A stum­ble, not a road­block, for D.C. schools

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY AMANDA ALEXAN­DER The writer is the in­terim chan­cel­lor of D.C. Pub­lic 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.

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