Doubts Linger on Pre-K-8 Strategy
Schools Chancellor Pushes Program as Part of D.C. Reform

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.

"This government has spent billions of dollars over the last decade on public education. Some say we've wasted the dollars," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "Are we now about to waste more money because of the way the decision making has been set up?"

Critics beyond the council have also raised concerns, especially in light of the city's existing track record with pre-K-8 schools. Three -- P.R. Harris, Fletcher-Johnson and Merritt -- have been closed because of low enrollment. Other schools, including Brookland, West and Brent, started as schools with grades pre-kindergarten through seven or eight and dropped the upper grades because of enrollment issues.

"It seems to me when you have this kind of record you go back and look at what was going on and see if you are repeating a mistake," said Mary Levy, a school budget expert with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Rhee said that she will not be repeating history and that the new pre-K-8 schools will be supported with staff and services that the older ones never enjoyed. She also said that because most of the conversions will be staggered, adding one grade a year, disruption for students and teachers will be minimal.

She bluntly rejected Levy's contention, echoed this week by Gray, that because the city has closed three pre-K-8 schools as part of 23 buildings shuttered for low enrollment, it is a configuration that might not work.

"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," Rhee said. "We're closing elementary schools. Does that mean elementary schools don't work?"

Rhee added that her plan is responding to significant sentiment from parents who would like to keep their children in expanded versions of elementary schools they are generally pleased with, rather than move them to floundering middle schools.

Parents at Langdon Elementary in Northeast, for example, successfully pushed for a change to pre-K-8 for exactly that reason. Nearly 80 percent of students there tested at proficiency level this year in math and 70 percent in reading. Without the change, many sixth-graders would have moved to Backus Middle School, where students scored 14 percent proficiency in reading and 17 percent in math on the most recent D.C.-CAS exams.

"Backus is a disaster, and that's where most of our kids were slated to go," said Mary Melchior, a parent at Langdon.

Pre-K-8 is actually more reprise than reform. Until the early 20th century, most children in the nation stayed in the same building from kindergarten through eighth grade. As educators tried to raise the academic performance of students as they went through the stresses and challenges of adolescence, the junior high and middle school models emerged. But student achievement in the middle years remains relatively poor.

The configuration issue has now come full circle, with school districts in Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia making big moves toward pre-K-8. The initial results have been promising but inconclusive, researchers say.

Rhee cites a 1998 study of 48 rural and suburban school districts that found that students who had to switch schools at the elementary or junior high levels had bigger declines in achievement than those coming from a K-8 program. A Duke University study of disciplinary actions in North Carolina public schools in 2001-02 showed lower rates of behavioral problems among sixth-graders in K-6 schools than those attending middle schools.

The most ambitious study was the Johns Hopkins analysis of 40,000 students in 95 Philadelphia K-8 schools during the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 school years. Overall, it showed that the schools outperformed middle schools but that most of the gains were found in schools that had fewer children from impoverished families and employed older, more qualified staff.

Byrnes and co-author Allen Ruby conclude that the advantages to K-8, or, in the District's case, pre-K-8, are real but difficult to duplicate. They end on a cautionary note: "Districts and schools eager to convert to the K-8 structure because of this advantage should not rush into any such policies. K-8 schools . . . have fallen out of fashion before, and they may do so again."

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