Antwan Wilson, DCPS education chancellor, started last fall. Image by Lorie Shaull licensed under Creative Commons.

Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Antwan Wilson as the chancellor of DC Public Schools last fall. In reviewing his first six months, Wilson says teacher training is going well, that a longer school year might benefit students, and that he's working on retaining more teachers.

Since coming on, Wilson has hosted community meetings in all eight wards and visited every school in the District. The community meetings were a chance for as many people as possible to meet with the new chancellor and ask him questions.

Wilson seems committed to gathering meaningful public input throughout his tenure. He is putting together a Parent Panel, which any parent can apply for, to regularly meet with leaders and staff. According to a DCPS official, we should expect more community meetings in the future.

At a recent media roundtable, the chancellor took some questions that ranged from the LEAP program, claims of high teacher turnover rates, and the new extended school year program. Here's what I gleaned from our conversation.

After its rookie year in the system, LEAP marches on

The chancellor briefly touched on DC's premiere teacher support program, LEAP. Introduced at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, LEAP is primarily a training tool for teachers to increase their overall subject knowledge (as in biology, mathematics, English, etc.) and teaching effectiveness with other teachers in their subjects.  

After a full year in practice, Wilson didn't have much to offer about the program, except that it is progressing steadily as they work out flaws and kinks. He said that there are areas where it needs to be better. "Whenever you have something of a significant rollout in year one is when you have the most amount of challenge," he said.

In looking at areas of improvement, he gave some general feedback on what DCPS needs to focus on. Wilson notes that as teachers work to improve in LEAP training sessions, they also need to have enough time to put what they learn into practice.

A longer school year may alleviate may reduce "summer learning loss" and propel students forward in academics

At the end of the 2017 school year, eleven schools will continue on for an extra month in a new extended school year program, lengthening the academic year from 180 days to 200. Instead of the two long traditional semesters, of which most people are familiar, the academic year will be broken up into smaller trimesters, with breaks in June and October.

Schools chosen for this program were based on community and student interest, and the school's desire for stronger academic achievement. The hope is that an extended year will reduce the "summer slide" where students forget material from the previous year and need to spend time catching up during the new school year.

For vulnerable schools, this is also an opportunity to close the achievement gap, which is a mainstay in Chancellor Wilson's platform. Wilson said that there were three main questions that needed to answered over the next few years while they collect data on the merits of an extended school year:

  1. How can we better use time?
  2. In better using time, does it make sense to provide students with more time?
  3. What will we do to enhance our educational program and support for students to ensure that both are effective?

At the end of the 2018 school year, two more schools, Luke C. Moore High School and Roosevelt STAY High School will join the extended year program.

Mid-year resignations are nothing new but some schools were hit harder this past year

Wilson also addressed the growing turnover rate for teachers in the District, which grew 44 percent from 2013 to 2014. At five percent, the turnover rate is only slightly higher than other urban districts like Denver, Seattle, and Baltimore, as well as Oakland, where the chancellor previously served as superintendent. Ballou High School was hit the hardest, with more than a quarter of its faculty quitting mid-year. The main reasons for the resignations were that teachers either felt threatened or they weren't getting the administrative support they felt they needed.

These mid-year resignations would present a staffing challenge to any school. But for struggling districts where poverty and dropout rates are high, a mass exodus of teachers also deals a moral blow to the community, the school, and the students. After a teacher resigns, they're often replaced with substitutes who are often unqualified to teach the material and usually don't have a consistent lesson plan.

According to Wilson, mid-year resignations are nothing new and any large school district deals with this issue. He was quick to point out that DCPS retains 92 percent of teachers rated "effective" or "highly effective." Wilson added that 80 to 85 percent of developing teachers, who have three years to improve and become effective, end up staying in the system.

There are also many unrelated reasons a teacher might leave before the end of the school year, and not all of those reasons are due to administrative failures, Wilson said. Some teachers never showed up to work but were still included in the percentages. About half, left for unrelated reasons, such as life changes, moving out of the District, or a spouse getting a promotion.

Wilson admitted that DCPS could have done more to retain the other half. "Once a teacher is hired," he said, "we have to make sure we spend enough time with them before the school year starts, preparing them for what they're going to see." He also mentioned the importance of staying in contact with struggling teachers, especially new ones, and committing to supporting them.

As a parent, I'm waiting to see DCPS take action

There was a lot to cover and had we another hour, I'm sure we could've kept grilling the chancellor. But for the time we had, Chancellor Wilson patiently took our questions and articulated his responses with practiced fluidity, which is not surprising after his intensive, several-month tour of District schools.

Personally, I'm still on the fence about LEAP and found the chancellor's lack of data on it to be disappointing, but expected. It is a fairly new program and will likely take a few more years before its merits and potentially insurmountable problems are completely sussed out. I've also heard from some teachers that time management with LEAP sessions is difficult, but the chancellor's response suggested he is very aware of this problem.

The turnover rate is more troubling from a parent's point of view, though, especially if your parent of a student in a struggling school. Teachers are more than just people who grade papers and give you a pass or fail. They're also mentors and motivators. It may be true the teacher turnover rate is fairly consistent (and falling, according to Wilson), but young people are still being left behind.

WIlson said that they could do more to make sure that students are supported and not affected negatively when teachers decide to quit mid-year, but didn't elaborate on how to do that. I agree with his sentiment on supporting students on this issue, but it has to be more than words where our kids are concerned. Until actions are taken and policies tested, the commitment to fix what is broken are just promises many parents have heard before.

Matthew Koehler is currently a stay at home dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, DC. When not chasing his three-year-old daughter around, he chronicles he fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing Southwest neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark.