Delays in delivering new textbooks to D.C. public schools appear to stem from multiple problems, including the size and late date of the order, inaccurate student enrollment projections and the lack of a computer system to keep track of shipments.
After maintaining for weeks that delivery of new math and English books to the system's 59,000 students had gone smoothly, school officials acknowledged last week that there were breakdowns in the process and that some children still do not have the materials.
Preliminary results of a continuing audit show that about 14 percent of the 147 schools have not received all their books, Meria J. Carstarphen, chief accountability officer, said. The school board late Thursday ordered Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to conduct the audit after The Washington Post reported that many parents and teachers were still complaining of students lacking books. The board gave Janey until Friday to complete the audit.
Although such complaints had surfaced earlier in the school year, Janey and his staff had insisted that the books had arrived on time. When classes opened Aug. 29, Janey said schools had received 95 percent of the books they ordered. But Carstarphen said Friday that the 95 percent figure actually was the percentage of schools that had either new or old textbooks on opening day.
"Board members are very upset," said school board member Tommy Wells (District 3). "I had been led to believe this was not a systemic problem and children had received their books. We need a full audit and a full explanation from the superintendent on this."
Janey, who took over as superintendent in September 2004, was widely praised by board members, city officials and education activists last year when he announced plans to overhaul the school system's academic program this fall. At his urging, the board adopted new learning standards in math and English, accompanied by new curricula and textbooks. Students will be tested on those standards this spring.
Several board members said last week that in hindsight, the plan to get the new books into the hands of every student in every grade by the start of classes this fall might have been too ambitious.
Because of the time involved in selecting the books, the board did not approve a $12.5 million contract with the publishers until June 15, and the books were not ordered until July.
"We were told by the publisher the books would be distributed on time, and that was not true," said school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. "Maybe it would have made more sense to hold off and to introduce the textbooks by January."
Officials in other large school systems in the Washington area -- Prince George's, Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William counties -- said they typically place orders for new textbooks in the spring for a delivery in early summer. They said they were not aware of any problems with late or missing books in their schools.
In those school systems, as in the District, publishers generally ship the books directly to school buildings rather than to a central warehouse. In Fairfax and Prince William, individual schools are able to bypass the central office and order books on their own.
D.C. school administrators pointed to other problems besides the timing of the textbook order. Hilda L. Ortiz, the chief academic officer, said book orders were based on enrollment projections that turned out to be wrong. Many principals did not foresee the enrollment gains that occurred this fall in several secondary schools or enrollment declines in elementary schools.
Ortiz also said that the purchase of a computer tracking system was delayed, meaning administrators had to monitor the deliveries to each school through phone calls and paper documents.
"We don't have an electronic system to track. A lot of school systems do," Ortiz said. "The process is so huge."
DC VOICE, a coalition of school activist groups, surveyed a sample of 52 principals about various academic issues on the first day of school and found that only 26 percent of them had received all their new textbooks. A similar survey done by the organization in 2004, when a much smaller textbook order had been placed, showed that 52 percent of principals had all their books by opening day.
"If textbooks are late by a week or two, it wouldn't have such a negative effect. But if the textbooks are [only] there by the third month, that would be problematic," said Erika Landberg, the group's senior associate for community engagement and a former school board member. "I'd think they'd want the textbook from the start to help move the students toward the assessments," she added, referring to the spring exam.
Responding to a volume of complaints from teachers, the Washington Teachers' Union surveyed its members in October to determine how many were without textbooks. The union received about 100 responses from teachers reporting shortages of books for math, reading, science, social studies and other subjects.
George Parker, president of the union, said he turned in the report to textbook officials in the central office so that they could address the shortages. Weeks went by, he said, and teachers continued complaining that the books were not arriving.
He said he questioned members representing 70 schools a week ago and learned that 27 schools were without books. The schools included Beers Elementary School in Southeast Washington, Browne Junior High School in Northeast and School Without Walls Senior High School in Northwest.
"Obviously the monitoring process is not an effective one to ensure that these books are arriving on time," Parker said. "They must introduce a system that will monitor from the vendor to the student."
School officials are about to face the same challenge again. Later this school year, they will introduce new standards for social studies and science and place another large order of textbooks.
"I would imagine for the superintendent and his team, this highlights a level of dysfunction in the system," said school board member Victor A. Reinoso (District 2). "As we prepare for the adoption of the social studies and science textbooks, these issues have to be addressed."
Staff writers Nick Anderson, Lori Aratani, Maria Glod and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.