Testimony For April 17, 2013 Council Hearing On School Budget By Committee On Education – By Laura Marks

Testimony of

Laura Hansen Marks

634 D Street, NE

Washington, DC  20002

Council of the District of Columbia: Committee On Education

Councilmember David Catania, Chairman 

Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Hearing

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Room 500, John A. Wilson Building

My name is Laura Marks.  I am a resident of Ward 6 and have lived in the District for seventeen years.  I am a parent of two young children, one in Kindergarten and one in second grade at Watkins Elementary, a 527-student school serving grades 1 through 5 as part of the Capitol Hill Cluster School.  I am also a neighbor of Stuart-Hobson Middle School, the third campus of the Capitol Hill Cluster School.

My husband and I both attended public schools for the entirety of our K-12 educations, and we very much want the same for our children.  This is our fifth year as DCPS parents and we would be thrilled to see both our children continue on to graduate from an excellent DC public high school after many great years in DCPS elementary and middle schools.

That vision, however, is in grave jeopardy for our family and for many others.  We are greatly concerned by what feels like a concerted effort to push families like ours from DC Public Schools.  The budget DCPS has proposed for Watkins ES and Stuart-Hobson MS will do just that unless changes are made to recover the enormous cuts being considered for both programs.

Watkins Elementary School – Capitol Hill Cluster School

Watkins ES is facing the loss of four full-time staff positions next year – two reading resource teachers, one math resource teacher, and our guidance counselor.  These positions play crucial roles within our school supporting differentiated instruction, a positive school culture, and providing the hands-on facilitation of essential daily activities like lunch and recess.

Without resource teachers to remediate students working below grade level, I fail to see how our exceptional classroom teachers will be able to continue their very successful differentiated learning groups, a rare opportunity to offer kids working above grade level more challenging material.  Watkins’ differentiated instruction efforts are exactly the kind of programming that will keep families like mine in DCPS and instead of seeing them praised and replicated, I see them being imperiled with no discussion and little explanation.

These cuts will leave Watkins so short-staffed they will no longer be able to supervise grade-level lunch periods, necessitating multi-grade combined lunch periods with over 200 children trying to access a single point of sale in the cafeteria during one lunch period.  Overcrowded seating, excessive noise levels, and inadequate time for eating are just a few of the consequences of these proposed staff cuts at Watkins.  I am left to wonder whether these conditions place DCPS in violation of the terms of the DC Healthy Schools Act and the Federal School Lunch Program.

I can guarantee you that families will leave Watkins based on the dramatic quality of life impact on their children of having to navigate a lunchroom so chaotic, rushed, loud, and unpleasant that kids dread their time there.  Combined with similarly chaotic and crowded recess conditions, you have a sure recipe for miserable kids and equally dissatisfied parents.

Stuart-Hobson Middle School – Capitol Hill Cluster School

As alarming as the cuts at Watkins ES are, the proposed cuts at Stuart-Hobson are staggering.  The loss of the entire world language program there has been described by many Cluster parents as a “deal killer.”  For students looking ahead to application-only high schools, very few parents would send their child to a middle school with no core language instruction.  Again, if you’re looking to drive parents to charters en masse, look no further than slashing world language and technology instruction at the middle school level.

Further, Stuart-Hobson modernization should be fully funded and completed to make that building function as designed and in service to the Museum & Arts Integration Program for which it was planned.  Leaving this effort half finished is unacceptable.  The 1200 students of the Capitol Hill Cluster School deserve a completed, modernized middle school building with arts, athletics, and classroom spaces adequate to the school’s needs and appropriate to the mission of the museum curriculum.

DCPS Parent Gag Order   

Finally, I would be remiss not to raise the issue of what can only be described as a “gag order” on parents by DCPS’ top leadership.  Parents at a number of Capitol Hill DCPS schools have reported that their principals’ jobs have been threatened for failing to squelch parent advocacy on behalf of their schools.  The mere idea that our school system’s leadership would entertain that notion is incredibly insulting, wrong-headed, and anti-democratic in the extreme.

I am proud of the parents here today, taking time out of their busy lives to speak out for not just their own children but all of DC’s children.  I am proud of the hardworking principals across DC whose leadership and courage are so key to our schools’ progress.  I am, however, appalled by the idea that parents exercising their right to free speech on behalf of their children’s school would be so alarming to DCPS that they would resort to such inexcusable, authoritarian tactics.

Over the past few years, DCPS has hired some of the best principals in the country.  We have some amazing talent leading our schools, men and women with incredibly hard jobs who are achieving some spectacular gains.  To threaten them simply for the sake of political expediency is truly reprehensible.  To have so little respect for free speech and the democratic process is deeply offensive.  To so publicly demonstrate such a low opinion of parents is, unfortunately, revealing.

Shame on DCPS and shame on all of us who fail to hold them accountable.

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