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Models for D.C. schools? Try next door, in Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery.

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 16, 2010; GZ15

I have been arguing with readers on my blog about how to improve D.C. public schools. It may sound like the same old fight over D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, which should be resolved soon. (This column's deadline was Monday, before the polls closed on the mayoral race.) But our online quarrel has evolved into something deeper.

All of us want to help low-income kids. Readers say Rhee is too aggressive and uncompromising. I say other school leaders have been similarly pushy, with good results in raising standards, removing low-performing teachers and fighting the apathy that has led many school systems to assume disadvantaged children can't learn much. Readers, not believing me, have asked for examples.

My first instinct is to mention charter schools across the country that have shown great gains with low-income children by refusing to compromise. But those aren't school systems. They don't have large headquarters staffs used to doing things their way. They don't provide much of a model for the District.

Better answers, I realize, are found here in the Washington area. Some of our suburban districts have made great strides with energetic policies that had to overcome resistance.

People in the District tend to dismiss places such as Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties as atypical, because they are among the wealthiest school districts in the country. But they don't spend much more, and often spend less, per child than the District does. According to fiscal 2007 figures compiled by Mary Levy of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, D.C. schools had an operating budget of $14,405 per pupil, compared with $17,958 for Arlington, $12,853 for Fairfax and $13,446 for Montgomery. (With its new teacher contract, D.C. is spending even more.) Our suburban counties, like the city, have large pockets of poverty where test scores have been low. But they have had more success dealing with that.

The Foundation for Child Development and Pre-K Now, a campaign funded by the Pew Center on the States, has released a report saying Montgomery's programs for disadvantaged children in early grades are a national model. "Almost 90 percent of kindergarteners enter first grade with essential early literacy skills," the foundation said in a statement. "Nearly 88 percent of third graders read proficiently." The county succeeded despite criticism that it was putting too much stress on kids.

Fairfax County was the first district in the area, and one of the first in the country, to open Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses to all students, another initiative that challenged old habits. From 1997 to 2008, Arlington raised the percentage of black students passing the Virginia Standards of Learning exams from 37 to 74 percent and Hispanic students from 47 to 82 percent, by making minority improvement its priority, despite some predictions of failure.

To me, these programs succeeded because the suburban districts, unlike the D.C. schools, had a critical mass of involved families. Most but not all of these families were middle class and supported better teaching for all students, rich and poor. That dynamic has worked in certain parts of the District, particularly in Northwest, to which families from other parts of the city, some middle class, some not, transferred their children to join the affluent children attending public schools there.

They were willing to sanction tougher principals, more homework and careful documentation of progress through standardized tests. If standards slipped, they got mad. We seem to have more parents like that in other parts of the District these days, if you count those flocking to high-performing charter schools. They form a base of support for more determined school improvement, if the chancellor, whoever that may be, takes advantage of it.

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