Image by Kimball Elementary School used with permission.

When test scores are announced in the District of Columbia, some public schools are high-fliers every year. They’re the schools that families clamor to get into, and they tend to be in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, where students come to school with loads of advantages. No one is surprised when these schools score well.

What does surprise — and I dream of the day when it doesn’t — is when schools serving students who face tremendous challenges also perform highly. It’s worth taking a finer look at which schools lead this category while we await the results from PARCC tests that DC students took this past spring. It’s also worth asking why these odds-beating schools don’t attract a larger share of families from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Last fall, based on tests taken in spring 2017, my organization, EmpowerK12, recognized some of these schools with high percentages of at-risk students for beating expectations with our Bold Performance awards.

Now we have singled out 10 DC public schools with at-risk students — five DCPS campuses and five charter schools — that have demonstrated unexpected growth. These we call Bold Improvement Schools, and the designation is a little different than the Bold Performers.

It’s for making gains — not absolute performance — that significantly exceed the average among schools with similar demographics. These schools, the educators in them, and their students are defying critics who say progress isn’t possible when kids’ families are on public assistance or when they’re homeless or in foster care (the criteria for being “at-risk”).

Defying expectations

At these 10 high-poverty schools, students’ improvement on the annual PARCC exam given in 2017 put their campuses on track to meet or exceed the test scores of public schools in DC’s wealthiest neighborhoods — largely Ward 3 — in a little more than three years.

Advocates for educational equity should do more than cheer them on. We should also learn from them. That’s what EmpowerK12 has done, in partnership with the DC chapter of Education Reform Now. Our recent report, “Lessons for All from DC’s Bold Improvement Schools,” draws on data analysis, school visits, and interviews to identify what practices and mindsets contribute to extraordinary school-wide improvement.

Here are the 2018 Bold Improvement Schools:

  • Aiton Elementary (DCPS / Ward 7)
  • Center City Shaw ES/MS (Charter / Ward 6)
  • DC Bilingual ES (Charter / Ward 5)
  • Friendship Blow-Pierce MS (Charter/ Ward 7)
  • Ketcham Elementary (DCPS / Ward 8)
  • Kimball Elementary (DCPS / Ward 7)
  • KIPP Northeast MS (Charter / Ward 5)
  • KIPP Promise ES (Charter / Ward 7)
  • Nalle Elementary (DCPS / Ward 7)
  • Thomson Elementary (DCPS / Ward 2)

Together, these schools educate 3,400 students in DC, of whom 14% receive special education services and 62% are considered at-risk. Nearly half of DC students tested in 2017 were considered at-risk. On the PARCC standardized tests, the more at-risk students a school serves, the lower a school's median student growth percentile. This data is what sets those expectations I alluded to earlier. This is the crux of the socioeconomic achievement gap that our city, our region, and so many other American communities must address.

By contrast, Bold Improvement Schools serve a high at-risk student population and have combined math and English language arts growth rates dramatically higher than similar schools — an average of 16 points more. To identify the honorees, EmpowerK12 analyzed the most recently available PARCC data, from the 2017 testing season, along with school-by-school equity reports from the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Fast-improving schools focus on data and continual improvement

Digging more deeply into what has contributed to such improvement at these schools, all 10 Bold Improvement Schools benefited from the presence of a strong, inspirational school leader; have a pervasive culture of high academic expectations for every single student; are deeply invested in teacher quality; focus on supporting the whole child, including their families; and push for access to additional resources and greater autonomy.

Although there are effective practices unique to each of the award-winning schools — ranging from family engagement activities to selective classroom practices to technology implementation — these ideas were all data-driven and subject to continuous improvement cycles.

The practices that contribute to success at these schools aren’t especially surprising. What is curious, however, is that their success doesn’t seem to be getting its due.

At the Bold Improvement schools in DCPS, the percentage of in-boundary students — those enrolling in their by-right neighborhood school — ranges from only 44.8% on the high end to as low as 17.5%, according to an enrollment analysis that DC Policy Center released in April.

Of the five charter honorees, only about 3 in 10 students live even in the same ward as their school, with the exception of KIPP Promise, where 69% of students reside in Ward 7.

DC is fortunate to be a choice-rich public education system, but these numbers suggest that families, especially those with at-risk children, may be overlooking rapid improvement that’s happening close to home.

Building on DC schools’ progress

As DC searches for a new schools chancellor and as the entire public education community, traditional and charter, seeks to build upon the progress in DC’s schools, my research partners and I believe that the lessons learned from Bold Improvement Schools are vital.

This examination provides the type of quantitative analytics and qualitative research, built under a collaborative framework, that the District needs to maintain and build upon its historic improvement rates.

EmpowerK12 and Education Reform Now will look to spotlight more school success once Mayor Muriel Bowser releases the 2018 PARCC data this month, and later this year when the Office of the State Superintendent of Education releases the new STAR report cards allowing for easier comparison across DC’s many public school choices.

Josh Boots is the Founder and Executive Director of EmpowerK12, a DC-based nonprofit supporting the implementation of data best practices in public schools across DC. Prior to starting EmpowerK12 in 2013, Josh served in a variety of education roles in DC over the last 14 years, including teaching middle school math at DCPS's Hine Jr. High and as Director of Data at KIPP DC.