Katy Thomas Testimony – DCPS Performance Oversight Hearing – February 26, 2019

WRITTEN TESTIMONY OF KATY THOMAS

kazt1978 [at] gmail [dot] com

SUBMITTED TO THE COUNCIL OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION & COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE

FOR THE PUBLIC HEARING ON

PERFORMANCE OVERSIGHT HEARING OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS

FEBRUARY 26, 2019

Chairman Mendelson, Chairman Grosso, Councilmember Allen and committee members, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am the mom of two current Miner ES students (1st grade and PK4) and a rising PK3 student. I serve as the PTO’s Vice President and Community Engagement Committee chairperson.  

OUTDOOR RENOVATION

In May 2018, Councilmember Allen announced he had secured $3 million in FY2019 funding for new playgrounds at Miner and Tyler elementary schools in Ward 6.  The Miner community was thrilled, as making improvements to our outdoor campus had been a top priority. When the announcement was made public, we were in the midst of working closely with DCPS to plan for improvements to our outdated ECE playground over the summer months.  We thought having such great advance notice and already established contacts with the right people at DCPS would give us a leg up in being able to thoughtfully plan and design our new $1.5 million outdoor renovation.

Our school community came together in early September for an initial meeting with DCPS to learn the timeline, expectations and process for a project of this scope.  Our students would be engaged in helping determine playground equipment while parents, teachers, staff and broader community members would participate in PTO-driven feedback sessions.  Meanwhile, DCPS would begin the process of securing a designer in October so that a contractor could be hired in December, equipment ordered by January and the project finished in time for the launch of SY19-20.  After hearing nothing from DCPS through October and most of November, and connecting with a parent leader at Tyler, who had also heard nothing in terms of an update/progress on their project, I reached out to DCPS in late November to find out what was going on and to express concerns about heading down a path of delays, rushed planning and little-to-no engagement with the school community in the process.

In response to my outreach, I was informed a decision had been made to hire a landscape architect vs a design+build contractor in order to ensure the landscape architect would be an advocate for the project throughout construction rather than merely a subcontractor of the general contractor.  We scheduled an in-person meeting for December 12; during that meeting both DCPS and DGS staff were in attendance to announce a RFP had just been released for landscape architects for both Miner and Tyler as a “bundle” project and to expect construction to start in June with final delivery by October 2019. A contract would be awarded to a landscape architect for the projects in early January 2019 and our school community would meet with them in January to review their initial plan, which would be based upon all the feedback our students, families and staff had submitted.

You can imagine my surprise when our principal announced at the February 2019 PTO meeting that no landscape architect had been hired and essentially zero progress had been made on the project.  I again reached out to DCPS who stated they and DGS were unable to complete the procurement process of a landscape architect in a timely manner, so had instead decided to pursue a design+build contractor.  I am unable to see the logic in switching gears at this point in the process and essentially have had confirmed that this process will be rushed, with little planning and engagement with the school community.  

The lack of communication, lack of engagement and lack of a consistent process is frustrating to say the least.  When the FY2019 began in October, our school community felt like we were ahead of the curve, ready to work collaboratively with DCPS/DGS to create a great product our students and be something our community could feel proud of and excited about.  Instead we are reeling in the dark and extraordinarily frustrated by the lack of communication, engagement, progress and planning to date. Now as we approach the six month mark since our initial planning session and there has been no visible progress made on our project, I urge the committee to hold DCPS/DGS accountable.  When CM Allen fought to get this funding in the FY19 budget, I can’t imagine his expectation was there would be approximately zero progress made as of February 26, 2019.

TECHNOLOGY

Miner’s PTO is a proud participant of the Digital Equity in DC Education coalition of parents, teachers and public education advocates from all Wards.  The group has been advocating for digital equity and technology reflective of the 21st century. The coalition sent to Mayor Bowser on January 10, 2019 outlining the failure of the city in preparing our children for the jobs of the future.  Specifically, the letter outlined the following urgent issues:

  1. Include dedicated and sufficient funding in the FY2020 DCPS budget to meet school technology needs equitably across the city;
  2. Direct DCPS to release a comprehensive, multi-year technology plan to define and provide adequate technology to every school, as recommended by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) in 2017; and
  3. Ensure the capacity to maintain functional, up-to-date technology equitably across all schools.

When DCPS finally released its initial allocations for the FY20 budget last week, they proudly announced a $4.6 million investment for student laptops.  I’m not one to kick a gift horse in the mouth, so was glad to see this investment being made for students and the public recognition that DCPS is failing its students with respect to providing the tools necessary to learn. However, it’s a small step in the marathon we’re facing to ensure our students are being set up for success vs failure in today’s digital world.  To date, DCPS has released no Technology Roadmap, has no plan or resources to ensure adequate support for existing and new devices to be maintained, remains silent on all instructional technology needs and continues to avoid working in tandem with OCTO to resolve the current pitiful strategy of school-level tech support.

I feel like a broken record, having testified on this specific issue a number of times before this audience and to DCPS. In the fall of 2017, the ODCA released a budgeting report, Budgeting and Staffing at Eight DCPS Elementary Schools. Miner was one of the eight schools reviewed. In response to the Auditor’s report, then-Chancellor Wilson sent a letter to Auditor Patterson stating, “DCPS agrees with recommendation #4. Prior to the issuance of this draft audit report, DCPS’ Office of Information Technology began work to develop a comprehensive Technology Roadmap. Our roadmap includes five key areas: devices, infrastructure services, shared technology platforms, technology proficiency and data reporting. These core focus areas will provide mass enhancements in all areas of concern as detailed in the report. To date, the initial draft of our Technology Roadmap has been shared internally within DCPS’ central administration to obtain feedback from internal stakeholders. Additional feedback will be sought from school-based leaders, teachers, students, parents and members of the community. Upon completion and approval of the Technology Roadmap, the associated funding requests will be presented during the FY19 budget process.

According to the Auditor’s office, in late November 2018, after more than a year had passed since Chancellor Wilson stated a plan was already drafted and being circulated internally, DCPS decided it needs “more focused expertise to build a comprehensive technology roadmap spanning over the next several years and would be hiring a new Chief of Data and Strategy to lead the effort.” That new Chief was set to start December 10, 2018 and according to DCPS would be better able to move closer to defining the technology road map.

Admittedly, I am not familiar with the DCPS flow chart, but if the previous Chancellor tasked the Office of Information Technology to draft a comprehensive roadmap in 2017, how does the system decide a year later, in the absence of a permanent leader, that a new Chief has to be hired to redo this work?  Where is the 2017 initial plan? Why is DCPS hiring more central office staff to do a job already initiated?

Specific requests for the Education Committee and COW:

  1. Hold DCPS accountable to release a Technology Roadmap, which former Chancellor Wilson stated was drafted in 2017, share a timeline for engagement with school-based leaders, teachers, students, parents and members of the community and indicate how long students and schools will have to wait before the overwhelming need for technology is addressed.
  2. Ask DCPS to release details on its current 1:1 proposal. Released information should include a detailed breakdown of the components of their tech budget initiative and a funding profile showing the total cost over 3-5 years.
  3. Fully fund the new proposal put forth by DCPS for FY20 with the addition of resources fo adequate tech support and instructional investments.
  4. Require DCSP and OCTO to willfully collaborate on how to better support technology in schools.  This may require a modification to the existing MOU between the agencies and a full restructuring of how tech support is currently deployed.

GARDEN INSTRUCTION + HEALTHY FOOD

I grew up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota and assumed most kids had a couple deep freezers in their garage filled with homegrown meats, tended a huge garden all summer and spent time freezing and canning fruits & vegetables to get through the long winters.  That bubble burst as I got older and as a college student had to learn how to buy food at a grocery store. As a parent raising kids in an urban environment, who’s kids often think milk comes from the store, apples come sliced in a sealed bag and the only carrot that exists is considered a “baby”, I find it disturbing how little we are doing to expose today’s kids to where their food comes from, how to grow it or empower them to make healthy choices.  A handful of schools in D.C. have been lucky to engage in amazing programs like FoodPrints or FoodCorps to help increase students knowledge on fresh fruits and vegetables, get kids cooking in the kitchen so they can figure out that real food is cooked from scratch, not warmed up from a package and utilize real-world applications of math, science, reading, writing, social studies, etc.

Every parent and child that I know who has FoodPrints/FoodCorps programming at their school rave about how amazing it is – kids come home asking for ABC (apple-beet-carrot) salad, bursting with pride when one of the carrot seeds they planted starts popping up through the soil or tastes kale for the first time and realizes its not poison!   Imagine the academic gains that could be achieved if every child was exposed to and provided real food, cooked from scratch and empowered to build skills and celebrate healthy food choices. I urge committee members to go to a DCPS school with FoodPrints or FoodCorps and observe the excitement, growth and development students have toward healthy food choices.   

Once you’ve seen the magic happening, I hope you will join the many parents, principals, teachers, advocates and kids who celebrate this type of instruction and life skill building and make it a right, not a privilege to have a FoodPrints/FoodCorps type of program at each school. Miner is not one of the lucky schools able to bring in a FoodPrints/FoodCorp program to date, but I intend to continue striving toward increasing students exposure to our school garden, finding outside partners who actively help teachers get out of the classroom to utilize real-world academic applications and build awareness among our school community on the significant positive impacts of healthy food choices.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today, I’m happy to answer any questions.

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