Study Critiques D.C. Schools

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Due in large part to an "enormous" concentration of special-needs pupils, students in District of Columbia public schools are receiving an education far inferior to that of their counterparts in two neighboring suburban districts, according to a recent report by a coalition of parents and business leaders.

"An objective observer of the District of Columbia schools must conclude that our superintendents, principals, and teachers are being asked to do an enormously difficult job with one hand tied behind their backs," says the report, issued last month by Parents United for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

A five-year-old advocacy group of some 800 parents, Parents United enlisted the aid of 20 civic and business leaders to complete the study.

The report targets a number of problem areas, including the district's high percentage of special-needs students, substandard buildings, low scores on standardized tests, and comparatively low levels of parental involvement.

"The single largest reality confronting the District's public schools is their enormous concentrations of special-needs pupils," the report contends.

Low-Income Students

The three neighboring districts compared in the report--the District of Columbia, Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md.--have about 600,000 residents each, but the District of Columbia has a much higher number of poor residents than the two counties, the report notes.

About 20,000 families in the District have incomes below the poverty level, compared with fewer than 5,000 such families in each of the counties, the report states. The District's median income is about 55 percent of the medians for the two suburban districts.

Fairfax County enrolls 125,000 students, Montgomery County enrolls 94,000, and the District of Columbia enrolls 88,000.

Resources for Disadvantaged

Because of their far lower percentage of special-needs students and equal or greater overall resources, "both Montgomery and Fairfax Counties have been able to provide extra resources to educationally dis-advantaged students without diminishing services to average and high achievers," the report says.

In contrast, "the District has provided limited increases in its allocation of resources for the needy only at the expense of other students," the report maintains.

An "enormous" need for smaller remedial classes in the District of Columbia's secondary schools has resulted in overenrollments in the core, required classes for average and above-average achievers, according to the report.

In addition, the study found, the District of Columbia spends "almost nothing" on elementary-school programs for gifted and talented students, while the two counties provide extra teachers and materials for such programs.

The report notes that Montgomery County spends $4,050 per pupil, compared with $3,750 spent for each District of Columbia pupil. The authors of the report say they were unable to provide figures for Fairfax County, but suggest that Fairfax probably also spends more per pupil than does the urban district.

Janis Cromer, a spokesman for the District of Columbia public schools, said the report is "very helpful. It gives us another viewpoint about the areas we should be addressing."

Other Findings

The study also found:

The typical District school was built between 1935 and 1950, while the typical school in the suburban counties was built in the 1960's.

In the urban district, test scores fall in the 25th percentile in high schools, in the 40th percentile in junior high schools, and several points above the national norm in elementary schools. Scores for the suburban districts fall in the range of the 75th to 85th percentiles at all levels.

Parents have become increasingly involved in the District of Columbia schools, the study found, but suburban parents still provide significantly more volunteer services than do their urban counterparts.

At the high-school level, the District spends about $52 per pupil for texts, supplies, and equipment, compared with $70 in Fairfax County and $91 in Montgomery County. At the junior-high level, the city schools spend $44, compared with $102 in Fairfax County and $88 in Montgomery County.

Vol. 05, Issue 18

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