D.C. public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently unveiled a five-year action plan to transform and reinvigorate the District’s public education landscape. Among its goals, the plan aims to increase enrollment, improve struggling schools, raise math and reading proficiency to 70 percent, and increase the high school graduation rate to 75 percent.

D.C. public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Clearly, the time has come for the Gray administration to make a candid assessment and holistically resolve the issues facing schools. A comprehensive approach encompasses diverse methods of measuring student progress, increased family involvement, more stakeholder collaboration, thoughtful resource allocation and a thorough plan to address socioeconomic disparities.

Each day, many students travel to schools from some of the most economically challenged communities. We must acknowledge that learning and school readiness extend far beyond the walls of the classroom and into students’ homes and communities. With 30 percent of District children living in poverty — and more than half of those children in extreme poverty — it is imperative that school leaders and policymakers consider the role and challenges high rates of homelessness, unemployment and poor health care present in education reform.

 The socioeconomic disparities in the District have a profound and undeniable influence on student academic achievement.

According to the National Association of Education Progress, D.C. public schools have the largest gap in academic achievement between minority students and their white counterparts.

Education reform efforts can no longer afford to treat all schools and students as if they are beginning at the same place, both academically and socioeconomically.  The DCPS five-year action plan must address communities’ present conditions. A holistic approach requires that we begin the process of making thoughtful school funding allocations and channeling resources to low-performing schools with the most need. By doing so, we improve struggling schools, increase student success and bridge the achievement gap.

Although teachers play a vital role in educating students, parents also have a pivotal part in determining the educational success of their children. In a recent Gates Foundation survey of 10,000 teachers nationwide, 98 percent said family involvement and support have a strong or very strong impact on improving academic achievement. 

 Parents must attend parent-teacher conferences and extra-curricular events to monitor student progress and express concerns. They must also reinforce teacher directives about homework and studying. Teachers, parents, school leaders and public officials must collaborate and act in a concerted effort to fulfill our mutual commitment to educate our students. 

Finally, we must realize that teaching the information necessary to receive a proficient score on the D.C. CAS or any other high-stakes exam does not mean that the student has learned the critical thinking skills necessary for success in higher education or the job market.

D.C. public school teachers stand ready to work with the mayor and chancellor to create the outcomes our students deserve. Despite the challenges we face, public education stakeholders must renew our commitment to create a school system that honors and respects children’s natural curiosity while capturing their full potential.

Nathan A. Saunders is president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

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