We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about education with candidates for DC Council at-large. See all of the discussions here.
The 3 challenger candidates for the at-large seat on the DC Council all support the idea of extended school hours or afterschool programs to increase the pace of progress at DCPS’s lowest-performing schools.
Asked whether they would support some form of an extended school day, Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio, and John Settles all unhesitatingly said they would. Settles and Rubio identified the main obstacle as the teachers’ union and its demands for additional compensation for longer hours.
Settles said he had seen signs of some flexibility on the teachers’ part, suggesting they might be willing to accept perks like more vacation time rather than increased pay. And Rubio advocated funding more afterschool programs that involve volunteers and community organizations.
Bennett-Fleming offered a similar solution, calling for increased funding for enrichment programs after regular school hours.
"I believe that what happens outside of the classroom, after school, is just as important as what happens during the school day,” he said.
Both Settles and Bennett-Fleming also advocate establishing community schools, which would serve as a base for social- and health-service providers. They also mentioned increasing teacher retention rates in high-poverty schools by focusing on student growth rather than measuring student achievement against a set proficiency rate.
Pedro Rubio talked about the need to understand the differences between schools with large proportions of Latino students and schools that are 99% or 100% African-American, saying that members of different groups may have different needs. (Incumbent At-Large DC Councilmember Anita Bonds is also in the race but didn’t respond to interview requests.)
Of the 3 candidates, Bennett-Fleming had the most fleshed-out array of ideas to increase student achievement and, as he put it, “raise expectations.” He mentioned a number of changes to the curriculum, including a greater emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and a greater focus on developing analytical skills rather than preparing students for multiple-choice standardized tests. Schools should use technology to personalize instruction, he added, and every school should have a library.
Bennett-Fleming listed innovations that he said would show students they’re expected to go to college, some of which have been tried in other cities. Among them were giving every pre-K student some money to start a college savings fund and offering “education cafés” throughout the District, where students could meet with college counselors and use computers for test prep classes and college applications.
He also said he’s exploring the idea of making community college free for all DC students. He mentioned the possibility of setting up guaranteed-admission agreements between DC’s community college and 4-year colleges around the country.
"I’ve been to some of our lowest-performing schools,” Bennett-Fleming said, “and taught classes—Anacostia, Ballou, H.D. Woodson. Part of the problem is that the students know that the teachers do not expect much from them.”
Boundaries and feeder patterns
In his answers, Rubio also drew on his own experience as a volunteer who has worked with at-risk youth and as a student who was “average” and “made some mistakes,” but he offered less in the way of policy analysis than the other two candidates.
All 3 candidates support ensuring that at least some out-of-boundary students continue to have a chance to attend higher-performing DCPS schools in Wards 2 and 3. But Rubio favored allowing greater access to those schools to kids from across the District, while Settles and Bennett-Fleming emphasized the need to improve schools in all neighborhoods.
"I feel like a child from Ward 8 should be able to go to school in Ward 2 or Ward 3 if they desire to,” Rubio said, noting that he was able to avoid attending Roosevelt High School by going to live with an uncle in Prince George’s County.
That experience was key to helping him flourish academically and setting him on the right track. “And I think other kids deserve a chance at the same opportunity,” he said.
Speaking of the current review of boundaries and feeder patterns, Settles said he hoped that the new system would preserve at least some out-of-bounds seats at higher-performing schools. “But the reality is,” he said, “there’s going to be a lot of kids now who’ve had access to a quality seat that don’t. And the reality is we haven’t created enough quality seats across the city.”
He advocated having “magnet and specialty programs in each of the schools, so that we have some incentive for parents to keep their high-performing kid in the neighborhood.”
Bennett-Fleming agreed that the fundamental problem is a lack of high-quality schools across the District. “Increasingly, we cannot sustain a system that’s built around 20 or 30 good schools and the overwhelming majority of schools not being functional,” he said.
He said that he was in favor of a proposal to funnel additional money to schools that have more poor and at-risk students.
Asked whether the role of high-performing charters such as KIPP DC should be expanded, all 3 candidates expressed caution. Rubio advocated borrowing methods used by successful charters, such as an extended school day, and incorporating them into DCPS schools.
Settles echoed that, saying that charters should be “centers of innovation.” He advocated increased collaboration between DCPS and charters, and said that as a founding parent of Inspired Teaching Demonstration charter school he was in a good position to help bring the sectors together.
Bennett-Fleming said that he doubted there were enough high-performing charters to fill the need and mentioned failed experiments with bringing in charter operators at Anacostia and Dunbar high schools. But he also said, “I think we should be replicating KIPP, we should be allowing KIPP to have as much of an impact on the city as it would like.”
To watch the interviews in their entirety, click on the videos below.
We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.