Photo from DC Council website.

This week’s DC Council hearing on school boundaries and feeder patterns gave the public some clues to the kinds of changes Chancellor Kaya Henderson has in mind for DCPS middle schools as she works on a plan to improve them.

The ongoing review of how DC students are assigned to public schools has generated a lot of anxiety. With a number of low-performing elementary schools now on the upswing, parents are focusing on the state of DCPS middle schools. That’s the point at which many families have either been leaving the system or competing to apply for out-of-bounds spots at one or two desirable options.

Appearing at an education committee hearing on Monday, Henderson made no commitments to any particular package of reforms. But her exchanges with Councilmembers point up some of the questions she’s grappling with as she devises a middle school plan she has promised to incorporate into her budget proposal for the 2014-15 school year.

Here are two of the issues that came up. We’ll take up some of the others in another post.

Timing and the pace of planning

At a previous hearing in November, Catania chastised Henderson for not already having a plan in place to improve middle school quality. (At Monday’s hearing, he also pointed out that much of the anxiety surrounding the boundary review process would disappear if schools were of the same quality across the District.) He gave Henderson a deadline of mid-December to come up with a plan.

Instead, Henderson responded with a letter outlining the system’s “measured approach.” The overarching DCPS plan, she said, was this: First, improve the quality of teachers. Second, align the curriculum to the Common Core State Standards. Third—this year—standardize elementary school offerings. Fourth—next year—do the same thing for middle schools. (High schools will be the focus the year after that.)

Catania and others have expressed impatience with this deliberate pace. A parents’ group in Ward 6 has complained that there’s already a DCPS-approved plan to improve that area’s middle schools and wants to know why it can’t just be implemented. Ward 5 parents have questions about another middle school initiative there, apparently stalled in part because of concerns about attracting students.

Catania has urged that DCPS beef up the academic offerings at Hardy Middle School in affluent Ward 2, which draws almost 90% of its students from other neighborhoods, many of them from Wards 7 and 8. If more neighborhood families could be drawn to Hardy, it would relieve the pressure on the overcrowded Deal Middle School in Ward 3, which is currently the only DCPS middle school that is in high demand.

But Henderson prefers a District-wide approach. These “one-off” improvements, she said at the hearing, would lead to “inefficiency” and the “disproportionality that forced us to close schools last year.” In other words, if you put desirable options at some schools and not others, you’ll end up with an exodus out of the unimproved schools and into the improved ones.

As evidence that the across-the-board approach eventually works, Henderson pointed to the fact that some previously undesirable elementary schools, such as Powell and Bruce-Monroe, now have students “flocking to them.” She also pointed to some middle schools that are seeing increases in enrollment, including Jefferson in Ward 6 and Hart in Ward 8.

There may be another reason for Henderson’s District-wide approach: making improvements at some middle schools and not others might also produce negative political consequences in the areas that get left out. But by holding off on individual changes, Henderson may lose parents who already have their kids enrolled in neighborhood elementary schools that are improving and want a high-quality middle school option immediately, if not sooner. It also seems that she’s reneging on, or at least delaying, some plans that DCPS set in motion years ago.

Cooperation between DCPS and charters

Henderson waded into this subject with some apprehension, noting that she got “clobbered” when she suggested at a previous hearing that DC could “funnel” some students into charters for middle school. This time, however, she got a warmer reception, at least from Councilmember Tommy Wells.

Wells made it clear that, like Henderson, he sees DCPS and charter schools as part of a common fund of public schools for District families to draw on. When a student leaves a DCPS school for a charter school, he said, it doesn’t have to be viewed as DCPS’s “failure.” For the student that ends up with a high-quality free education, it’s a success.

Against that background, he asked whether the committee that is currently reviewing boundaries and feeder patterns is considering patterns that would include both traditional public and charter schools.

"That is certainly on the table,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who also appeared at the hearing and who is chairing the advisory committee. (The committee may need to get an additional table, considering how many things Smith said were on it.)

Smith issued one caveat: While the mayor has the authority to change school boundaries, and Henderson has control over feeder patterns, neither of them directly controls charter schools. Smith indicated that the Council might need to step in before cross-sector feeder patterns could be implemented.

Henderson said she’s been in conversations with charter schools about this kind of cooperation, including the possibility that a new language-immersion charter middle and high school might give a preference to DCPS students coming out of elementary-level language immersion programs. (DCPS has no dual-language middle or high schools two dual-language programs for middle-grade students, one at Oyster-Adams and the other at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC). CHEC is expanding the program upwards at the pace of a grade a year and is currently offering it to 9th graders.) While there’s no agreement with the school on this yet, Smith said the advisory committee is also looking into the possibility.

More generally, Henderson said that DCPS has “learned some lessons” from charters, but she acknowledged that the system “still struggles with” some things that charters seem to do better.

Catania, who did some of the “clobbering” the last time DCPS-charter cooperation came up, made it clear that he had some cross-sector cooperation of a different kind in mind. He urged Henderson to go talk to the head of KIPP DC’s KEY Academy middle school and ask him how they manage to achieve impressive results with a high-poverty student body. KEY, he said, is second only to Deal in student achievement among District middle schools.

Henderson said she would do that. That’s a fine idea, but she probably already has a pretty good sense of what KIPP schools do to get their results. The problem, in a system as large and unwieldy as DCPS, is more likely to be the implementation.

DCPS has been trying to beat high-performing charter schools for years. And while the attempt has led to some improvements, particularly at the elementary level, it hasn’t yet worked for middle schools. Maybe instead of trying to beat them, it’s time—at least in some areas—to join them.

Still to come: making connections between schools in the same feeder pattern, K-8 versus stand-alone middle schools, and innovations in programming and curriculum.