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.
The schools beginning STEM programs are Beers Elementary (Ward 7), Burroughs Education Campus (Ward 5), Emery Educational Campus (Ward 5), Langdon Education Campus (Ward 5) and Whittier Education Campus (Ward 4).
Schools selected for an arts integration program, designed to integrate music, dance and visual arts into all subject areas, are Ludlow-Taylor Elementary (Ward 6), Sousa Middle School (Ward 7), Takoma Educational Campus Preschool (Ward 4) and Tyler Elementary (Ward 6).
Three schools will shift to a "world cultures" theme, with an emphasis on languages and globalization: Eaton, Payne Elementary School (Ward 6) and Columbia Heights Education Campus (Ward 1).
The schools, selected from a field of applicants, developed their proposals for specialty programs. Sousa, a middle school that once had one of the region's outstanding marching bands, wants to rekindle that legacy with a music-themed curriculum. Tyler Elementary will collaborate with Young Playwrights Theater and Turning the Page, a nonprofit organization that supports schools in Northeast and Southeast Washington with literacy and photography programs, to mount a series of performances and exhibitions throughout the year.
Payne Elementary School will designate four cultures to study each year, developing community projects with local embassies and museums. Columbia Heights Education Campus, a combined middle and high school with 1,250 students, wants to expand its dual-language Spanish program with an emphasis on multiculturalism and cross-cultural literacy.
The first three years of the catalyst project will be funded by $6 million in grants from donors that include the Philip L. Graham Fund, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation and the CityBridge Foundation. The Graham Fund and the Meyer Foundation were established by past publishers of The Washington Post. The project is sponsored by the D.C. Public Education Fund, formed by Fenty to bring private money into the school system.
After three years, Rhee said, the schools will be expected to pay for the programs with funds generated by increased enrollment.