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Building 'world-class' schools
Panel pegs goal to more parent, community participation
(Published February 7, 2005)

By ERIN HENK
Special to The Common Denominator

The aim of the session was noble: to examine what it will take to create "a world-class public school system for D.C."

Participants in the Feb. 5 panel discussion, sponsored by the Cleveland Park Citizens Association and moderated by association President George Idelson, suggested stronger parental roles, greater community participation and stability within the Board of Education among the needed building blocks.

Several audience members echoed Councilwoman Kathy Patterson and District II school board member Victor Reinoso, both panelists, in expressing hope that a committed superintendent will help improve the city's schools. Patterson, D-Ward 3, who last month took over the helm of the council's education committee, emphasized that reforming a major bureaucracy takes not only vision but also time.

For his part, first-year D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey outlined extensive plans for improving the schools and vowed that he will effectively implement them, along with the community's help.

"Education cannot just be everybody's business and my job," he said. "We will make this happen and I plan to stay here for a good, long time."

Janey said that, despite widely held misconceptions, the District does have quality schools, but the challenge is to figure out how to offer and sustain those quality programs at all of the system's schools. Janey noted that the school system has "served well the interests of some, but not the needs of all."

The superintendent said he is currently working on a master education plan, with which he and his staff hope to deal with such problems as overcrowded schools and inadequate facilities. He said he intends to propose a policy to the D.C. Board of Education this spring, which, among other things, will include the idea of allowing students the option of graduating high school in either three, four or five years, depending on their performance. Another component of the policy would be to have a "buyback" policy for students who have poor attendance records, to be able to complete extra assignments to prevent them from failing a class, he said.

Janey said he also plans to issue public progress reports about the state of education in the District on an annual basis.

Patterson said she is looking forward to her council committee coordinating and collaborating on joint projects with the Board of Education something she said the education committee has not done for the past 10 years. She also said she wants to see an increase in the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in public education programs.

Reinoso said he would like to see the hiring of teachers for a school year completed sooner and schools getting their budgets earlier in the year to allow ample planning time. He also expressed the need to clarify the difference between state and local budgets for education. This would help schools administrators know what particular things are their responsibility and what "state" functions are the responsibility of the overall D.C. government, he said. He also stressed the importance of developing early literacy programs and parent training, so parents can learn how to interact with their children.

Reinoso also mentioned that he, along with Patterson and various D.C. City Council members, have been meeting together in order to establish a working relationship.

Increasing parental and community involvement in the schools was among the main concerns voiced by audience members. But the issue also brought some disagreement.

Adopting mass standards doesn't matter if the family and kids' parents aren't involved, said audience member Pete MacDonald. "Let's not skirt around on the surface. how can we get accountability from parents and guardians? That's the basic problem in this city," he said.

Emily Washington, a longtime English and language arts teacher in D.C. public schools, asserted that the many parents who struggle day-to-day to get their kids to school because of inequities in society are not to blame for the poor state of some schools.

"We've sat for 40 years and watched our schools crumble. It's an indictment on our city," she said. "Improving schools is everybody's business."

Other audience members stressed that the public has a responsibility to have an interest in the public schools, whether or not their kids are enrolled in the school system.

Patterson described meetings of a collaborative "D.C. Education Compact" as one way of using the city's "civic capacity," by allowing all parts of the community to be involved and to keep community discussions open. The compact, created last year by several community and business-related groups, has been holding private meetings with D.C. elected officials to discuss ways to improve the public schools. The compact has scheduled three upcoming public forums on Feb. 9, Feb. 10 and Feb. 12 (see Public Affairs Calendar).

Reinoso, who represents Wards 3 and 4, said he hopes to hold meetings with parent organizations in different wards in order for parents to meet one another and share dialogue about success.

Other concerns voiced at the meeting included the need for further funding for school music, arts and physical education programs and opening the schools up after hours for adult education and literacy programs.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator