Some 94,300 youngsters will enter the D.C. public schools Tuesday to face another year of stiffer academic standards under a tough-minded new superintendent who has pledged to further improve student performance in reading and math.
"We're going to do three years' work in one year," Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie told a gathering of parents and principals last week in explaining the ambitious program she has outlined for her staff. "We have high expectations for our own performance and our students' performance."
McKenzie said that throughout the year she and her staff will be evaluating and making adjustments to the competency-based curriculum, the teaching method which requires students to learn one skill or lesson before moving on to a more advanced skill or lesson. The competency-based curriculum, especially in the elementary grades, stresses reading and math.
A proponent of the back-to-basics movement in education, McKenzie said the District school system will introduce more rigorous standards for promotion in the elementary school grades.
Last year was the first time the administration required students in grades 1-3 to master certain specific skills in reading and math before being promoted to the next grade level. It was also the first time in more than a decade that students faced two decisions on their promotions, one in January and one in June.
This year, the new promotions policy will be extended to students in grades 4-6. The change is expected to produce a high rate of failure in those grades. Despite the tutoring that helped many students, more than 3,800 of the 21,000 students in grades 1-3 failed to meet the required standards last June. School officials said they expect similar difficulties among the fourth to sixth graders.
McKenzie said there are no funds in the school budget to hire extra teachers to help students who are having difficulty reaching the necessary academic levels for promotion. She said the schools again will have to depend on volunteer tutors and special federally funded Title I reading and math teachers to give students extra help.
Last year's successful Operation Rescue tutoring program, which attracted about 900 volunteers, will continue this year, McKenzie said, but this time the tutors will receive special training and teaching kits, complete with lessons that use comic strip characters to help youngsters with addition and subtraction, spelling and grammar.
On the fiscal front, the school system cut its budget by more than $30 million this year, but there will be no teacher layoffs similar to those of last year. A planned six-day furlough of 8,800 school employes, to avoid a projected $4.8 million budget deficit, was canceled last month after Mayor Marion Barry and school board members announced they had found the funds to avert such a measure.
Cancellation of the furlough, McKenzie said, insures a more orderly opening of the schools, since the furlough would have interfered with some of the days teachers use for planning before school formally begins.
Last year, with 700 teachers laid off (300 were later rehired) and an unusually high number of teacher retirements, hundreds of students attended classes that had no teacher during the first week of school. But McKenzie predicted there would be no similar problems this year.
"I really want kids to come to school knowing where they belong . . . and for parents to be able to rest assured that there won't be a lot of wasted time" in the beginning of the year, McKenzie said.
Budget-cutting has had a major impact on personnel in the system's central administration office and in its four regional offices, where the staff has been sharply decreased to absorb a $1.3 million funding cut. On the local school level, about 17 acting principals and assistant principals have had to return to teaching assignments.
There is no funding in this year's budget for driver education, now that a special one-time grant of almost $600,000 from the Government Employees Insurance Co. (GEICO) has run out. "We are still trying to get funding through private sources," said Arthur Hawkins, associate superintendent for financial management.
Meanwhile, this will be the first year for the city's new academic high school for college-bound students. Some 300 specially selected students from every quadrant of the city will attend grades 9 and 10 at the school this fall. The school will be expanded to 500 students and grades 9-12 next year.
Students at the school will be required to take more math, social science and foreign language courses than other high school students in the city. It will be the only public school that requires one year of Latin.
The establishment of the academic school was one of the most controversial issues ever to come before the school board, which twice rejected the idea before finally approving it last January. Critics of the school argued that it would be a haven for the city's middle-class students.
To prevent that, the board required that the number of seats in the school be distributed proportionately among the city's four school regions, with those regions that have the most students getting the most slots.
Thus, most of the academic school students will come from the predominantly poor, black sections of the city since they have the most students.
The high school is located at what was formerly Banneker Junior High School at Euclid Street and Georgia Avenue NW. Most students from Banneker will attend Garnet-Patterson Junior High School at 10th and U streets NW.
Professors from nearby Howard University will teach some classes at the academic school. Students also will be required to participate in an after-school "community service project."
Academic high school students also are expected to tutor elementary school students as part of their community service, according to Cecile Middleton, the school's acting principal.
McKenzie said she hoped all junior high schools would adopt this year the "intensive junior high school" program, which existed in a few schools last year. The schools that adopted that program required their students to take more courses in reading and math. Their parents also were required to sign "contracts" assuring school officials that they would see to it that their children completed their homework every night.
McKenzie said, however, she did not want the intensive program to prevent students from taking elective courses, like art or music. "There are a lot of ways to incorporate reading and math in a subject like music, for example," McKenzie added.