13 D.C. Public Schools to Offer Specialized Courses

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, seeking to stanch declining enrollment and the exodus of students to the District's fast-growing charter schools, announced Tuesday that 13 public schools will launch plans for specialized programs in science and technology, arts and languages.

Theme-based schools are a widely employed educational idea, and the District has several specialty high schools, including Duke Ellington School of the Arts, McKinley Technology High School and School Without Walls.

What makes Rhee's proposal different is that the "catalyst schools" will remain neighborhood schools open to all eligible students without an application or other admissions requirements. Eaton Elementary, for example, will remain the school for its Northwest D.C. neighborhood but will also develop a Chinese language and culture program.

Rhee said D.C. families should not have to look far from home to find innovative school options for their children.

"We believe that every neighborhood school across the District should offer incredibly compelling programs and initiatives within it," she said at Malcolm X Elementary School in Ward 8, where she joined Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to make the announcement. Malcolm X is one of the schools selected for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) specialty. The school's plans include starting an elementary robotics program.

The catalyst project addresses one of Rhee's central goals: establishing what she calls a broad "portfolio" of schools with diverse offerings that can more effectively compete with the District's burgeoning charter schools, which have grown dramatically in the past decade. About one-third of the District's public school population (28,000 students) will attend charter schools in the fall. Enrollment in D.C. public schools has declined steadily, from 67,000 in 2000 to a projected 45,000 this year.

"I think that, in large part, it is because families are seeing the choices in charter schools and finding those very compelling," Rhee said.

Fenty said: "One of the things we have to do is not just create a school system, but create a better system of excellent schools."

Other school systems in the region have similar programs. Montgomery County operates specialty-themed schools that draw from the surrounding neighborhoods. Prince George's County is planning a similar venture.

Other such expansions might be on the horizon. Rhee told an audience at Georgetown University recently that she is hoping to strike a partnership with the SEED Foundation, a national nonprofit group that runs urban public boarding schools. SEED operates a boarding school for 320 student in grades 6 through 12 in Southeast Washington.

"We're a huge fan of SEED," Rhee said. "We're hoping to open a partnership school with SEED where they can actually run a DCPS boarding school."

The 13 catalyst schools will spend much of the coming academic year planning their programs, but students will see some changes, Rhee said.

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