Testimony by Max Kieba, Maury parent
DC Council Committee on Education Hearing: PR21-1040 – Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools Antwan Wilson Confirmation Resolution of 2016
December 8, 2016
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the proposed confirmation of Antwan Wilson as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. My name is Max Kieba: I’m a parent at Maury Elementary, serve as the School Improvement Team (SIT) Co-Coordinator for our upcoming renovation project and one of Maury’s representatives in the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization (CHPSPO).
I wasn’t directly part of the selection process other than through CHPSPO we did provide some input on what we hope to see in the new chancellor. While we’re collectively still getting to know each other better and look forward to learning more from him today, many aspects of his background and skill sets appear to address many of traits we asked for in a new chancellor and areas in which we can continue to improve… communication, helping to address the achievement gap, and equity for high quality education for all students.
We look forward to working with him with an open mind and hope he will do the same in working with us. We also want to make sure he’s aware that while he is coming into a system that has improved in many ways, it also has room for improvement elsewhere. Among some areas of improvement I’d like to highlight and which we’d like to better understand his approach and any thoughts he may have based on his introduction to the district and DCPS so far:
Improving Trust within the System
We are all part of the system, whether it’s DCPS front office, the schools, families or other agencies/stakeholders that may interact with one another. DCPS is a key interface for so many processes, but there are unfortunately a lot of apparent trust issues at play that seems to go both ways… there is a lack of trust families have with DCPS, and apparent lack of trust DCPS has with its schools and families. Many of these issues involve communication and effective community engagement, but at a high level the general perception is DCPS seems to believe it knows what’s best for the schools, makes decisions with little to no true engagement and the schools and families should just fall in line with decisions that are made. It’s difficult for schools and families to trust DCPS if DCPS doesn’t trust its schools and families in the communication and engagement process.
Communication and Effective Community Engagement
We continue to have issues with open communication and truly effective and robust community engagement. Most of my experience has been with the modernization/SIT process, but it seems to manifest itself in other processes as well. While this can’t all be put on the chancellor position, there appears to continue to be a less than healthy culture at DCPS with respect to communication and engagement within and across certain offices (the silo effect), with other key agencies like DGS and externally with schools and their families. Information is rarely shared in a timely fashion, or when information is pushed out it comes with little to no raw data with it or substantive rationale for the decisions. In most cases, schools and families are then asked to provide quick feedback based on limited information because we don’t have time to discuss in detail. When questions are asked in an attempt to have a constructive dialogue, the answer is usually they’ll get back to us (rarely do they in a timely fashion) or it involves another office we need to contact. When we contact that office, no replies and the cycle repeats itself. When we ask for public meetings to discuss further, little to no action is taken or schools have to take it upon ourselves to share information publicly or engage in discussions with others, again though with more questions than answers on what DCPS is thinking. When someone from DCPS does attend a meeting, it’s usually not the people with decision making authority and the cycle continues. We want to do what we can to be a team player, follow the process and have DCPS take the lead, but they sure make it tough.
Continuing to support and invest in our middle schools
DCPS needs to continue to support, invest and help improve our middle schools. DC enrollment is increasing and the families that are coming into the system are generally more affluent, have more education (and are more white) than the average DCPS student. Those families are demanding high quality education for their children, yes, but they understand the importance of building a system that provides equality of opportunity (and quality learning outcomes) to all students. That demand for increased quality can benefit everyone if DCPS can appropriately channel that demand/enthusiasm. The new chancellor should build on this momentum and work with families to keep them in the system (and keep them from moving to the suburbs). Working with those families means being more transparent on decision-making and critically, moving very quickly to improve middle schools (so those families will stay). Mayor Bowser’s promise of “Deal for everyone” does not, we presume, mean that everyone has to enroll at Deal. The Chancellor should immediately act to make DCPS middle schools competitive with charters from an academic perspective. Many of these “new” families were lured into DCPS by free early childhood education. DCPS will keep them if they step up their game in middle school, but it needs to happen quickly.
Middle school decisions should all happen at the same time
The new chancellor should work together with the DC Public Charter School Board to find ways how we can make the decision processes for families more fair and equitable. One key area is helping to encourage all charters to start their entry grade in grade 6, similar to DCPS middle schools, instead of grade 5. To be clear, we feel public charters and DCPS do have a place together in the overall education system and there are many reasons families may choose a public charter over DCPS middle school. However, we are losing far too many families in our school and DCPS in the 5th (and sometimes earlier grades) based often on the fear that if they don’t make a move then, they may have no shot. In the process of making those early decisions, we also suffer with issues in testing results and the overall achievement gap especially when the better performing students are often the ones leaving the DCPS system earlier.
Improve on equity
DCPS did not go far enough in solving the problem of using the education system to redistribute how students get assigned to schools. For more affluent/high demand schools, DCPS should introduce a percentage of low-income lottery spots. With the boundary redrawing, we’ve essentially locked in the tight relationship between income and school quality/outcomes. Schools need to be sized to accommodate both their in-bounds population as well as sub group (10%-20% of total?) of income-based out of bounds lottery winners. We need to honor the right to attend your neighborhood school, but also recognize the need that building a highly educated society requires a diversity of experiences and background all mixed together. There aren’t very many US cities that have done a good job with this, but surely we can improve upon the existing model by giving more of an eye to equity. This is a challenge at Maury with its already being overcapacity and challenges in right-sizing the renovation/addition given our tight footprint, but there are ways to do it right and we embrace diversity.
School Nurse reduction/reallocation plan
We thank Council for helping to influence in a delay in the decision surrounding resource allocation of school nurses. We continue to be concerned about the potential for a reduction. We’ve had multiple 911 calls, broken wrists, asthma issues, etc. etc. It would be great to make it a priority to prevent cutting our full time nurse. Currently the issue may be on hold but there is a concern it may be sneaked through when no one is looking (again, the trust issue). It’s fascinating to see the number of students that have health issues that will fall through the cracks if a nurse is not here. The solution is usually to rely on “med givers” which are four paras that get pulled out of a classroom to attend the students. The teachers in pre k 3 and 4 cannot be alone with their students and it has caused other unsafe scenarios when it happens in today’s world. We need more hours not less. Or if this truly may be the best approach for multiple reasons, we at least ask for more public dialogue.