Left to right: Natalie Wexler, David Catania, Ken Archer. Photo from David Catania’s office.

DC Councilmember David Catania answered questions Monday night from Greater Greater Education contributors and readers. In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, he called for empowering parents, improving middle school options, and generally addressing DC’s education issues with a fierce sense of urgency.

Drawing on an impressive fund of knowledge acquired during the 102 visits to DC schools he’s undertaken as chair of the DC Council’s education committee, Catania balanced his criticism with praise. He said he’s seen impressive principals and teachers during his visits, and impressive results across both the DCPS and charter sectors. But he also believes there’s much that needs to be improved.

If you weren’t able to join us, you can read the Storify version here, or view the videos of the event at the end of this post. Or read on for an account of the highlights.

Catania spoke of a tendency towards “silo-ization” in the DC government’s approach to education, with social services being treated as largely separate from education. He pointed out that at some schools a significant proportion of families are homeless and the rest are receiving government assistance.

“The most efficient way to defeat poverty that has ever been constructed is education,” he said. “And when you have the inequality that exists in our city, I don’t think the current pace of change is acceptable.”

He mentioned his bill to increase funding for “at risk” students as one way to speed change. He said he also hopes to see a rise in the basic amount of money DCPS spends per student, as a study commissioned by the city has recommended. That study also recommended additional funds for at-risk students, but the recommendation was less far-reaching than Catania’s.

And he pointed to his proposal to provide college tuition aid to DC students whose families make below $215,000. That bill, scaled down somewhat from the original proposal, passed a committee vote unanimously yesterday. Catania said a similar program in Washington State has increased the graduation rate for low-income students from 59% to 78%. That figure went up to 90%, he said, at Tacoma schools that had a college counselor in place.

Need for more communication

One theme that emerged from Catania’s comments was the need for greater communication between sectors and individuals. He urged that principals at feeder schools talk with their counterparts at destination schools, to ensure that students at one school are prepared to go to the next.

And he said that DCPS should be talking to successful charter schools to learn from their experience. He interpreted DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s comments about middle schools at a recent DC Council hearing as supportive of that view.

According to the Washington Post, Henderson said 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.’” The Post also reported that Catania had “bristled” at that suggestion and declared that he was “not going to outsource middle schools to charters.”

Asked whether he thought Henderson had seriously meant to suggest such a thing, Catania implied that the apparent conflict between himself and the Chancellor had been exaggerated. “I think she meant we should explore more how to use charter schools, perhaps,” he said Monday night.

But he added that Henderson didn’t seem to have a plan to improve DCPS middle schools, which, with the exception of Deal MS in Ward 3, have had difficulty attracting families. In the absence of a plan, Catania said, her remarks “left people with the impression that she was abandoning middle schools.”

Catania said he expects to receive a middle school plan from Henderson on December 15, and he understands it will be a “work in progress.” One way of improving middle schools, he said, would be to equalize their offerings. He noted that students at Deal have higher-level math options than students at the far less popular Hardy Middle School, not far away.

Although he recently announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a mayoral bid, Catania deflected questions about what he would do as mayor. Asked what he would look for in a chancellor, Catania said it was “really premature to start doing personnel.”

Truancy and preschool absenteeism

On truancy, Catania said that tightening up sanctions has led to improvements in younger grades, but it’s still a problem at the high school level. He predicted that his bill to end social promotion before high school would ultimately reduce truancy by ensuring that students who reach 9th grade would function at grade level and therefore be less likely to become disengaged.

He also noted that absenteeism is a huge problem at the pre-K level, and school attendance for 3- and 4-year-olds isn’t required by law. Noting that there are waiting lists for many pre-K programs, Catania suggested that families who miss a certain number of days of pre-K should be required to give up their preschool slots.

Catania also talked about the need to foster effective parent organizations across the District, and described a recent event at which parents heading established organizations gave tips to representatives of emerging parent groups in Ward 8. His office is now creating an “online toolkit” that will help parents organize and maintain PTAs.

While he said he didn’t believe that DC should return to having an elected school board with authority to make operational decisions, he defended his aggressive oversight of education from his perch as chair of the education committee. He criticized those, such as the Post’s editorial board, who he said see the Council’s involvement in education as representing “nothing but mischief.”

“I have a different point of view,” he said to the audience. “I think we represent you. And if you’re not getting your middle school, then you have to prevail upon me to do my job, and on the other 12 to do their job.”

Once PTAs are organized across the District, he said, “then you spring to life, and you start saying ‘we demand this.’ But nothing short of really intense community pressure is going to move the direction of the system.”

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