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.
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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/