Reprinted, with permission, from the August 1 edition of The Northwest Current.
Catania – an at-large D.C. Council member and chair of the council’s Education Committee – along with at-large Council member David Grosso, is making a stab at this by engaging parents and community members in each ward. But more must be done to bring the public back into the equation.
On July 24, about 60 residents came to the Tenley-Friendship Library with issues to discuss, including overcrowded Ward 3 schools and boundaries; the uncomfortable melding of School Without Walls with the pre-K-through-eighth Francis-Stevens Education Campus; and the need to establish quality programs in the rest of the city to reduce pressure on Ward 3 schools.
The common thread through these issues: few formal means for parents and the community to act on behalf of their schools. And I thought about how much had been lost.
I listened to a State Board of Education representative talk about the uncertainty created when principals are removed from schools without any deliberation with parents. I thought back to the principal selection processes at Murch Elementary and Wilson High around 2001. Parents got to meet the candidates and rate them. In one instance, the PTA put an ad in The New York Times to expand the pool. Choosing a principal was serious community business, and D.C. Public Schools treated it as such.
I thought back to the meetings that parent leaders and principals attended with the budget office under then-Superintendent Clifford Janey. We were working together to solve problems caused by the equalization process. At the time, schools did their enrollment projections in early spring, and the local school budgets were determined by these projections. If a school had lower-than-projected enrollment in the fall, money was taken away from the school in November and teachers were let go. This was a terribly disruptive process. We worked together to come up with a better system.
Then I thought back to my children’s elementary school days in the 1990s. Our school board representative would meet with parent leaders of the schools in Ward 3 once a month. She’d give them news of what was going on in the system, and the school leaders apprised her of issues at the local level. And when the school board held budget hearings, the room was packed with parents who had come to testify.
And while I was a parent at Murch, Deal and Wilson from 1990 to 2005, the mantra was local school control. We moved in that direction through the establishment of local school restructuring teams (LSRTs) under Franklin Smith, and the weighted student formula and local school budgeting under Arlene Ackerman. This system did not work perfectly, but in my years as chair of the restructuring teams at Deal and Wilson, parents had a great impact on planning and budgeting.
The restructuring team and PTSA at Wilson worked on reducing enrollment at the overcrowded school from 1,650 students in 1997 to our goal, 1,425, three years later. This took weekly meetings, data collection and working out a new system for recruiting students for the academies. We backed up the principal when he had to say no.
We also learned the intricacies of the school budget. We found out our special education students were underfunded, and got D.C. Public Schools administrators to fix that. We figured out a way to get Wilson the Title I funding it was entitled to. And at the strong urging of the restructuring team, the school started a literacy program for struggling readers.
So for issues surrounding Hearst Elementary, Hardy Middle and school improvement across the city, I suggest that Council member Catania, through legislation, set up structures to give parents a real voice in their schools and the system. One place to start is the local school advisory teams. Make them partners in continuous school improvement instead of tasking a chancellor-appointed committee to write a turnaround plan.
No urban system in the United States has found a simple, single solution to educating poor urban students. There are no easy answers, but the energy and voices of parents are necessary components. Let’s use what worked in the past so we can keep moving forward.
Marlene Berlin, a Forest Hills resident, is a former parent leader at Murch Elementary, Deal Middle and Wilson High.