Doubts Linger on Pre-K-8 Strategy

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Like surgical scars, once promising or trendy ideas for reform have left their marks all over the D.C. school system. Many came as officials pursued the best way to configure schools for students coping with their turbulent adolescent years.

At one time or another, the city has tried schools starting with kindergarten through ninth grade and K-7; junior highs with grades seven through nine; middle schools with grades six through eight; and, most recently, schools with pre-K through eighth grade.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has decided to expand the District's investment in that last format, making it a major element in the program of school closures and consolidations she launched last month.

At a cost of $58 million, five elementary and middle schools -- Oyster-Adams, Powell, LaSalle, Francis and Brown -- will expand to pre-K-8, receiving students from the shuttered schools when classes begin in August. An additional 13 will become pre-K-7 this fall and add eighth grade in 2009.

The changes will involve about 5,300 children.

Rhee cites a body of research showing that pre-K-8 students score higher on standardized tests than their middle or junior high school counterparts and benefit socially from skipping the often-wrenching transition that comes with the jump from elementary school. Reduced absenteeism, fewer discipline problems and increased parental involvement are among the other advantages, the studies conclude.

The extended grade model also encourages parents who are faced with sending children to under-performing or unsafe neighborhood middle and junior high schools to keep them in the D.C. system.

Evidence of pre-K-8's long-term benefits, however, is far from clear-cut. A 2006 study of the Philadelphia school district, which has made a major commitment to pre-K-8, showed that most of the academic gains came in schools with students from higher-income households.

"The benefit isn't as big as it looks when you sit down and eyeball it," said Vaughan Byrnes, research assistant at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the Philadelphia study.

The evidence is ambiguous enough that Rhee and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who questions the tilt toward pre-K-8, cite different sections of some of the same studies to support their arguments.

The issue has touched a nerve with Gray and some other council members, who have accused Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) of trying to bulldoze major policy changes through the system without sufficient public discussion. They suggest that the way grades are organized is not as important as the quality of staff and academic programs.

This week, the council approved the transfer of $125 million from other school renovation projects, with $58 million intended for pre-K-8. Council members said that Rhee and Fenty had not given them an opportunity to study the plan in depth, even though Rhee presented the blueprint in November.

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