Our Challenge Focus: Improving Educational Opportunity in Washington, DC

October 19, 2011

Unfortunately, the District of Columbia is known for its underperforming educational system. Although the 162 public schools in Washington D.C have one of highest education budgets in the country, DC public schools are some of the lowest performing in the country. They are plagued by low standardized test scores, poor class attendance rates, low graduation rates, and low college attendance rates. According to Breitbart News, over the past forty years, the number of students in DC public schools has been declining due to drop out rates. On average, about thirty percent of third graders in DC do not pass standardized reading tests, and the problem continues into adulthood: about thirty six percent of adults living in DC are illiterate. In 2010, only 24.5% of students graduated from high school, compared to 63% that graduated in Philadelphia. Generally, middle school students that attend public schools in DC are unprepared when they enter high school and as a result are not able to move on to college.

Recent DC Government Education Reform Efforts
During Adrian Fenty’s term as mayor of Washington D.C. from 2007-2011, many changes were made in the DC public school system. At the beginning of Fenty’s term in 2006, the average score in student test performance and the rate of students who graduated were some of the lowest in United States. In April of 2007, Congress passed the plan Fenty had submitted for restructuring the school system. The new structure called for a change in the superintendent who was replaced by a chancellor that Fenty appointed. Some of the other changes he made were reducing the district’s administrative staff and closing 23 schools with low enrollment. He did this so that the public school system could better distribute the limited resources. After 2007, the score of standardized tests increased by fourteen points in reading and seventeen points in math. Also, by 2010, the average SAT score had increased by twenty-seven points. The graduation rate also increased, and about seventy-two percent of students took the PSAT, a sign that they would end up taking the SAT so they could apply to college. Also, he and the school system’s chancellor, Michelle Rhee, negotiated an agreement with the Washington Teachers Union that would allow for a system of compensation based on teacher performance. Despite the many changes he made in the school system, he lost reelection in 2010 to Vincent Gray. As Mayor, Gray plans on implementing many changes as well in the DC public school systems. For example, he has helped in the implementation of STEM and IB programs. As other parts of his plan, he hopes for more community involvement through avenues such as town hall meetings, fair distribution of district resources to Charter schools, work to ensure that all students can read by the third grade, and many other plans and goals.

Michelle Rhee – a Reforming Chancellor
In 2007 the D.C. board of education became an advisory board and power was transferred to the new office of chancellor. According to the New York Times, as newly elected Mayor, Adrian Fenty offered the job to Michelle Rhee, who came highly recommended by the chancellor of New York public schools. When she became chancellor, DC students had below average scores on standardized testing and only 8% of students were at grade level in mathematics. As chancellor, she immediately implemented radical changes to improve the school system. She closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals, and cut about 121 office jobs. In 2008 she stated that she planned on opening more gifted and talented programs, special education services, and music and art classes in the school district. In 2010, she set up a new contract that gave a 20% pay raise and bonuses (the equivalent of 20,000-30,000 dollars) for strong student achievement with the end of teacher tenure for a year. With the new agreement, she fired more teachers (241) who had bad evaluations, and closely monitored the remaining. Although she made many significant changes, her time as chancellor ended when Vincent Gray replaced Adrian Fenty.

Success of Faith-Based Schools
In Washington D.C., in addition to programs that help students outside of the classroom with their homework and long term goals of doing well in high school and/or college, there are a number of faith-based schools in DC that reach out to youth in the inner city who have fewer opportunities. In DC, a survey found there are forty Christian schools that do youth outreach and one Muslim school. All of these schools had association with a particular church or mosque that gave them guidance. Schools believe that this association can help underprivileged students by providing a daily structured environment rather than only supplemental help. Many students come from families in which none of their parents went to college and many students end up going to college after graduation from one of these schools. Tuition is about two hundred to three hundred dollars a month, significantly below the cost of most private schools. According to the Jeremiah Projects Report, Principals try very hard to find scholarships they can give and forgive debt. Many teachers go unpaid and students would take exams on old papers such as letters or flyers. Scholarships such as One on One, the Washington Scholarship Fund, and the Black Fund support students who wish to attend these schools.

One example of a faith-based school is the Sacred Heart Catholic School. It is located in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, and the community is mostly Latino. According to the Jeremiah Projects Report, although the area and school are poor, the school is still successful in terms of influencing its students to be more involved in the classroom and engaged in the learning process. For example, the school’s budget is very small, and teachers often have to buy pens, pencils and papers for their students. However, the environment is conducive to education because the faculty is committed to making learning relevant, interesting, and fun. Literacy is a serious problem in DC, and after enrolling in the school many students have become literate. On average the school enrolls 213 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

DC Charter High Schools
According to DCPublicCharter.com, Charter schools are public schools in Washington DC that are operated independently and do not enroll students based on their neighborhood, academic achievements, or socioeconomic status. There are a variety of schools that specialize in different subjects and parents can choose which school they would like to enroll their child in based on the child’s interests and/or needs. For example, there are schools geared towards language immersion while others focus on math and science or the arts. Charter schools are funded based on how many students they have. Per student, they receive a certain amount of money formulated by the Mayor and DC City Council. Charter schools have a much greater amount of freedom in their curriculum and other aspects of their school such as programs and faculty then other public schools in DC. Also, they have complete control of their budget. Because of their autonomy, Charter schools are held highly accountable for making sure their students are succeeding, for if a school does not reach its expected goals within its five-year agreement, the City Council has the right to take away its charter.

Charter High Schools in DC: Barbara Jordan PCS, Capital City Upper School, Cesar Chavez, Capitol Hill, Cesar Chavez, Parkside, City Lights, Friendship, Woodson, Hospitality PCS, Hyde Leadership Academy, IDEA PCS, Ideal Academy, Peabody St., KAMIT Institute, Maya Angelou, Evans, Maya Angelou, Shaw, MEI Futures Academy, Options PCS, SEED PCS of Washington D.C., Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, Washington Math, Science & Technology, William E. Doar, Edgewood, Young America Works 

For More Information, contact: 

DC Public Charter School Board
Email: dcpublic@dcpubliccharter.com
Phone: -202-328-2660
Website: www.dcpubliccharter.com

Additional Reading

  • This article explains current Mayor Vincent Gray’s plan for the DC school system. 
  • This article gives an update on the current education reforms in DC. 
  • This article is about special education needs in DC and how the reform process in education is trying to ensure that special education needs are being met. 
  • This is an article from former DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee who gives suggestions on education reform. 
  • This suggestion describes how Obama is inspiring DC youth to pursue their education.