D.C. Schools Seek New Focus on Academics

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After a full year dominated by leaky roofs, fire-code violations, and school closings, the District of Columbia schools are starting to shift their focus from bricks to brains.

In the past two months, the school system has hired an academic chief, tested nearly all students, and produced an academic blueprint, a principals' evaluation, and a plan to overhaul failing schools. The district also set standards that students in grades 3, 5, 8, and 11 will have to meet to be promoted.

It's about time, say educators and parents, who have grown weary of the facilities problems that forced the 76,000-student system to open late in September for the third time in four years.

"When I first came here, I was shocked at how every conversation was about facilities," the new chief academic officer, Arlene A. Ackerman, said in an interview last week. "I was looking at our test scores and thinking, 'Where are our priorities?'"

Whether the district can raise achievement will be the biggest test of the administration led by Julius W. Becton Jr., the retired U.S. Army general who was appointed chief executive officer in a federal takeover of the troubled schools a year ago.

Ms. Ackerman's most dramatic initiative will force teachers at some schools to leave their jobs if standardized-test scores don't rise between October and May. Though students in several grades took the Stanford Achievement Test last spring, Ms. Ackerman insisted on spending $760,000 for students in grades 1-11 to take both the reading and math portions last month as a basis for comparison.

Of the district's 146 schools, 21 were identified as inadequate. If scores at any of those schools don't increase by at least 10 percent, staff members there will have to reapply for their jobs.

Those schools would rehire up to half of their teachers. The rest could apply for jobs at other schools if they have satisfactory evaluations, but veteran teachers would not be allowed to displace less experienced ones.

Cooperation With Union

Based on the October test scores, Ms. Ackerman will inform several more Washington schools this month to improve within two years or face similar repercussions. And next June, all schools will be evaluated on test scores, attendance, dropout rate, and parent and teacher surveys.

While the plan reflects a growing trend among large, urban school districts to shake up deficient schools, it is unusual for a teachers' union to agree so quickly and quietly to school overhauls, often called reconstitutions.

Ms. Ackerman spent just two months hammering out the agreement with the Washington Teachers' Union, and it has not yet provoked protests, as happened with similar policies in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

The two sides attributed the cooperation to a belief that the schools here are in crisis. Nearly 90 percent of the 10th graders scored below the "basic" level in math on the ninth edition of the Stanford test; 45 percent of the 4th grades scored below basic in reading.

"This is our attempt at being proactive," said Esther S. Hankerson, the general vice president of the 5,000-member union.

Some principals said they welcomed the challenge to raise student performance. At Davis Elementary School, teachers are employing a new strategy that gears instruction toward individual learning styles.

"If we do our job, our test scores will go up," Principal Claudette W. Giles said. "We have high expectations of our students."

The principal of Walter Jones Elementary School, Antoinette Wells, agreed that the mandate for improvement was necessary, but she said it was frustrating to get the news two months into the school year. She added that district administrators should be held accountable just like teachers and principals.

The 1-year-old administration drew sharp criticism earlier this year for closing 14 underused schools.

An even bigger furor occurred in September, when a District of Columbia Superior Court judge in a long-running lawsuit over school fire-code violations barred the district from repairing school roofs while children were inside. Mr. Becton decided to postpone the first day of school for all schools for three weeks. ("D.C. Appropriations Bill Passes After Lawmakers Drop Voucher Language," Nov. 19, 1997.)

Later this fall, the tide of bad news started to turn. The district settled the 5-year-old lawsuit earlier this month. A year-in-review report boasts that 60 roofs have been repaired, and the sale of two vacant buildings has reaped $400,000. ("D.C. Schools, Parents Settle Longstanding Suit," Nov. 12, 1997.)

Take-Charge Leader

School district leaders say it took months to hire Ms. Ackerman, a former Seattle deputy superintendent, because they conducted a national search.

"We did not have strength in the academic area until now, and that was a shortcoming," acknowledged Bruce MacLaury, the chairman of the appointed board of trustees that runs Washington's schools. "The facilities problems were a major distraction, though it's not an excuse. From day one we were demanding high standards, but there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing because the academic side was not under strong leadership."

Ms. Ackerman's take-charge attitude has impressed union leaders and district officials, including Don Reeves, a trustee and the president of the elected school board, which now serves in an advisory role.

"I think we've finally laid the groundwork to be where we want to be by the year 2000," said Mr. Reeves, usually a vocal critic of the new administration. "Now it's a question of everything being carried through."

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read a summary of the District of Columbia public schools' plan to refurbish substandard schools, from The Washington Post.
  • Read the full text of the agreement between Parents United for the District of Columbia Public Schools and the District of Columbia municipal government to reopen D.C. schools, from The Washington Post.
  • Read the executive summary of "Children in Crisis," the District of Columbia control board's report on the public schools, published in the Washington Post, Nov. 12, 1996.
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