Photo from David Grosso website.

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso plans to adopt a less aggressive style than David Catania, his predecessor as education committee chair. Grosso says his main focus will be getting disadvantaged kids the services they need to do well in school.

Back in December of 2012, David Catania was chomping at the bit to become chair of the education committee. “I’m so excited,” he told the Post, “I can’t stand it.”

What followed was a two-year whirlwind of activity, during which Catania introduced myriad pieces of legislation, visited some 150 schools, and grilled DC education officials about their perceived lapses.

When the Council reconvenes in January, Catania’s successor, David Grosso, will take the reins. He’s also eager to take on the challenge of addressing DC’s seemingly intractable education problems—most fundamentally, the gap in achievement between affluent white students and other groups. But he says his style will be different.

“I’m not going to introduce eight bills during my first few months,” Grosso said in a recent interview.

He says he’ll have his own priorities, but will work collaboratively with others, engaging them in conversation before holding hearings or introducing legislation.

“When I put something forward,” he says, “I’m not sure I have the answer. I’m going to want to work closely to make sure everyone buys in.”

A shift in focus

Catania’s legislative legacy includes an overhaul of the District’s special education system, the end of social promotion, and additional funds for students who are most at-risk.

His hearings and roundtables also provided forums for parents, teachers, and the general public to air their views on subjects like DCPS’s controversial teacher evaluation system.

Grosso says that under his chairmanship, the education committee will continue to address legitimate questions about teacher evaluations, testing, and “what goes on in the classroom.” He also says the committee will remain “a place where the community has a voice” in education matters.

But his main focus, he says, will be on ways to ensure that kids—especially poor kids—have access to services that will put them in a position to learn. Education, he says, is an area that is connected to many others and can’t be siloed.

As an example, he mentions a story he heard about a high school freshman who was “acting out.” When a counselor sat down with the student to find out what was behind her behavior, the counselor discovered she hadn’t had running water in her house for four months.

It’s unrealistic, Grosso says, to expect students living in such circumstances to be fully engaged in schoolwork. And research backs him up: studies have shown that the stress of living in poverty causes physiological conditions that make it difficult for kids to focus and control their impulses.

“People might say, how is this relevant to the work of the education committee?” Grosso says. “But in reality, it’s imperative to education that we give kids like that an opportunity to heal.”

Seeing the bigger picture

Addressing problems related to poverty and race is beyond the capacity of any school system, he says, and requires a concerted effort. That’s one reason he’s glad he’ll also be sitting on the Council’s new committee on health and human services.

“I don’t expect my staff or I to become experts in what should be taught or how,” he says. That’s the job of the DC Public Schools Chancellor and other school leaders, he explained. But, Grosso added, “we can see the bigger picture.”

One area where he sees a need is mental health. Last summer he visited a number of mental health providers and was particularly impressed with a program called Resilient Scholars, which provides counseling in 21 DCPS and charter schools. Grosso would like to expand that kind of in-school program.

Grosso says he’s learned a lot in his two years as a member of the education committee, and his sister is a Montessori educator. But other than that he has no particular expertise in education.

However, his deputy chief of staff, Christina Henderson, has a master’s in public affairs from Princeton, with a particular emphasis on education. She’s also held several education-related jobs, including one at DCPS and another at the New York City Department of Education. Henderson has been Grosso’s main adviser on education and will continue to play that role.

Which style will produce results?

It’s too soon to know if Grosso’s more collaborative and focused approach will produce better results than Catania’s aggressive, let’s-do-it-all-at-once style. But it sounds promising. Although Catania certainly kept education issues in the spotlight, it’s not clear his efforts will result in any meaningful reduction in the achievement gap.

A case in point is Grosso’s chosen issue, in-school mental health services. Back in 2012, the DC Council passed legislation setting a goal of having a mental health program in 50% of all DC schools by this school year, and in every school by 2016-17. The prime mover behind that legislation was David Catania, who introduced it in response to a shooting that left four teenagers dead.

But according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, only 36% of schools currently have such programs. The DCFPI estimates that it will cost $11 million to fully fund the legislation, and it’s not clear that money will be forthcoming.

Would there be more mental health programs in schools by now if Catania had taken more pains to bring everyone on board before passing a bill, as Grosso promises to do? Perhaps. But even though the legislation is a fait accompli, maybe it’s not too late for Grosso to use his influence to meet its goals.