Brookland Education Campus at Bunker Hill. Photo from DCPS.

Parents and policymakers worry that two newly planned middle schools may not go far enough to improve the mediocre middle school options for Ward 5 families.  DCPS should create Local School Advisory Teams for these new schools, before they are built, to leverage parental initiative to ensure the success of these schools. 

Critics include a councilmember and the leader of the movement to establish a standalone middle school in Ward 5. 

Ward 5 is the only ward with only preschool through 8th grade (PS-8) middle schools, and no standalone middle schools. The goal, these critics say, shouldn’t be simply to switch models from PS-8 to standalone middle schools,  but to make the new school succeed. 

Switching from standalone middle schools to PS-8, and back to standalone

Ward 5 parents are right to be outraged about their middle schools.  The class entering the District’s two top public high schools, Banneker and School Without Walls, in the 2011-12 school year included only 5 students from Ward 5.

Much of the parental dissatisfaction with the 7 PS-8 schools in Ward 5 stems from their lack of programs and facilities for middle schoolers, which parents argue affect educational outcomes.  Many PS-8 schools lack multiple levels of math including algebra, foreign languages, robust before and afterschool programs, age-appropriate desks and toilets for older children, and so on.

DCPS says that their funding model prevents them from offering the full range of programs at a school when enrollment falls below a certain level. 

By dividing Ward 5 middle school students across 7 PS-8 schools, DCPS argues, enrollment at the middle school grades was too low to justify these programs at every PS-8 school. 

Former Chancellor Michelle Rhee created many of the PS-8 schools in 2008-2009 in response to parental opposition to school closings. By adding middle school grades to existing elementary schools, the new PS-8 schools were intended to reduce the impact of school closings on Ward 5 parents.

DCPS officials engaged concerned parents last fall and collaborated to arrive at a solution, a project known as the Ward 5 Great Schools Initiative. The result was a plan, announced in more detail this month, to close all but 1 of the 7 PS-8 schools in Ward 5 (some will remain open as elementary schools) and create two new middle schools in their place:

  • A standalone middle school focused on arts and languages will be placed on the old Brookland school campus.
  • A science and technology magnet middle school will be located in a vacant wing of McKinley Technology High School.
  • The remaining PS-8 school, Browne, will launch an International Baccalaureate program.

If a standalone middle school is a better model, why did it fail before?

A member of the DC Council expressed frustration about building another middle school “when the last middle school we built, Kelly Miller… parents don’t want to send their kids there.”

Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7 was rebuilt from the ground up over 7 years and opened in 2004 to great fanfare.  DCPS spent $35 million to build a technology and arts-focused school that was to be the “flagship” middle school in the District.  In 2006, the school received a multi-million dollar grant for after-school programs.

Today Kelly Miller, with a capacity of 600 students, has seen its enrollment fall from 586 in 2006 to 328 in the current school year.  That’s just 28 students away from the DCPS threshold below which programming is cut.

What lessons should be learned from Kelly Miller, or from the failing Ward 5 middle schools that were closed or merged by Chancellor Rhee?  How can those lessons be applied when building new middle schools in Ward 5?  Unfortunately, DCPS would provide no answer to these questions.

Parents need a larger voice in new school design

The disconnect that one feels when talking to a principal about what they think matters most, and then reading DC Council testimonies, newspaper columns and policy reports on what matters most, is striking. 

For all the commentaries on how to fix schools, there is relatively little advice for principals on the specific steps that will improve their school’s educational outcomes.

One advocate for parents whose eye is firmly on the ball of what matters is Raenelle Zapata, chair of the Ward 5 Education Council and candidate for the Ward 5 council seat.  Zapata argues that a new middle school “is just the beginning of the solution,” and she is right. 

Zapata points to the importance of marketing the school to Ward 5 parents and the importance of staffing the school with strong leadership.  She strongly supports appointing successful middle school principal Patrick Pope as head of the new school.

Zapata says she is in “wait and see mode.”  But DCPS shouldn’t sideline Ward 5 parents into “wait and see mode,” particularly when the most important decisions are being made. 

Parents are right to demand more details on the newly planned schools, as switching between models has been shown to have no effect on educational outcomes.

Ward 5 parents should demand to know how DCPS will make both the new middle schools and the remaining PS-8 school effective. Furthermore, they should look at successful and failing middle schools themselves, find out what works and doesn’t work, and demand to see these lessons applied in Ward 5 schools.

DCPS can leverage parental engagement by creating Local School Advisory Teams (LSAT) for the two new middle schools now, not after they are built.  LSATs, made up of parents who consult with a principal on the operational details of their school, have been pivotal to the success schools across the city including Hardy and Deal Middle Schools.

Engaged parents are the key to a school’s success, according to Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund.  She supports the replacement of PS-8 schools with middle schools in Ward 5, but supports creating LSATs for these schools before they are built.

Filardo explains that research indicates no difference in educational outcomes between middle schools and PS-8 schools.  Ward 5 parents’ support for the move, says Filardo, is what will make the difference. Filardo points to the pivotal role of parental engagement in the success of the Capitol Hill cluster of schools, as well as many schools in Ward 3.

A Kelly Miller veteran gives the keys to success for Ward 5

Ward 5 parents should talk to teachers and administrators like Waahida Mbatha.  Mbatha was a teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School in 2005-2006, and then a teacher and administrator at E.L. Haynes Charter School, a successful PS-8 school. 

Mbatha has specific ideas about the keys to success that Kelly Miller lost its focus on, and that must be central to a new Ward 5 middle school. 

Mbatha entered Kelly Miller a year after its rebuilding “with extremely high expectations of the school leadership and none of those expectations were met.”

"One of the stand out differences between Haynes and KM [Kelly Miller],” according to Mbatha, “is that Haynes spends a great deal of time investing in teachers.”

Investing in teachers, according to Mbatha, is far more central to the success of middle schools than is their enrollment or structure.  What kinds of demands could Ward 5 parents make on DCPS to improve investment in teachers?

Mbatha identified the following specific practices that accounted for the success of E.L. Haynes and the failures of Kelly Miller Middle School:

  • New teacher interviews and orientation: Haynes has “an extensive interview process” with “demo lessons” that administrators observe.  Teachers began the year with a “3 week orientation” in which they reviewed prior year test results with coaches and prepared lesson plans.
  • Coaches: At Haynes, “each teacher was assigned a coach” who regularly observes teaching and whom the teacher can call to help plan for hard-to-teach topics.
  • Weekly professional development: “Every Friday at Haynes, school is dismissed at 1:00 and from 1:30-4:00 teachers engage in professional development.” This time is “spent analyzing data and working on unit plans.”

These are the demands that parents should make on the school system, as they are the lynchpins to success. 

Parents should not be satisfied with simply building new schools, and they should extend their advocacy to the policies that result in successful schools regardless of their grade configuration.

If you are a Ward 5 parent who feels that the current Ward 5 middle school plan doesn’t go far enough, email Mark Jones, Ward 5 Representative to the State Board of Education, Chancellor Henderson and Chairman Kwame Brown to let them know.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.