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Fenty's political fortunes tied to success of D.C. school reforms

The Fenty campaign debuts negative ads targeting Vincent Gray's DHS record.

But here again, the achievement gap remains wide. Average math scores of white D.C. fourth-graders grew from 262 in 2007 to 270 last year (on a scale of 500). Scores rose three points for D.C. African American students, from 209 to 212. So the gap widened from 53 points to 58.

In addition, more D.C. schools are failing to meet the rising test-score targets of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Last year, 34 out of about 125 schools made adequate progress. This year, 10 did.

Enrollment: In 1960, D.C. public schools had 146,000 students. A half-century of steep decline leveled off last school year, when enrollment stood at 44,467, a dip of less than 1 percent from the previous year. Much of the stabilization has come on the strength of an effort to attract more pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. The system is still losing students in many grades, but at a slower rate.

For example, between the school years 2007-08 and 2008-09, the District lost 7 percent of the children moving from kindergarten to first grade. That annual attrition rate fell to 1 percent in the last school year, and officials project no loss in the coming academic year. The exodus appears to be easing at other levels, as well. The net loss of sixth-graders headed to seventh grade has dropped from 20 percent to 5 percent. The system is actually gaining enrollment in the rise from seventh to eighth grade.

But retention of high school students remains a challenge. Many opt for private schools.

Meanwhile, leaders of the charter sector complain that Fenty has been unresponsive to concerns that traditional public schools get more funding. Last fall, charter schools enrolled 27,617 children, an 8 percent increase over 2008, and 50 percent more than in 2003. About 38 percent of public students are now in charter schools -- outside Fenty's control. Some charter schools, especially in the middle grades, outperform the regular schools.

Graduation rates: Fenty points to data showing that 72 percent of students graduated in 2009, up nearly three points from the previous year. Officials attributed the gains to stronger intervention programs and closer scrutiny of transcripts to make certain students have the credits to finish.

But the Office of the State Superintendent of Education uses what many experts call a flawed method for calculating high school completion. The formula divides the number of graduating seniors by that same number plus those who have dropped out in the previous four years. Analysts say a better way to track graduation rates would be to measure the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate within four years. D.C. officials say they are planning to switch to the more widely accepted "cohort" method. That would probably show a less-rosy picture. Education Week this year estimated the District's 2007 graduation rate at about 59 percent.

Facilities: Fenty invested heavily in a physical renewal of the system. He and Rhee closed or consolidated more than two dozen schools, claiming a savings of $17 million in security, custodial and food service costs. A new agency created under the mayoral control legislation, the Office of Public Education Facilities Management, spent nearly $1 billion on the city's aging schools. It has provided many campuses with boilers or plumbing and electrical upgrades. Three middle schools (Sousa, Hardy and Deal) and a dozen elementary schools (including Brent, Burroughs and Ferebee-Hope) have been completely renovated. Within two years, four high schools (Eastern, Wilson, Anacostia and Woodson) will be renovated or rebuilt.

Officials say the money has been spread throughout the city without favor to class or race. Predominantly black Ward 5, for example, received $156 million for school construction, more than any other ward in 2008 and 2009. Ward 8 was second with $133 million.

But some school advocates question Fenty's approach. Mary Filardo, director of the 21st Century School Fund, who has been reported to be a Gray supporter, said dollar totals are not as meaningful as spending per square foot. Her analysis shows that D.C. school construction since 2007 has favored wards 2 and 3, where outlays average between $118 and $152 per square foot. In wards 7 and 8, it drops to between $40 and $54 per square foot. Another study, by the D.C. Council's budget office, shows that nearly 75 percent of the students in Ward 3 attend class in modernized buildings, compared with 21 percent in Ward 8.

Allen Y. Lew, Fenty's school facilities chief, declined a request for comment.

Special education: There are tangible signs of improvement in service for 11,000 students with disabilities. In January, the schools system opened Early Stages, a diagnostic center for children ages 3 to 6, where developmental delays can be spotted and addressed early in life.

City officials say part of the Blackman-Jones lawsuit, which has kept D.C. special education under federal court oversight for years, could soon be dismissed. The principal attorney representing families of special education students said the city has made significant strides in providing timely administrative hearings for families dissatisfied with services.

But doubts have been raised about the city's contention that it successfully closed and implemented on a timely basis 90 percent of hearing officer decisions calling for special ed services. Clarence Sundram, one of the two court-appointed monitors, told U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman in May that the rate was "substantially lower than the claimed 90 percent rate of compliance."

This is one of a series of articles on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray as they compete for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

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