Photo by DCPS.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told a DC Council committee on Friday that DCPS hasn’t succeeded in attracting families to its middle schools and suggested that the District should just funnel middle school students to charter schools. What was she thinking?

The Council’s Committee on Education held a roundtable hearing last week on the plan to revise DCPS boundaries and feeder patterns. According to the Washington Post, many parents at the packed hearing complained about the weakness of middle schools in the District.

DCPS elementary schools have been relatively successful in attracting middle class and affluent families, but those families generally peel off once their children reach the middle grades.

According to the Post, Henderson suggested that “perhaps the city should figure out how to funnel children to charter schools in the middle grades, arguing that ‘they know how to do middle school really well.’”

Councilmember David Catania, chair of the committee, reportedly bristled at that suggestion. He told Henderson that it was her responsibility to figure out how to improve DCPS middle schools, declaring that he wasn’t “about to outsource middle schools to charters.”

It’s true that many high-performing charters have focused on the middle school years as crucial. The KIPP charter network started with middle schools and then expanded downward and upward, as have several others. And it’s true that compared to DCPS, these schools have done a better job with low-income students.

So I can imagine others making the suggestion that DCPS should just throw up its hands on middle schools and let the charters do the job. I just didn’t expect to hear that from Henderson.

It was only a few months ago that Henderson was touting the improvement that DCPS middle schools showed on DC’s standardized tests this year. “Students in middle grades saw the largest gains,” a DCPS press release crowed back in July, with increased proficiency rates of 5 percentage points in reading and 4 in math. At the time, Henderson said she hoped the improvements would help stem the attrition of families from the system after elementary school.

Two middle schools, Kelly Miller and McFarland, had double-digit gains in reading and math on the tests, achieving their highest proficiency rates ever. Henderson held Kelly Miller up as an example of the power of an extended day program, which she hopes to expand to other schools. Its principal, Abdullah Zaki, recently was awarded the title of Principal of the Year.  (McFarland, on the other hand, was closed at the end of the last school year, a move that in retrospect may have been a mistake.)

It’s odd that Henderson would all but admit defeat at a time when it’s beginning to look as though she might be able to turn the tide. It was a misstep that caused gleeful ripples among her detractors, and out of character with her usual determined optimism.

"We’re DCPS,” goes the catchphrase you can hear at the end of almost any DCPS-produced video. “We can do this.” And now she’s saying we can’t?