When I told a good friend I'd decided to run for a seat on the D.C. Board of Education, his response was, "Isn't that like wanting to be the kite in a thunderstorm?"
He wasn't the only person who told me I was crazy for wanting to run. Most people who learned of my candidacy for the District 2 seat (Wards 3 and 4) wanted to know why an otherwise sensible person would want to commit the time and energy to the seemingly hopeless cause of the D.C. public schools. After all, they'd say, don't you know how dysfunctional the school system is?
I know. We all do.
On the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress, 90 percent of the District's fourth- and eighth-graders scored below proficient in reading. (The test ranks students as below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.) In mathematics, 93 percent of fourth-graders and 94 percent of eighth-graders scored below proficient. More than half of District schools have been labeled failing; worse, because so many of our schools are so bad, children eligible to transfer to better-performing schools under the No Child Left Behind Act have nowhere to go.
The last superintendent, Paul L. Vance, quit, telling reporters, "To be very candid with you, I just don't want to be bothered with it." The search to replace him became almost farcical as two well-regarded finalists flirted with accepting the job, only to leave the system at the altar. When, finally, a new superintendent was found, he toured three schools and found one building in such disrepair it looked, he said, as if it belonged "in a Third World country."
I know firsthand from my personal and professional experience even more about the chronic problems of our school system. More than a decade ago, volunteering to help students at Ballou and Spingarn high schools learn job application and interview skills, I saw how poorly even our most motivated young people were being prepared to realize their dreams. One student wanted to become an accountant, but was getting D's in math. Others wanted to go to college, but were reading at a grade-school level. In the years since, as I've continued to volunteer and to recruit others to volunteer in public schools throughout the city, the system has made little progress.
When I hear the litany of challenges facing the school system, I, too, get disheartened. But as daunting as these challenges seem, I believe we can solve the problems of the D.C. public schools. Otherwise, I wouldn't be running for office.
We aren't the first or only urban school system in the nation to need deep reform. But -- as a January report on D.C. schools from the Council of the Great City Schools points out -- many other urban school districts have begun to address problems we continue to wrestle with. Cities as diverse as Sacramento, Philadelphia and St. Louis have begun to make schools better.
In Sacramento, the school district joined a federation of school, parent, and community groups and congregations to create a teacher home-visit program aimed at helping parents, students and teachers improve student achievement. Three years later, an evaluation by the University of California at Davis showed a 36 percent increase in reading scores and a 73 percent increase in math scores, as well as increased parent involvement and a decline in discipline problems.
Philadelphia's School Reform Committee and Superintendent Paul Vallas are leading a comprehensive reform effort that has resulted in the district's outpacing state assessment averages in fifth- and eighth-grade reading, and in fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade math. The district also tripled the number of schools meeting No Child Left Behind annual progress requirements in one year.
The St. Louis school system hired a turnaround firm in 2003. In the course of one year, more than 40 unused and surplus buildings were disposed of, staffing levels were reduced by 1,500 without laying off a single teacher, and a number of non-instructional operations, such as warehouse operations, building and grounds maintenance, payroll processing, benefits administration, food service operations and printing and mailing services were contracted to private firms specializing in these areas. The result: an increase in school-level spending, the hiring of an additional 130 permanent teachers, the first projected surplus in recent memory and a decline in the number of students scoring at the "at risk" level in the Scholastic Reading Inventory exam.
These examples demonstrate what's been possible in other systems. And, let's be clear about it, though we don't always hear about them, there are enough good examples of innovation in the District to make me think I might not be so crazy to run for school board after all.
At Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest, Principal Maria Tukeva last year organized her staff into small teams that review student work in different subjects and identify strategies for addressing individual students' weaknesses. It's too early to tell how well her efforts will succeed, but similar models in other cities have yielded strong results.
At J.C. Nalle Elementary School in Southeast, Principal Tracy Wright and her staff have partnered with the National Center for Children and Families and the Freddie Mac Foundation to create a "full-service" public school, offering students and their families after-school care and tutoring, basic and mental health services, high school equivalency and adult literacy classes, and parent involvement workshops. The result: an increase from 38 percent to 54 percent reading at the proficient level and from 42 percent to 50 percent proficient in math in a single year.
Some D.C. charter schools -- publicly funded and overseen by the D.C. public charter school board -- are also doing things differently. At D.C. Preparatory Academy, which has 30 additional school days (including Saturdays) on its calendar, middle school students gained the equivalent of 1.7 grades in reading and the equivalent of 2.3 grades in math in a single school year. And at E.L. Haynes, elementary school students began classes Aug. 2, making Haynes the first school in the city with a modified year-round calendar, eliminating the long breaks during which so many students forget what they've learned.
Over the past decade there have been a dozen reports on our schools by consultants, community groups and education reform nonprofit organizations. Some have looked at the entire system. Others have considered aspects of the system, such as teacher recruitment and the teaching of reading. With all of these reports, it isn't as if we don't know what to do. We must develop a coherent, well-integrated curriculum, improve student achievement, fix our ineffective and inefficient central administration operations and set aside the distractions of petty politics, adult interests or the crisis of the day.
We need to start with what we know is possible, rather than paralyzing ourselves by dwelling on how far we are from where we want to be. Can one school member -- there are nine -- change a school system with 64,000 students? No. Board members serve part time, receive about $15,000 a year, share a small staff, and lack the power to set funding levels or subpoena school employees to make them answer our questions. But, a school board member can provide vision and strive passionately to keep us all focused. Board members can set policies that create an environment that supports bold and effective leadership, encourages innovation, and values and rewards great teaching.
This is the nation's capital. We have at our disposal a wealth of intellectual, financial and political resources. There isn't a single school in the system that can't be better than it is today and there isn't a single child in this city who doesn't deserve better.