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 is the second of two posts on what the candidates for mayor said about education. See all of the interviews here.

Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

Both Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells say it’s crucial to provide families with good choices for middle school. But Bowser’s solution is to replicate Ward 3’s Deal Middle School across the District, while Wells says that approach shows a “lack of understanding about middle school transformation.”

While more and more DC children are attending their neighborhood elementary schools, families often leave the system before middle school because of a lack of desirable options. Bowser and Wells have made improving middle schools a major campaign issue.

"We have to send a strong signal to young families who are choosing DCPS that we’re going to have middle school ready for them when the time comes, ” Bowser said. “So it will be a strong initiative from our administration to identify those middle schools that need that strong infusion to replicate the successes that we see at Alice Deal.”

Wells scoffed at that idea. “Alice Deal is great,” he said, but “it’s 1200 students or so. Not everybody wants to send their child to a school that large.”

Beyond that, Wells said that much of Deal’s success has to do with the relative wealth of its student body compared to other DCPS middle schools. “I don’t think we can gentrify, or should gentrify, the city as aggressively as what it would take to have an Alice Deal in every neighborhood,” he said.

In a separate interview, Bowser disputed the idea that Deal’s demographics are at the root of its success.

"I think there are many things that make the school successful,” she said. “It has a great building, great leadership, in many cases long-tenured staff that are expert in their fields. Because of its size it has every program offering a family could want, from languages to extracurricular activities, to advanced courses in mathematics and other areas.”

Those things, Bowser said, can be replicated elsewhere, although providing them will require additional funding.

Wells would make charters an option

Wells’ solution to the middle school problem relies on creating feeder patterns that include both DCPS schools and high-performing charter schools, as others have suggested. Right now there are a number of successful middle-school charters, he said, but parents can’t count on being able to send their children to them because neighborhood students aren’t guaranteed admission.

Wells said that what’s needed is “a mayor than can knit this together,” so that a charter middle school could be required to give a preference to “an array of elementary schools,” both DPCS and charter.

Under that system, he said, “you know that when you’re coming out of, say, Tyler Elementary, you have one school that you can attend as a matter of right, or that there are two or three other charters to choose from where you have first preference.”

Can Deal be replicated?

While Bowser is right that some aspects of Deal, such as a greater range of academic offerings, should be available to students across the District, Wells has the better of the argument when he says that much of Deal’s success is due to its demographics.

While Deal has a diverse student body, only 23% of its students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced meals (FRM). At most other DCPS middle schools, that proportion is more like 99%.

Because lower-income students generally have far greater academic and behavioral needs, merely replicating Deal’s facilities and offerings is unlikely to produce the same results at schools where the vast majority of students are poor.

At those schools, what’s needed is a greater emphasis on managing classrooms and ensuring that students master basic skills. And in DC, high-performing charter schools have done a better job than DCPS in providing those necessities to low-income students.

At middle schools like Hardy and Eliot-Hine, on the other hand, where only a little over 50% of the student body qualifies for FRM, Bowser’s approach has a better chance of working.

Extended day

Another issue that all 5 candidates addressed was whether DCPS schools should have some form of extended hours. All said they should, and all identified the teachers’ union and funding as potential obstacles. But they didn’t all necessarily have the same kind of program in mind.

Both Andy Shallal and Mayor Vincent Gray spoke of the need for experimentation. Shallal said different schools should be able to try different approaches, with some extending the school day and others perhaps having more traditional afterschool programs.

Gray talked about an extended-day pilot program that was in 8 DCPS schools last year and noted that 7 of them had increased test scores. He also suggested that a longer school year might be in order, saying that the summer break is a relic of an agrarian society.

"We know that children lose academic gains over the summer,” he said.

Jack Evans drew on his own experience as the single parent of triplets to advocate for afterschool programs, but not an extended school day: “I’m saying at 3:30, when they get out of school, have mechanisms in place to help children get their homework done, review, and do whatever is necessary.”

He said that he had hired college students to fill that role for his children, and he suggested that college students could be recruited to do it on a larger scale, perhaps even getting college credit for it.

As with the idea of replicating Deal, that model may work for some students, particularly higher-income ones. But students who are below grade level or otherwise at-risk may need a more intensive approach, either by virtue of an extension of the school day itself or as a result of coordination between the school and an afterschool program.

As Evans said, “I’m not sure one size fits all.” DC schools have students with widely varying needs, and what works for one child or one school—either in terms of improving the middle school experience or extending the school day—may very well not work for another.

To watch the interviews in their entirety, click on the videos below.