A stumble, not a roadblock, for D.C. schools
In the fall of 1998, I walked through the doors of Walker-Jones Education Campus in Shaw as a new teacher and recent Howard University graduate. The challenges were daunting for D.C. Public Schools — and for me. Schools were in such disrepair that the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to help with modernization and maintenance of facilities. We had warehouses full of textbooks but a bureaucracy that couldn’t get those books into classrooms. Many schools didn’t start the school year on time because they weren’t ready. Accounting errors meant some teachers who came to work didn’t get paid and teachers who left the district continued to receive paychecks.
Those were the realities that my students and I had to face before we cracked a book.
In the past 20 years, I have worked at every level of the D.C. school system: teacher, principal and superintendent. I most recently served as chief of elementary schools. On Feb. 20, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) needed an interim chancellor and asked if I would accept her appointment. I was honored to. In the past decade, we have reformed virtually every aspect of the school system for the good of young people: from how we formulate our curriculum to teacher evaluation to student testing to facility management. Those reforms helped make the District among the fastest-improving urban school districts in the nation. We have the building blocks needed to put us on a sustainable path forward.
Challenges remain. The achievement gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. Too many of our students, especially high school students, don’t show up to class.
This school year, systemic failures related to our graduation practices came to light. Simply put, we failed our students. We want our students to be prepared to succeed in the real world when they graduate, and that means setting high expectations and providing our students and families with the supports they need to thrive.
Still, I have never been more optimistic and hopeful about the future of education reform in the District.
That’s not because of the accolades we’ve received; it’s because we have outstanding educators working hard every day to help students whose challenges range from violent trauma to homelessness.
The mayor gave me a clear mandate to accelerate the pace of education reform, not just continue down the path of our success.
It starts with building or rebuilding trust and renewing our commitment to transparency, accountability and engagement at all levels. It means taking the lessons I learned as the District’s top elementary school administrator and applying them to our middle and high schools.
My approach is twofold: While sound quantitative data can guide us, there is a role for qualitative data. The qualitative analysis is very similar to the “five senses” song I used to teach my kindergartners. You can see, hear, feel, touch and smell what makes a great school.
When I walk down the halls of a rapidly improving school, I see teachers supporting one another in becoming experts in their fields; I hear a student sounding out the words in a text as she learns to read; I feel the many tactile resources we have in our classrooms that aid in student growth and development; I taste the variety of lunch options, including fresh salads in every school; and I smell new construction at a fully modernized school.
These senses must be felt from 7800 14th St. NW at Shepherd Elementary School to 151 T St. NE at McKinley Middle School, from 405 Anacostia Ave. NE at River Terrace Education Campus to 3401 Fourth St. SE at Ballou High School — and every school in between.
School leaders met with every guardian of our high school seniors to ensure that everyone understood the steps they needed to graduate. We hosted resource fairs at every comprehensive high school to inform students about resources in their communities.
We improved our High School Summer School program by enhancing courses to accommodate students who did not pass during the school year.
We worked with teachers, principals, parents and other community members to develop a universal set of policies on grading and attendance. Draft policies will be open for public comment this month. At the end of this process, we will have a new student handbook with clear policies and goals that apply to every student, teacher and family.
Our problems are not solved. We have more challenges and more opportunities ahead.
Hold me accountable at every turn. In return, I ask that parents and guardians make sure their students go to school, ready to learn; that those who can give their time and resources to support our young people; and that students join me in being joyful about learning.
Together, we’ll make needed reforms and continue to support our young people throughout the district.