The DME Boundary review should happen WITH us, not TO us

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Parent (and citizen) engagement efforts around large changes to policy or structure seem to follow a predictable formula. Big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and big announcements at the end (with the media reporting on the public or leaked bits here and there). I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I’m always happy to share my opinion and experiences, but are these inputs helpful without context? Doesn’t it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out, before asking their opinion?

It’s exciting to see agencies like Washington, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), and most recently, the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) take steps towards releasing data. Not for the sake of transparency, but to get work done. The most visible recent example is the DME’s Boundary review process. It started with the usual, formulaic elements of an Advisory Committee, surveys, working groups and promise of engagement, but has of late, started to infuse the conversation with the broader education community with information and data.

This is important, because it enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to this process in a way that is more meaningful than simply offering personal opinions. We can now react to policy questions based on how they are actually playing out at the Ward and city level (not just our own or our neighbor’s experiences). We can consider our positions and understanding of impact to all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.

The community information packets distributed at the April 5 working group contain a TON of rich information, demographic projections, scenarios at the school, cluster of schools, and ward levels. It’s clear that the DME’s team and Advisory Committee are carefully weighing not just today’s situations, but how these will look based on what our city will look like in 2017 (based on projected population of 0-3 and 4-11 year olds). Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic GGDCEDU reader weighed in on the DME’s policy examples by citing the data.

Of course, this does not mean much for folks who are not used to working with data. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. Because the DME released the proposed boundary changes, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps with these new boundaries.

feederThe DME also released feeder pattern analysis for DCPS elementary, middle and high schools. However, because OSSE released this data in February, Code for DC civic hacker, Chris Given, was able to create a dynamic view of this data for ALL DCPS and PCS schools. This creates another opportunity for parents and education stakeholders to see how today’s policies are playing out, without needing extensive data skills.

All these exciting developments around data come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants of the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was full of the ‘usual suspects.’ I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and to some degree, data savvy (or connected with data savvy networks). This begs the question of whether access to additional data will help families who are offline and/or unable to attend the ‘live’ boundary discussions? In my opinion, the risk of their interests not being represented in the discussion becomes even greater.

I don’t have any ready-made solutions to address this risk, but imagine that if DCPS, OSSE, DCPCS, DME, parent-driven community networks and perhaps DC Public Libraries and DC Parks and Recreation, worked together, we could reach many, if not all families. The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us.

How will you help?

How can data fix the DC middle school problem?

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The 2012/13 school year was a tumultuous one for my family, because it marked the end of my older child’s time with the most influential community of his young life – his elementary school. My husband and I joined the throngs of parents of 4th graders to explore DC’s middle schools, and the possibility of “greener pastures” outside of out DC Public School’s formal feeder pattern. While I found the process inefficient and nerve-wrecking, more frustrating than the disparate applications and time off work school for open houses, tours and shadow days, was the fact that this hysteria was not so much a personal problem, but a city-wide epidemic.

Parents need information to navigate choice

In spite of frustration, I considered myself lucky to have a strong network of friends, whose older children served as examples of “education success”. I recognized that many other parents may not have this advantage. I felt then (and still do) that if the “education powers that be” were to widely share the data they collect about us, our kids and their schools, then parents would eventually have a better chance at equal access to information and education options.

In October 2012, at the height of my “where will my child go to middle school” angst, I learned that a local chapter of Code for America was forming (Code for DC). Inspired by visualizations I’d come across of Capitol Bikeshare trips (here and here) , I thought understanding the patterns behind where students actually enroll (and at what grades), would be helpful to parents making decisions around schools. Neighbors could get a sense of where children are enrolling, even if they were not necessarily sharing this among themselves.

I showed up at Code for DC’s kick off meeting, in the least productive way possible. I pitched a problem without suggesting a solution and even worse, I had no data. Lucky for me (and for DC families everywhere), well-respected data scientist, Harlan Harris, took up the cause. Of course, my enthusiasm and Harlan’s talent only took us so far. It was not until we connected with the forward-thinking data team at DC’s State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), that this effort got traction. Over the past year, OSSE has been working with parents, advocates and Code for DC to fill the public’s demand for education data. OSEE launched a data rich school report card, and then released the underlying raw data.

openschoolsAccess to this data has enabled the incredibly talented Code for DC education team (Harlan, Tom, Chris, Aaron, Sherry, Elle, Laura, and everyone else who has contributed) to develop a few tools to help parents. One that visualizes where children go to school, based on where they live (and for each school, where children come from). There is also now a school chooser app (try it!), which enables parents to rank qualities important to them in a school and identify schools where neighbors send their children.

These are helpful for individual research, but what about overall systemic change? Finding the right school for your child is terrific, but also heartbreaking if you are relying on a lottery to gain access.

Parents need data to meaningfully engage in policy change

In the meantime, middle schools have received renewed attention due to the Deputy Mayor of Education’s school boundary review process. Parents have been invited to participate in the boundary review and the media has followed it closely.

Chart courtesy of Bill Horne

Chart courtesy of Bill Horne

Parents have spoken out about the need for quality middle schools and these concerns play out at 5th grade, where students leave the DC Public School system. We’ve learned that very few students feed into their in-boundary schools (and if they are exiting at 5th grade, they are not staying in the formal feeder patterns). But where do they ACTUALLY feed?

A first step towards answering those questions came out of a 1.5 day hackathon held over a weekend for Open Data Day. The education team organized by Code for DC took 8 years of feeder data released by OSSE on a Friday night, and by Sunday morning, built a visualization of how children are flowing among DCPS and DC charter schools. (I told you they were talented!)Actual Feeder Patterns

While the data is limited to one year, and cohorts of less than 5 students have been censored for privacy, it’s the first time we have been able to see the informal feeder patterns for every DCPS and charter school. It answers the questions of for each school, where do kids come from and where do they go?

What’s more, because the data is now released (i.e., open data), ANYONE can analyze it for their school, for their neighborhood, or for the entire system. If you are not a data ‘geek’ yourself, but have ideas around how to analyze the data, join the next Code for DC meetup, or grab the closest data geek in your life and get to it.

Regardless of how you consume this information, be sure to do three things.

  1. Thank OSSE, the DC Public Charter School Board and the DME for the data they have released to date.
  2. Ask for more.
  3. Share your work, so we can all benefit.

Not a sprint, but a marathon relay

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Holy s.

This week, as part of DCPS’ final school consolidation plan, the Chancellor announced that Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan would become a Preschool through 8th grade school. Holy s!

The implementation will start by adding 6th grade in the Fall (SY13-14). Montessori elementary teachers are trained to teach 1st to 6th grade, so year one would be seamless and give time to plan Erdkinder (in CHM@L’s case, grades 7-8). Holy…

  • “Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan (Ward 6) will convert from a pre-K to grade 5 school to a pre-K to grade 8 school and add more early childhood education seats.”

This simple bullet, buried in the press release means SO MUCH. It represents at least 20 years of work by Waduda Henderson, the heart and soul of the school, dozens (hundreds?) of educators, parents, and central office staff. It represents 23 years of cohorts of students who have benefited from this fantastic program, and it represents the many more children that will have the opportunity to experience this school and its community.

I have to wonder whether the person who typed that bullet understands. Whoever you are, welcome to this very large, ‘unexclusive’ (or inclusive) team of relay racers!

When I posted the announcement to FB, several friends, aware of my role in the process, congratulated me. I’m grateful for the recognition, but more grateful for the experience and what it has taught me about the opportunities that come when ‘average people’ collaborate with ‘official people’. I’ve learned important lessons through this process, especially the value of tenacity, being inclusive, and the value of transparency.

My time on this road (7 years with children in the program and 5 ‘short’ years of actively supporting expansion) was full of disappointment. I heard a lot of “Nos”, “Not this time,” or worse, nothing. It’s pretty easy to want to give up under those circumstances, for a year, most of us did, but the quality of the education the children received during the school day, inspired a constant flow of parents to pick up the cause (there is a lot to be said about fresh energy). Given that DCPS was more likely to listen to parents (customers) than they were to teachers and principals, I do feel parents (‘average people’) played an important role in this effort. I’m grateful for the tenacity of the teachers and principal who weathered the disappointments (and changing DCPS leadership) for many more years than I can imagine.

My (incredible) mother quoted Friedensreich Hundertwasser yesterday, “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.” This pretty much sums up my perspective of the CHM@L experience. This truly has been a team effort. A team that will probably never be fully accounted for, as many of the players have long since moved on, but their contributions certainly pushed this along. How to name everyone? I can’t. But I can talk about the teams who passed the baton to each other (note that others may remember things differently – I hope I’m doing everyone justice).

  1. There was the team (team 1) who, seeing an opportunity with new leadership, reached out to Michelle Rhee via a letter signed by many in the school community. This kicked off a relationship between DCPS and parents committed to expanding the program to a space where it could grow in capacity and through middle school.
  2. Team 2 worked on surveying families to gather data around demand for Montessori middle school, then at DCPS’ invitation drafted a proposal that in the end, got no response, but served as the foundation for the next team.
  3. Team 3 went beyond the school and joined forces with 8 other schools, supporting each other in a shared vision for middle schools on Capitol Hill. With broader community support, this multi-school team got the seal of approval from Chancellor Rhee to move the Montessori program to it’s own space, but not the middle school piece.
  4. Team 4, became a Montessori-DCPS partnership and kicked off the all hands on deck approach. These folks planned gardens, designed the playground, inventoried classrooms, renovated the building, worked with DDOT to plan for changes to traffic patterns, went to ANC meetings and reached out to neighbors, designed a pilot food services program to reflect Montessori values, planned for after school care, set up a PTSO, 501c3 and raised funds, helped get the school ready for the big move, and communicated the status at every step of the way.
  5. Team 5 lived through the move and survived, while still managing to build an incredible PTSO with strong leadership. They built up our library, equipped new classrooms, worked miracles w/ a very difficult after school care situation, transformed our gardens and built relationships with the community.
  6. Once finding stability, Team 6 seized the opportunity, picked up the middle school conversation, surveyed families and VOILA, convinced Chancellor Henderson to pursue the middle school!

Each team built upon the work of its predecessors and managed to move conversation a little further at each stage. I believe that what makes us strong is the inclusive nature of our community. We welcome and accept each other and we ask for help. Our finest moments are those when everyone has the opportunity to contribute. What keeps us together is our highly imperfect, but strong commitment to communication.

And what about transparency? Transparency is what saved us from getting lost during DCPS’ shifts in priorities, or getting tossed aside during the change of administration. I recall a conversation with a DCPS employee the day that Michelle Rhee resigned. I wanted to cry, certain that while we were approved for the move, the interim Chancellor would choose to hold off on implementing changes approved by someone else. The DCPS employee reminded me that this plan was not a report on someone’s desk that had not seen the light of day. This plan had been built via community engagement, posted on DCPS (and many other) websites, picked up by the press, and not something likely to be cast aside. The fact that our process had been transparent, one where folks who supported (or hated) it could weigh in, ask questions, and shape it, gave me confidence. It was difficult to hold numerous town halls, answer tough questions, duplicate communication via email, list-servs, websites, social media, posters on walls, flyers in backpacks, you name it, but it was an incredible education about what it means to reach a diverse (sometimes divided) community and how to manage the needs of multiple stakeholders. I learned that you can’t reach everyone w/ a single sweep and you have to meet folks where they are. And you have to repeat. A lot. And after all that, you’ll still get folks who had no idea… And that while folks complain about too much information, trust me, they will be much more upset if they are in the dark.

Transparency is crucial. It not only builds trust, but opens the opportunity for folks to participate, take ownership, and make good things better. To borrow from my ‘day job’ for a moment, it’s why I believe so strongly in open government and open data. In my community, I am the ‘average person’, not the official. And it is through my ‘unofficial’ duties that I (and the teams) have been able to accomplish things that have had direct positive impact on the lives of hundreds of families. In order to get to the point of impact, our ‘average people’ team needed data, and collected and analyzed a lot of data the hard way, from PDFs or static websites, wishing we could just have access to the source, if for any reason, to save time. I realize that I looked for open data years before I learned what it was. And if I was looking for it, I can bet many ‘average people’ around the world are doing the same right now… but more on that later.

So what now? The dream of a Montessori program, with the ability to accommodate hundreds of families through 8th grade is in effect a reality, so I can safely drop the middle school search, right? More on that later

Washington Latin PCS – Open House

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In late November, our family attended the Washington Latin open house. To say it was well-attended is an understatement. It was held in the school’s great hall (multi-purpose room), which is huge and still packed and standing room only. There were many familiar faces in the crowd. I’m pretty certain at least two thirds of the families there were from schools in our neighborhood and about a dozen from our children’s school alone.

I note this because in a school system where it’s not a given that the majority of elementary students will automatically flow into a common destination middle school, it’s important that my son would hopefully have a few familiar faces around from his community. It would also have the very practical advantage of friends from the neighborhood to carpool with, facilitating after school activities. As the children get older and look to participate in more activities, I’m realizing how important their friends and their friends’ parents become to us. I know this is true, as I write this while sitting through my daughter’s gymnastics class (that she takes with her best friend) in Maryland, while my son is at the best friends’s house playing with her older brother. Takes a village…

Coming back to Latin, the sense of community described by the school’s students, teachers, and Diana, a CHM@L parent, whose perspective I value, it’s easy to see why the room was so crowded. I do want my children to always be a part of a community that can depend on each other.

On academics, the presentation was really impressive. Sounds like teachers coordinate lessons so that while students may be learning math in one period and history in another, both classes have a common context, making the lessons relateable and integrated. It also says a bit about communicatiom within the school, which hopefully translates to good communication with families.

One of the teachers demonstrated a lesson, asking children to answer the question, “if they could teach any subject, what should it be?”  Children were asked to volunteer answers and support their position, which made for an interactive experience, indicating that critical thinking is promoted…

My long list of questions weren’t answered, but I’ll be back to their parent info night this month. Here are a few questions answered via the Q/A session that night.

  • Homework? Teachers try to make homework a productive activity to promote repetition, remdiation and give students opportunity to expand on a topic. Volume to expect is 30-45 mins/night for 5th graders, 1 hour for 6th graders, 1.5 for 7th graders… (I should note that parents of a couple of 5th graders shared that their children soend closer to two hours/night…l but it was the beginning of the year and perhaps it was a matter of establishing the habit?)
  • Math? Math groups according to a placement test… 7/8th take algebra… Goal is to get kids to algebra 2 by 10th grade. Honors at every subject at every level.
  • How does recess or free time fit into the schedules? (this one came from the very engaged group of Montessori boys :) ). Free time to run around at lunch after they eat and after school. Hmmm… Will have to follow up on this.
  • Aftercare? Outsourced and offers various activities.. Athletics are offered, hobbies $15/day.
  • Extra-curricular offerings? Noncompetitive sports offerings each season after school.
  • Library will be staffed with a librarian (not sure if full-time). It will contain volumes mostly meant for pleasure reading, not much reference texts, as research will be conducted online. (good stuff!)
  • Diversity? Faculty is not as racially diverse as student body.
  • Latin has a PTA.  Families do fundraising to support programming, enrichment.
  • Communication w families? Electronic newsletter is circulated weekly. (Legenda)
  • Behavior management? Demerit system.

More information here: http://www.latinpcs.org/

Heuristics

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While looking at schools, my family is paying attention to the following (not necessarily in order of priority). Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas.

Community and Culture

- Behavior; how is bullying addressed? How is behavior addressed?

- Do teachers/ staff lead afterschool activities? (shows commitment to relationships w students and to community)

- How are students taught to love learning?

- Demographics of; cultural diversity among students/families?

- How are right and wrong discussed?addressed?taught?

- How does school collaborate w other schools? With high schools?

- What is the school’s philosophy and practice around testing? (standardized and general)

- Who do we know from the school from our community? Opportunities to carpool, get each other out of logistical binds, etc?

Academic

- Offer Languages?

- Advanced math?

- How are subjects (math, history, science, art, etc)  integrated? How do teachers collaborate and synchronize lessons?

- What/how are art, music, or performance arts offered? How often?

- What/how is PE offered! How often?

- What/how is science offered! How often?

- Does the school have a well-resourced library w/ full-time librarian?

- How do academics connect with destination high schools?

- Where do students go to HS?

- How does recess or free time fit into the schedules?

Activities/enrichment

- Any athletic offerings? Team sports?

- Any project activities? Newspaper, yearbook?

- Any community partnerships? Museums, technology, businesses, nonprofits?

Communication

- What is expectation of parents re fundraising?

- What else is required/expected of parents?

- How does school reach out to parents?

- Are grades/homework/assignments posted online?

Logistics

- How will kids get to school?

- How does lunch work?

- Aftercare details? Cost? Hours? Activities/electives?

- How much homework should families expect? Samples?

The Husband in the Room

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This one is short and a response to a very good question from a very good friend –> What does your husband think?

Though this blog is a documentation of my perspective, there is another perspective in the room. My husband’s. And thank goodness, because I certainly trust his judgement more than I trust mine. I never feel good about an important decision unless he and I see eye to eye. The good news is that on most (important) things, we DO see eye to eye.

That said (and again on most things), our perspectives are quite different, and in no way does this blog reflect his opinion or his thoughts. While I document my experience of looking at schools, I stay away from documenting our conversations, where he stands, or our decision-making. We’re sharing this experience together, but we are not sharing it here.

Same goes for the kid :).

Eliot-Hine impressions (yesterday and today)‏ – by Heather Schoell

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Yesterday I attended (along with about 25 others) Eliot-Hine’s open house. We listened to adults speak for a bit, toured the 6th grade floor, and sat in on a math class. Then a panel of 6th graders, one from each feeder school, along with the principal and the math teacher, took questions. Most of our questions were about daily life — what recess is like, how much homework they have, if they feel challenged, if they feel safe — that sort of thing.


I told Olivia about it, and she wanted to check it out for herself. We went at 8:30 this morning — I wanted to see how it functioned when students came in. Aside from my having to get wanded by security, I had no complaints. The kids came in quietly and went to their homerooms. We saw several kids that we knew from Maury. No one was yelling or acting up, but for one kid who was taunting a security guard at the end of the hall, making like he was going to leave from a side door.


We sat in on the English class. Like the last time I popped in unannounced, the students were seated and quiet, participating and engaged in the lesson. Olivia said it was like her class at Maury with Mrs. Cooper. We stayed for 45 minutes (she had to get back in time for her reading intervention group) and she got her first tardy slip of her elementary career. 
 
Eric asked me if it would be disastrous for Olivia to attend, and it would absolutely not be a disaster. That it will be the right fit for Olivia’s academic levels, I need more convincing, but it is worth looking at. 
 
If my girl Rhee was still here, she’d rip out those prison doors and magnetometer, that is for sure. We just got the bike racks installed, the pad is poured for the lighted sign, and the teachers are getting their IB training, so it’s moving in the right direction.
 
Heather
 

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