Parents and students who are queasy from the District's three-year-old, school-reform roller coaster should take a deep breath before classes resume Monday.
The coming academic year promises additional ups and downs. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she will continue trying to boost classroom performance and to remove poor teachers and principals. And the bitterly divided D.C. Board of Education will attempt to prove that it can play a role in running the 146-school system and deserves to get its power back next June 30.
"It's going to be a very busy fall," said school board member Tonya Vidal Kinlow (At Large).
Nearly one in five schools will have new principals--and half will have principals with two years or less at the helm. About one in six of the city's 5,100 teachers are newly hired.
Teachers and principals will receive substantial pay raises, with teachers also scheduled to receive lump-sum payments Tuesday to cover a raise they were supposed to get last school year. At the same time, D.C. educators will be evaluated for a second consecutive year on whether their students improve reading and math scores on the difficult Stanford 9 Achievement Tests.
"Teachers and principals will be earning competitive wages. People want results, and I want results," Ackerman said. "I think our public deserves it, and we can't make excuses."
While classroom work focuses on those tests and several new academic initiatives, top city officials and education activists will organize a community debate over how to remake the school board to avoid the crippling infighting of the past.
"It engenders a lack of confidence," said Mary Levy, a longtime analyst of the school system for the advocacy group Parents United for D.C. Public Schools. "When you don't know who's going to be in charge really . . . it makes people uneasy."
Ackerman said she won't let the noisy debate over governance--which reached fever pitch this summer when a school board majority tried to oust board President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1)--distract her from her mission.
"My plans are to work with them in whatever way they are organized, so that we can continue with our reforms," said Ackerman, who was appointed superintendent by the D.C. financial control board 16 months ago. She is currently trying to negotiate a pay raise and a new contract, but likely would end up reporting to the school board if it regains power as scheduled next June.
Ackerman said she will increase training for teachers and principals this school year, closely analyzing Stanford 9 test data to see where classroom teaching is weakest "and then really begin to focus in on those areas systemwide."
Reading instruction, especially in early elementary grades, will emphasize phonics more than in past years, she said. Individual schools will be expected to do more for special education students.
Many schools are reorganizing. Stoddert Elementary Principal Ursula Cossell has arranged her classrooms so that the younger grades are clustered together as are older classes. She said teachers will work in teams and with curriculum experts to boost the performance of the school's 223 students.
"We're going to look at our test data and see the kinds of revisions and challenges we need to offer," Cossell said. "I want my teachers to be more collaborative."
For the first time, all D.C. teachers will be eligible for bonus pay this year, if they meet a set of criteria still being negotiated by school officials and the teachers union. But poorly performing teachers can be placed on probation and fired if they don't improve within 90 days--the shortest time frame in the country. The teachers can lose their jobs if their evaluations are unsatisfactory two years in a row.
The pressure to improve test scores has many parents, activists and teachers concerned.
"This whole thing with tests, tests, tests has got some really difficult side effects," Levy said. "I think if this trend continues to emphasize reading and math at the expense of everything else that it's going to create a lot of problems."
But Ackerman said she must remain on this path to improve the long-struggling system.
"We're changing a culture, and we're changing attitudes, and we're changing behaviors," she said. "All of that makes us as adults uncomfortable, but I don't think we have a choice."
Ackerman said she will also concentrate on the system's stronger students. She plans to expand voluntary Saturday classes, which in the past had been remedial, to include an enrichment program for youngsters with top test scores.
"We spent the last two years focusing on the students [whose test scores] are below basic," she said. "We are now really turning our attention and resources to . . . enrichment and outreach for young people who are scoring and performing at the higher levels."
Up to 7,000 students are expected to enroll in the city's 29 public charter schools, including 10 new ones. About $30 million of the $601 million in local school funding is being held in escrow. It will be divided between the public school system, which last year enrolled about 71,000 students, and the charter schools, which drew 3,500 youngsters last year, depending on where students enroll.
Within the traditional school system, much discussion will center around plans for closing obsolete schools and building new ones. The school board and Ackerman's administration are supposed to work together this fall to finish a long overdue Long Range Facilities Master Plan, complete with demographic projections and other data needed to decide the fate of the school system's aging buildings.
Kifah W. Jayyousi, the recently hired facilities director, plans major community outreach this fall to discuss options for closing some old schools, modernizing others and building some facilities.
The controversial practice of selling off closed school buildings will not resume until all the demographic data has been analyzed, Jayyousi said. But he warned that in a system with so many outdated buildings some change is inevitable.
"We need to bring a new generation of school [buildings] to D.C. Public Schools," Jayyousi said. "Our schools are in very, very dire need of rehabilitation. We need to provide a full-force renewal . . . very quickly."
District Public Schools
Web Address: http://www.k12.dc.us
Anticipated enrollment this fall: 71,889 (71,889 last year)
Budget: $575 million for 1999 (requested $601 million for 2000)
Spending per student: $7,973 (estimated 1999); $8,911 (projected for 2000)
Number of classroom computers: Not provided.
Number of schools: 146 traditional schools; 18 public charter schools, which operate with public funds but outside the school bureaucracy.
Number of new schools opening: 9 charter schools; 1 special education
Student/teacher ratios: Elementary: PreK-2 20/1; grades 3-4 22/1; grades 5-6 25/1
Junior/middle school 25/1
High school: English and math 24/1; trade and shop 22/1; other subjects 29/1
Students eligible for free and reduced pricemeals: Out of 71,889: 44,532 free, 3,124 reduced.
CAPTION: Repairs are being made to the slate roof of Stoddert Elementary School on Calvert Street NW.