Many still avoid­ing D.C. mid­dle schools

Hun­dreds of fam­i­lies a year opt for pub­lic char­ters or go pri­vate

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ALE­JAN­DRA MATOS

Ev­ery year hun­dreds of D.C. par­ents with chil­dren in tra­di­tional el­e­men­tary schools yank them out of the sys­tem be­fore they can reach their neigh­bor­hood mid­dle schools, pre­fer­ring to hunt for other ed­u­ca­tional op­tions.

City records show that more sixth- and sev­enth-graders now en­roll in char­ter schools — pri­vately op­er­ated but pub­licly funded — than in tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. D.C. Pub­lic Schools holds a numer­i­cal edge in all other grades, from kin­der­garten through high school.

Mid­dle schools pose such a chal­lenge for DCPS that when Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ran for of­fice in 2014, she pledged to strengthen them through­out the city, en­sur­ing that ev­ery cam­pus in the sys­tem of­fered high­pow­ered aca­demics, clubs and ath­let­ics.

She called it “Alice Deal for All” — a slo­gan re­fer­ring to the city’s most-sought-af­ter tra­di­tional mid­dle school.

Alice Deal Mid­dle, with more than 1,470 stu­dents in the Ten­ley­town neigh­bor­hood of North­west Wash­ing­ton, con­tin­ues to have a long wait­ing list and is at ca­pac­ity. But two years af­ter Bowser took of­fice, there are few signs that de­mand for other DCPS mid­dle schools is ris­ing.

“If you are not in an af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hood, where you have fab­u­lous DCPS el­e­men­tary schools that feed into Deal, you are re­ally left with slim pick­ing,” said Selma Patillo-Simms. Her son, Gran­tAustin Simms, is an eighth-grader at District of Columbia In­ter­na­tional, a char­ter school. His as­signed DCPS sec­ondary school was Columbia Heights Ed­u­ca­tion Cam­pus, an op­tion Patillo-Simms said she did not want be­cause of its per­for­mance on stan­dard­ized ex­ams.

A Wash­ing­ton Post anal­y­sis of en­roll­ment data shows that in fall 2016, there were 2,310 six­th­graders in DCPS schools. But in the pre­vi­ous school year, the sys­tem had 3,097 fifth-graders. That sug­gests en­roll­ment is shrink­ing 25 per­cent at the gate­way to mid­dle school.

In fall 2014, the en­roll­ment de­cline in the tran­si­tion from fifth to sixth grades was 21 per­cent.

Asked about these num­bers, Bowser said her pri­or­ity now is to en­sure that fam­i­lies have a high­qual­ity school op­tion, whether char­ter or tra­di­tional.

The mayor said in an in­ter­view with The Post that she would never tell par­ents they have only one choice for an el­e­men­tary, mid­dle or high school.

“The prom­ise was for fam­i­lies to have a qual­ity school to choose what they wanted,” Bowser said. “It wasn’t to di­rect them to their neigh­bor­hood school.” Her state­ment ap­peared to be a shift from lan­guage she used dur­ing the cam­paign, when she au­thored a res­o­lu­tion as­sert­ing that the city needed to im­prove the “poor state” of DCPS mid­dle schools be­cause it caused many par­ents to en­roll their chil­dren in char­ter, pri­vate or parochial schools.

Bowser spokesman Kevin Har­ris later said that the mayor stands by her Alice Deal for All prom­ise, cit­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in pro­posed new spend­ing for DCPS mid­dle schools. But “that’s not to say peo­ple wouldn’t still choose pub­lic char­ters, which are also our schools,” Har­ris said.

Ex­actly how to lure fam­i­lies back to DCPS mid­dle schools is a mat­ter of de­bate.

Bowser said par­ents want mod­ern build­ings, and she high­lights ef­forts to re­model all mid­dle school build­ings by 2020 as a ma­jor ac­com­plish­ment. She has also pushed for more for­eign lan­guages, art and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties in mid­dle schools, and there are plans to add hockey, lacrosse, archery and com­puter sci­ence cour­ses in the next school year.

But many par­ents say that what they want most are high-per­form­ing and aca­dem­i­cally chal­leng­ing schools. They want schools where stu­dents are dis­ci­plined if they mis­be­have, and they want vi­brant school com­mu­ni­ties that wel­come and en­gage par­ents. Some said they did not even con­sider send­ing their chil­dren to their neigh­bor­hood DCPS mid­dle schools.

D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber David Grosso (I-At Large), who leads the Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, said Bowser is not pri­or­i­tiz­ing funding for pro­grams that may en­cour­age fam­i­lies to stay, such as restora­tive jus­tice ini­tia­tives that are de­signed to im­prove stu­dent be­hav­ior.

“There are dif­fer­ences be­tween some­one run­ning for mayor and cam­paign­ing, and some­one who has the job,” Grosso said. “But peo­ple should be held ac­count­able for what they say.”

Ex­perts say mid­dle schools are a vex­ing prob­lem across the coun­try. Most states fo­cus re­sources on im­prov­ing aca­demics be­fore a stu­dent en­ters third grade, and on pre­par­ing stu­dents for col­lege dur­ing high school.

But re­search shows that per­for­mance in mid­dle school can strongly pre­dict how stu­dents will fare in high school. Most mid­dle school im­prove­ment ef­forts around the coun­try have fo­cused on the con­fig­u­ra­tion of grade lev­els. Some­times mid­dle grades are at­tached to an el­e­men­tary school. Some­times they are at­tached to a high school. Many cam­puses of­fer just sixth through eighth grade.

“Most pol­i­cy­mak­ers have no clue what mid­dle schools should look like or be,” said Steven Mertens, an expert on mid­dle grades at Illi­nois State Univer­sity.

Strong aca­demic pro­grams and a proven record of high aca­demic per­for­mance are the only fac­tors that will ul­ti­mately at­tract fam­i­lies to choose a par­tic­u­lar school, Mertens said.

“Ex­tracur­ric­u­lars are fine, but that’s not go­ing to at­tract par­ents,” he said. “Par­ents are go­ing to be look­ing at the aca­demics first and ex­tracur­ric­u­lars sec­ond.”

Out of 29 DCPS schools that of­fer sixth grade, only Deal and Oys­ter-Adams Bilin­gual had more than half of those sixth-graders meet­ing aca­demic stan­dards in math and read­ing last school year. Test­ing data show 23 per­cent of DCPS sixth-graders met math stan­dards last year and 26 per­cent met read­ing stan­dards.

City of­fi­cials say they are en­cour­aged that DCPS last fall en­rolled its largest sixth-grade class in five years, with 2,310 stu­dents. But the sys­tem con­tin­ues to lose hun­dreds of fam­i­lies be­fore reach­ing mid­dle school. Some­times the sys­tem also loses stu­dents af­ter fourth grade be­cause many char­ter mid­dle schools start at fifth grade.

The en­roll­ment slip­page at the tran­si­tion to sixth grade is huge for some DCPS schools. Kramer Mid­dle School in Ana­cos­tia was sup­posed to re­ceive 238 stu­dents last fall from its feeder el­e­men­tary schools. It got 61.

Columbia Heights Ed­u­ca­tion Cam­pus should have drawn 242 stu­dents from its feeder schools. It got 89.

Some of those stu­dents might have en­rolled in other DCPS schools, but data shows that many fam­i­lies are choos­ing char­ter schools in­stead. About 54 per­cent of the city’s pub­lic school six­th­graders en­rolled in char­ters this school year. That’s a ma­jor in­crease over 10 years. In 2007, char­ter schools en­rolled 30 per­cent of the city’s sixth-graders.

In the in­ter­view with The Post this month, Bowser urged pa­tience. She said Alice Deal for All was not a “24-month prom­ise.” She said it will take time for the new pro­grams at mid­dle schools to lure fam­i­lies to stay in the tra­di­tional DCPS sys­tem.

“Peo­ple said the same thing about our el­e­men­tary schools a few years ago,” she said, “and now we have seen a dra­matic turn­around in pub­lic con­fi­dence in those schools.”

Asked when she ex­pects to see that same level of trust in mid­dle schools, Bowser said, “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you that our com­mit­ment will be steady and ro­bust.”

Cas­san­dra Bland, 35, a mother of two, does not have much con­fi­dence in her neigh­bor­hood mid­dle school. She plans to en­roll her son Kaleb in a char­ter school next year.

For sixth grade, Kaleb’s neigh­bor­hood school would be Car­dozo Ed­u­ca­tion Cam­pus, just north of the U Street cor­ri­dor.

The city re­cently spent $130 mil­lion to ren­o­vate Car­dozo. The cam­pus fea­tures sky­lights, broad cor­ri­dors and an ex­pan­sive atrium. Mid­dle grades are on the third floor, sep­a­rate from high school stu­dents.

But Bland said she has cho­sen for her son Chavez Prep Mid­dle, a char­ter school three blocks from her house. Some of her rel­a­tives have chil­dren at the school and gave her good re­views.

She vis­ited Chavez Prep and saw an aca­demic pro­gram that she thinks caters to stu­dent needs. Her son strug­gles in math, so she was im­pressed by the af­ter-school math tu­tor­ing op­tions at the school. She wants clubs and other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties that fo­cus on arts and sci­ence. Chavez of­fers those.

Although Car­dozo has many ed­u­ca­tional of­fer­ings, Bland said she didn’t con­sider that school. She didn’t even tour the build­ing. Bland grew up in the District and said the school does not have a good rep­u­ta­tion.

“Car­dozo is not my first choice, even though the prin­ci­pal at my son’s el­e­men­tary school and oth­ers said it has changed,” she said.

Vir­tu­ally none of Car­dozo’s sev­enth-graders met read­ing stan­dards on city tests. About 7 per­cent met math stan­dards. But scores at Chavez are also low, with 14 per­cent of sev­enth-graders meet­ing read­ing stan­dards and 5 per­cent meet­ing math ex­pec­ta­tions.

“That re­ally didn’t make a dif­fer­ence at all be­cause the test scores for all of the schools were re­ally low,” Bland said. “I went by what they were of­fer­ing for the math and the ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that chang­ing per­cep­tions are one of their great­est chal­lenges. Schools Chan­cel­lor Ant­wan Wil­son, who was once a mid­dle school teacher, said that some schools are im­prov­ing but that fam­i­lies do not know that be­cause they are re­luc­tant to check them out.

“I think peo­ple are used to what may have been true 10 years ago,” Wil­son said. “We are go­ing to do ev­ery­thing we can to make sure there are tal­ented lead­ers in those schools, so when par­ents go into those schools, they will be im­pressed.”

Ayanna Smith’s daugh­ter Raven is a sec­ond-grader at Anne Beers El­e­men­tary School in the Hill­crest neigh­bor­hood in South­east. Smith, 44, is al­ready think­ing about mid­dle school.

Sousa Mid­dle, the neigh­bor­hood school, is not an op­tion Smith is con­sid­er­ing. Most par­ents she knows don’t send their kids there. Many choose Jef­fer­son Mid­dle in the South­west Wa­ter­front area in­stead.

Smith com­pared the hunt for a school to shop­ping for a gym. “If you hear peo­ple say neg­a­tive things about it, you’re not even go­ing to look into it any fur­ther,” she said.

At a mid­dle school, Smith said, she wants the same kind of closeknit com­mu­nity that she and other par­ents have found at Beers. Par­ents and teach­ers know each other and rely on one an­other through­out the year. They treat one an­other like fam­ily. Dur­ing teacher ap­pre­ci­a­tion week this month, Smith and her hus­band, Tim, along with 10 other par­ents, gath­ered in the teacher’s lounge to blend trop­i­cal and berry smooth­ies for the school’s staff.

Smith and other par­ents said they fear they will lose that close­ness once their chil­dren reach mid­dle school.

But Smith isn’t giv­ing up on DCPS. She and oth­ers are lobbying the school sys­tem to open a mid­dle school mag­net pro­gram that will fo­cus on sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and math. They met with Wil­son and his staff this spring and ex­pect an­other meet­ing in late May.

“I feel very hope­ful in a way that I haven’t been in the past,” she said.

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ayanna Smith, cen­ter rear, helps to make smooth­ies for teacher ap­pre­ci­a­tion on May 3. Her daugh­ter Raven, 7, in white shirt, and class­mates present the smooth­ies to teach­ers at Beers El­e­men­tary.

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