More than two dozen D.C. education leaders met Thursday evening at the Hay-Adams hotel for a gathering with no stated agenda except conversation and good food and drink.
On the menu: Maine lobster bisque, artisan greens and filet mignon. In the offing: a chance to make a habit of more coordination and collaboration among the people who shape D.C. public education, according to the evening’s host, David A. Catania.
“We can only improve public education in this city if we start having all the players around common tables,” said Catania, the D.C. Council member who recently took over the newly constituted Education Committee.
Council members, parents and activists have spoken with increasing urgency about the need for a comprehensive vision for the future of public education in a city where charter schools are growing quickly, traditional schools are closing and no one is satisfied with the pace of increasing opportunities for the neediest children.
One reason for that lack of vision, some say, is a constellation of education agencies — many of which either came into being or have been reshaped since the city’s schools came under mayoral control in 2007 — that too often work in isolation and at odds.
The dinner guests — Catania (I-At Large) paid the bill out of his own pocket, an investment his spokesman declined to specify — included the members and leaders of those agencies: the D.C. State Board of Education; D.C. Public Schools; the D.C. Public Charter School Board; the Office of the State Superintendent of Education; and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education.
Also in attendance were D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Education Committee members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who have disagreed sharply on all kinds of issues, including how best to improve schools.
After a brief round of introductions, everyone turned to food, eating together at four round tables in a banquet room.
“This is good,” said Darren Woodruff, vice chairman of the charter school board. “Maybe we can come up with a way to work more closely with our pals at DCPS.”
Charter and traditional schools compete fiercely for students, tax dollars and access to public buildings, leading to a chronic tension between the sectors.
There was talk Thursday night of truancy, a mention of the master facilities plan. But much of the conversation wasn’t about business. It was get-to-know-you chat: Where are you from, where have you been, who do we know in common, how many kids do you have.
“How are we going to work together if we don’t know each other?” said Monica Warren-Jones, Ward 6 representative on the State Board of Education.
“Reform involves trust, it involves cooperation,” Catania said, explaining his decision to throw a dinner party as part of his Education Committee role. “If you don’t know your peers, it’s hard to trust them and their points of view.”
But how far breaking bread together will go toward making meaningful change remains to be seen.