Calendar Events and Upcoming Meetings
The State Board of Education will hear from DC officials, experts, and community members on school reopening issues at its regular monthly meeting, Wednesday, October 21st. It will start earlier than normal, at 4:30 p.m. As always, we will first hear comments from the public. At 5:30, we expect to hear from public officials and experts on reopening issues. When done, we will return to hear additional public comment. To sign up to testify, email firstname.lastname@example.org, with your name, address, telephone numbers, and organizational affiliation if any. Watch live on the DCSBOE YouTube channel.
In addition to testifying at the SBOE meeting, you may sign the Washington Teachers Union petition.
The DC council is considering a bill that would make a data on staff attrition, teacher experience, etc. transparent, which it now is not. To testify at the October 23rd hearing, email LeKisha Jordan, Legislative Policy Advisor, at email@example.com, with your name, address, telephone number, and, if you choose, your organizational affiliation and title (if any) by noon (12 p.m.) on Wednesday, October 21st. For more information on testifying and for a copy of the bill, click here.
See below for more on this issue.
DCPS on October 7th announced a timeline and process for the renaming of Wilson High School. It begins with asking the public to nominate alternative names, which continues through October 30th. DCPS will review the nominations and produce a list of finalists from which the public can vote. The final name should be determined by December 30th.
Submit your own name recommendation here. For background on the reasons for the name change, visit the DC History and Justice Collective and see news reports and op-eds here, here, and here. And here is the letter sent by members of the State Board of Education.
Reopening in person: The plan and the problem
As most of you surely know by now, DCPS has announced its plan to reopen schools on a partial, phased basis starting on November 9th. According to the plan, every elementary school will offer one in-person class per grade and two “CARES” classes in which students will attend physically but be supervised by (non-teaching) staff, as they continue to participate in virtual learning with their teachers. Each class will include 11 students. Here is the plan presented by DCPS last week.
I appreciate many elements of the proposed plan. As a phased/partial reopening; it doesn’t try to open up everything all at once (which I think would be a huge logistical challenge). The plan aims to prioritize our youngest students and, within that age group, those students with the greatest need (specifically those who receive special education services are homeless, English Language Learners, or otherwise at-risk). It allows students who would prefer to learn virtually to continue to do so and offers a safe, supervised space for virtual learning (a situation currently being offered by some private and non-profit entities). The “hybrid” idea – which threatened to wreak havoc on families/staff trying to accommodate different daily schedules and learning modes, and would tax safety, as each school’s full enrollment passed through its door multiple times a week – has been put aside. DCPS has committed to allowing members of Local School Advisory Teams and unions to conduct a walk-through of each school before it reopens.
Input and confidence needed
There is, however, one gigantic problem: The mayor announced this plan before the school system had worked with school staff or families to fully understand critical safety/academic issues and vet viable solutions. Even school principals were taken totally by surprise.
“Principals’ phones were [ringing] off the hook today,” Richard Jackson, leader of the principals’ union, told The Washington Post on October 5th. “People think principals know what’s going on, but they don’t.”
Not surprisingly, with the staff so concerned, families are leery. As a parent in the WP article said, “We can’t just go off the word of DCPS.”
A leading education researcher, Anthony Bryk, wrote in “Learning to Improve” that making “good progress on hard problems” required “following a golden rule: observe and consult the people on the ground who know most about the problem.” He was writing about education reform proposals, but the principle is the same: To solve complicated problems, it’s vital to involve those doing the work–those who know the enterprise; the physical setting; the strengths, weaknesses; and needs of the staff, customers, clients, students, families.
Reopening our schools in a pandemic is a “hard problem.” Just off the top, it involves moving hundreds or, at some schools, thousands of people in and out of a building, possibly multiple times a day, without any of them getting within six feet of each other for any sustained time, plus the logistics of getting PPE to thousands, upgrading and inspecting varied, often aging, HVAC at dozens of schools, etc.
Reopening also requires understanding families’ priorities – safety and academic. As one example, I’ve heard from numerous parents that – regardless of their views on returning to in-person classes – they really, really don’t want their child’s teacher or classmates to change, something that seems assumed in the current plan. These parents have emphasized to me how disrupted theirs and their children’s lives already are and the time it took for their kids and teachers to establish new relationships, virtually, this fall. They are besides themselves that this huge issue seems to have been disregarded. They’re also worried that the teachers their kids love will feel forced to quit… and then what?
Hopefully, the result of strong collaboration is both a genuinely strong plan worthy of confidence – and the feeling of confidence. But we seem to be on an opposite path.
Firing principals who stand up for safety is unhelpful!
Recently, DCPS terminated Richard Trogisch, the long-time principal of School Without Walls@Francis-Stevens, allegedly because he told his superiors that he did not believe “the school system was adequately preparing the school building to receive students in the midst of the pandemic.” After the termination and the outbreak of community outrage, DCPS denied that the termination was about reopening, blaming it instead on something the principal had done in the previous year – while simultaneously saying that the details of the termination couldn’t be discussed because it was a personnel issue. I have no doubt that Principal Trogisch, like most of us, is not perfect. But, if he gets fired on the very day that he strongly objects to the school’s reopening policy, it’s hard to believe that the reason is something he did months ago!
It’s also hard to believe that the reason or timing had anything to do with what’s right for kids. Indeed, at a video-conference meeting with Walls@Francis Stevens parents, the head of secondary schools for DCPS apparently acknowledged that the removal of the principal was “not in the best interest of students,” according to Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist and Walls parent who watched the video. Milbank further writes
Instructional Superintendent Jerry Jelling agreed: “I don’t think any of us thought this was in the best interest of anyone…. There are times when you simply can’t make decisions based on the best interest of kids, teachers.”
Whaatttt? This is absolutely crazy. We cannot have a system in which principals believe they are not allowed to stand up for the health and safety of their students and staff. But that’s where we are. One parent told me that when parents raised concerns at a school meeting about how aspects of the plan would work, the principal’s response was that he was just the “messenger.” He wasn’t empowered to raise questions with the district – and didn’t have the information or authority to answer questions or resolve concerns.
Parents must be able to have confidence that their school principal acts on behalf of their kids’ well-being and is empowered and encouraged to raise needed questions and concerns. If such questions are answered with termination, principals will stop raising concerns, and families will rightly suspect the credibility of every principal’s promises. This is not right, safe, or sustainable.
Pressure on principals to comply with questionable mandates is a broader problem
Based on conversations I’ve had with principals over six years, this pressure to follow directives that aren’t regarded as right, sometimes under threat of termination, is not new.
Last spring, Principal Johann Lee of Kimball Elementary in Ward 7 and Principal Carolyn Jackson-King of Boone Elementary school in Ward 8 were fired. As at Walls, the two school communities believed that their principals were fired because they pushed back against a school program that they believed was inappropriate and damaging for their students. As with Walls, the two schools are well-regarded; despite a STAR rating system that is highly biased against schools with large numbers of at-risk students, under these two principals, these schools with high at-risk populations (83% at Kimball; 77% at Boone) had strong STAR ratings and had raised them – from 2 to 3 stars in the case of Boone, and from 2 to 4 stars at Kimball. As at Walls, when asked about the reasons for the firings, DCPS refused to give reasons, claiming that it was a personnel decision and the details were confidential.
I don’t know the truth behind these firings (though I can say that I had multiple interactions with Principal Lee, who I regarded as doing an amazing job). But I know this: Families need to know that principals have the authority and responsibility to put their children first, especially in situations that relate to student well-being.
Employers must have some ability to determine their policies and require employees to follow them. But no school district should have the right to set policies that arguably endanger students’ health and educational quality behind closed doors and then demand employee compliance with policies through a process that is also shrouded from public view. It cannot be that, unlike in any other school district, there is no ability for anyone outside the mayor’s employ to learn what has happened or to question the policy. Minimally, in such cases, there must be an avenue for staff to appeal a firing or formal discipline to a democratic body that is independent of the mayor and the school system. And, where the policy itself is controversial, there must be an opportunity for public discussion.
The DC council should undertake a review of all of these firings. Parents must have confidence that principals will stand up for kids. As a result of the Walls firing, principals’ ability to do that, and therefore families’ confidence, has been badly damaged. There’s a larger issue that must also be addressed. Our schools function under the most extreme form of mayoral control in the country. It is beyond time to revisit how we govern our school system and hold it accountable.
It’s time for public reporting on teacher attrition and other key data
Under current law, our school system (both DC Public Schools and charters) is not required to transparently report the extent of school-level teacher and principal attrition. The DC Council is now taking up a bill, proposed by the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) and introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, that would require these data to be collected and reported annually by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).
Background: For years, DC families and teachers complained of high turnover, but the concern was not taken seriously, and there was no data to draw on. Several years ago, the SBOE commissioned DC education researcher Mary Levy to scour public but hard-to-find databases to get at the true state of attrition in the District. The report showed that the turnover rates in DC schools were very high, averaging roughly 25% per year – higher than comparable districts! As importantly, the attrition rates were the highest in the schools with the largest proportions of at-risk students. Many studies associate high turnover with an unhealthy school climate and weaker learning for students- and low turnover with the opposite. For links to SBOE reports and other background information on teacher turnover, click here.)
The SBOE has now reported these attrition data for three straight years, 2017-2019. This past spring, the Board surveyed teachers who had recently departed and published a report on their reasons. Last fall, OSSE and DCPS, for the first time, published their own (very useful) reports on attrition, but there is no assurance that such reports will be published again or annually.
The proposed law would assure that basic attrition data is collected and reported annually, plus it calls for reporting additional important data that isn’t collected or easily available at this point, for example the experience level of teachers. It also calls for an annual exit survey, which would provide information on why teachers leave, giving all of us a better understanding of how to address our high turnover rates.
To sign up to testify, email firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Wednesday, October 21st. The hearing on this bill is Friday, October 23rd at 9 a.m. Also consider emailing your Council members urging them to support this bill.