When D.C. public schools reopen they should all be charters

City leaders and educators are already beginning to imagine what public education will look like when schools are once again allowed to teach students in the classroom. Today, the Washington Post has a long article by Laura Meckler, Valerie Strauss, and Joe Heim talking about the challenges school systems are anticipated to have bringing its pupils up to their academic grade level. Once solution that was provided by Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and referenced by the Post reporters, is to keep low performing Title 1 children, those from low-income households, at their current grade until individualized lesson plans can be developed for each child. Mr. Petrilli wrote:

“So when schools reopen in the fall, these students should remain in their current grade and, ideally, return to the familiarity of their current teacher. (Other types of schools — including affluent schools, middle schools and high schools — may also want to consider a similar approach.) The first order of business will be to attend to the social, emotional and mental health needs of their children and to reestablish supportive and comforting routines.

Then teachers should develop individualized plans to fill in the gaps in kids’ knowledge and skills and accelerate their progress to grade level. The use of high-quality diagnostic tests will be critical in assessing how much ground has been lost in reading and math. Students who are assessed as ready for the next grade level can move onward.

The next step would be for teachers to develop plans for each pupil to make progress, aimed at getting them to grade level by June. The plans should involve as much small-group instruction as possible, with kids clustered according to their current reading or math levels, plus some online learning opportunities in case schools are closed again. Those who are furthest behind could get regular one-on-one tutoring from specialists. This would be different from just ‘repeating the grade,’ which, research shows, rarely helps students catch up.”

I agree with the Fordham Institute president that restarting schools will bring a need to tailor learning, as the excellent teachers I have met like to say, “to meet the students where they are.” But how can we get this done for the 47 percent of the 93,708 students that are identified as at-risk in the nation’s capital?

The answer is surprising simple. We need to open all schools, including those of DCPS, as charters. Charter schools in the District of Columbia have spent more than 25 years learning how to adapt their curriculum to the needs of the specific students enrolled in their buildings. We need to free the leaders of each campus to adapt as quickly as possible to the plethora of needs of those they are about to serve once again.

Now don’t get me wrong. This conversion to one hundred percent charters is a tremendous undertaking. But it is monumentally exciting at the same time. I imagine the DC Public Charter School Board, with the assistance of OSSE, the Deputy Mayor for Education, DCPS, and the State Board of Education, all rolling up their collective sleeves to create the new paradigm. In order for these facilities to be as flexible as possible, union membership by all teachers would be suspended indefinitely.

Think of the freedom that this change would bring to the principals of our traditional schools. They would form a natural partnership with the 62 sites that are already part of the charter sector. Consider the support that groups like Education Forward DC, CityBridge Education, the Center for Education Reform, FOCUS, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, Education Board Partners, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, and the Flamboyan Foundation could provide to this effort. This is a ton of expertise.

After the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans, that city’s schools reopened as charters. The result, as documented by a Tulane University research group, has been increased high school graduation rates, higher college participation, and standardized test scores that have gone up by “eight to fifteen percentage points.” These improvements include students from low-income families. In the aftermath of another catastrophic tragedy, a similar bold move is needed regarding education reform.

This coming Friday Mayor Bowser is expected to make another announcement regarding the city’s public schools. I anticipate that she will keep them closed for the remainder of the academic year. Wouldn’t it be great if she also announced that in the fall all schools would reopen as charters?

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