Photo by DoDEA on Flickr.

What’s in store for DCPS’s middle schools? The possibilities include greater communication with feeder elementary schools, equalizing offerings for middle-grade students at all K-8 and stand-alone middle schools, and an application-only middle school in Ward 7.

DC has long had a dearth of desirable DCPS middle schools. With a review of boundaries and feeder patterns under way, many District parents are anxiously awaiting the release of a DCPS plan to improve those schools.

Last week, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson appeared at a DC Council hearing and provided insights into some of the issues she’s considering. In a previous post we looked at two of those issues: why Henderson wants to implement a plan on a District-wide basis rather than piecemeal, and whether future feeder patterns might include both DCPS and charter schools.

Today we’ll take a look at some other themes that emerged from Henderson’s dialogue with Councilmembers.

Vertical integration

Councilmember David Catania, chair of the education committee, has been pushing DCPS to revise its management structure. DCPS divides its schools up horizontally for administrative purposes, so that each instructional superintendent oversees a cluster of schools at the same grade level: elementary, middle, or high school.

Catania thinks it would make more sense to cluster these schools vertically instead, by feeder pattern. That, he says, would facilitate communication between principals of elementary schools and their destination middle schools, and as a result entering students would be better prepared to do middle school work.

At the hearing, Catania pointed to the KIPP charter system as a model of this kind of vertical integration and argued that much of the charter organization’s success was due to that factor.

Henderson agreed that principals within a given feeder pattern need to communicate, but she said those conversations are already taking place within DCPS’s current organizational structure.

The way to ensure that students are prepared for the next level, she argued, is to standardize academic offerings across a grade band. That’s what DCPS has recently done for its elementary schools and will soon be doing for middle schools. In the past, she said, principals had more autonomy in deciding which classes to offer, which has led to unevenness in students’ preparation. Catania seemed unconvinced.

Catania is putting an awful lot of weight on vertical integration. Clearly, there are other factors in KIPP’s success, and no doubt DCPS elementary school principals are already well aware that many of their graduating 6th graders aren’t performing at grade level. It couldn’t hurt for them to hear that from a middle school principal, but it’s probably not going to be enough to move the needle.

On the other hand, simply standardizing the curriculum for all elementary or middle schools won’t ensure that all students will be at the same level by the time they leave. To increase the chances of that happening, low-income and at-risk students will need additional support.

As Henderson mentioned at the hearing, it will help if additional funding is channeled to those students, as a study has recently recommended. Catania has also introduced a bill calling for greater funding for at-risk students.

But, as both Catania and Henderson acknowledged, communication between feeder and destination schools needs to happen one way or another. And it’s probably most important where a special program crosses school lines, such as the International Baccalaureate program that’s being launched at Eastern High School and two of its feeder middle schools.

K-8 education campuses vs. stand-alone middle schools

DCPS has 15 kindergarten-through-8th grade “education campuses.” It also has 11 middle schools, serving 6th through 8th grade. (Eight DCPS campuses with other grade configurations also include 6th- to 8th-graders.)

There’s been a lot of research lately comparing K-8 schools with stand-alone middle schools, and the consensus is that generally, students coming out of K-8 schools do better academically. But researchers caution that other factors may be more important to student achievement, especially at high-poverty urban schools.

Councilmember Muriel Bowser asked Henderson if she favored one model over the other, and Henderson said she didn’t. “I feel like I’ve watched communities all over the country struggle with one thing or the other with no right answer,” Henderson said.

Bowser and Henderson agreed that some families are avoiding K-8 education campuses because the academic and extracurricular offerings at those schools aren’t as robust (“although,” Henderson added candidly, “I would argue that sometimes we don’t even have the academic programs in our stand-alone middle schools”). With fewer students in the middle grades in K-8 schools, and less money attached to those grades as a result, it’s more expensive to provide a variety of options.

On the other hand, some parents prefer the K-8 model, which they may see as safer and more nurturing. And Henderson agreed with Bowser that parents should have the choice. She also committed to giving K-8 students in the middle grades the same options that students at stand-alone middle schools will have, no matter the cost.

Once the offerings are equalized at both kinds of schools, she said, it’s possible that one model will “rise to the top for us, and then we’ll go with that.”

Programming changes:

Equalizing the offerings for all middle-grade students seemed to be one thing that everyone who spoke at the hearing agreed on. Catania termed the level of programming at some middle schools “shocking,” and Henderson seemed to agree.

Henderson said she’d like offerings such as algebra and a foreign language to be available at all schools serving the middle grades, although she didn’t specify the exact menu she will propose. But both she and Catania also acknowledged that some middle schools will have few students capable of handling more advanced work.

"We may have some empty algebra classes at the beginning,” Catania said, and Henderson later told Bowser that standardizing the curriculum across all schools will mean “every space is not going to be full.” But the notion is that, as Catania put it, “if you build it, they will come.”

Another idea Henderson mentioned, as she has before, is an extended school day or year for low-performing middle schools. She also said DCPS is “moving forward” with a parent-initiated plan to establish an application-only middle school in Ward 7, which Catania said could serve as a feeder school for the application-only Banneker High School.

It’s doubtful that these ideas will allay the anxieties of parents who fear that redrawn boundaries will exclude them from the Deal or (possibly) Hardy districts and relegate them to a lower-performing middle school as soon as the year after next. But, short of somehow replicating Deal and its demographics overnight, it’s not clear that anything will.