational, law enforcement, mental health and social services agencies."

Other readers said that the best way to deal with students' extra-classroom needs is to enforce stricter discipline standards and create programs to deal with discipline and anger management.

"The issues related to discipline in DCPS are endemic and absolutely demand that all schools be governed by a uniform system-wide discipline plan that incorporates proven best practices," said H. A. Boyd.

Joseph Sudol of Arnold, Md., taught in the District for six years. He believes D.C. students should have mandatory classes in "social behavior, teaching respect, how to be a success in society" starting in elementary school, and said there should be "an alternative setting for those students who continually disrupt classes with remedial training" in social etiquette.

"Kids need to be taught how to act," he said.

Consolidate Schools

Washington Post reporter Dan Keating noted that schools in the District receive funding per number of enrolled students. Lower enrollment, resulting from parents opting to send their children to charter schools, means that D.C. schools run half-empty buildings. This inefficient use of building and administrative costs makes it even harder to serve students.

Many readers suggested that Fenty consolidate D.C. schools to improve efficiency.

Leroy Jenkins of Bowie, Md. said that school consolidation would "allow each facility to provide a huge array of courses (remedial, honors, advanced placement, vocational, etc), services, extracurricular activities, and resources" to students, and that Fenty should also "find a way to sell or lease the unused or under-used buildings in an effort to increase the school systems' coffers."

According to the DCPS Master Facilities Plan on the D.C. government website, 15 elementary schools, three middle/junior high schools, and three high schools will be merged into other schools by 2015.

Fix Special Education

The Washington Post reported that DCPS spends more than $120 million each year to place special education students in private schools, as well as $75 million to transport these students, which prevents schools from developing their own special education programs. The investigation showed that this equates to a third of the D.C. school budget being spent on special education.

Many readers urged solving this inefficiency.

"Create a special education system that allows special education kids to stay in the system," said Catherine Stirling, a District resident living in the Palisades. "There's no reason children with learning issues should be turned out of the system at such a tremendous expense."

Lewis Young Jr. recommended that Fenty's administration re-evaluate their special education classification system.

"The high cost of special education could be significantly reduced by exhausting all intervention remedies prior to recommending students for special education. Many students just need a little extra help with basics and are not really candidates for special education. We need to strive to move current special education students back into the mainstream," he said.

Fenty said that, as part of his 100 Days and Beyond, he plans to find ways to reduce the need for special education through "effective early intervention" ¿ although, again, this goal was not met on the 100th day and still has not been met, according to the mayor's website.

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