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Class Notes
Time to start planning for next year
(Published May 30, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

With weeks to go in the school year, it's now time to plan for the future. But for teachers, the future is one big mystery. Each year, as the fourth advisory draws to a close, uncertainty reigns. What classes will I be teaching next year? Who will be in my department next year? Which teachers are leaving? How many students are coming back? How many new teachers can we hire? In the D.C. public school system, these questions are great mysteries.

In most other industries, September is about the same as June: same staff, same product, roughly similar customers. Sure, beaches and resorts hire and fire for the season, but even they predict in advance what they will need. Government services, other than education, continue about as well (or as poorly) from spring to fall.

An outside observer might expect that schools would have a plan for next year before teachers leave for summer vacation. Teachers, knowing what they will teach, can use the summer to prepare. Schools, knowing their budgets and enrollment, can hire necessary staff in advance and assign students to teachers. Textbooks and lab supplies can be bought. Coaches can schedule summer practice for their sports teams, choirs can rehearse, etc.

Too bad this is not the reality.

D.C. public schools don't have plans complete for next year for many reasons. A big barrier is our migratory population, both of students and staff. Each summer, thousands of kids change from one school to another, or drop out or re-enroll. The flow is rapid, citywide and the pool of kids is deep. Since each school plans its schedule independently, both the school the kids leave and the school they go to have to adjust.

Each summer as well, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) hires hundreds of new teachers and principals and hundreds of current staff leave the system. The flow is rapid, citywide and the pool of good personnel is shallow.

Kids change schools for many reasons. I know of several students who have attended three high schools before graduation, without ever moving to a new home.

Some change because they want a better place to learn. At Bell Multicultural High School, where I teach, there are many students who travel completely across the city to get to school each day. The quality of education at Bell is better than average. Of course, every high school except Banneker, Ellington and School Without Walls is classified as "needs improvement" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, so a "bad" school is somewhat inescapable.

Kids also switch schools to take advantage of special programs, like the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Bell, choir at Eastern, dance at Ellington, robotics at Banneker, etc. Not every school is a good fit for every kid, and many kids want to go to a high school with good sports teams, vocational classes, et. al.

Switching schools is exacerbated by poverty. Wealth has a lot to do with family stability rich people don't usually worry about keeping a roof over their heads. Many of my students live with grandparents, aunts, cousins, often in temporary situations. As they move, from D.C. to Maryland, across the city, they also change schools to avoid two-hour bus-to-train-to-bus rides.

Scheduling and planning is brutalized by the uncertainty around enrollment at each school. In May and June, guidance counselors and principals can only estimate what the school population will be like next year. Ten more ESL students over the summer mean the school needs to hire an ESL teacher in September. Ten less special education students and the school might lose a special ed teacher to another school with a larger special ed population. D.C. schools are funded on a per-student basis, about $9,000 per kid. Enrollments up 50 students? Here's $450,000 to spend on more teachers, equipment, books, etc. Enrollments down? Start making cuts. Changes at the boundary really foul things up, too 30 juniors in Pre-Calculus might get squeezed into one class, but 35 is definitely two sections, and maybe another math teacher. And enrollments can fluctuate widely while I taught at Eastern, we were down more than 200 kids from one year to the next, which didn't affect the budget until the official enrollment count in October, after we had already staffed for the year. Teachers were transferred out of their classes and off to other schools, almost in the middle of instruction.

Kids switching schools plays havoc with planning. DCPS makes this problem worse by not holding on to teachers. Teachers bail out of schools at crazy rates. At my school, with a teaching staff of about 50, I know five teachers already who are planning to leave. This is after losing 8 teachers last year, and a roughly similar number the year before. Imagine a business where you had to hire 10 to 20 percent of your staff new every year.

This year, due to increased enrollment and vacancies, we hired nine new teachers at Bell. That's about one out of five teachers being new. This story repeats across DCPS. How can a school plan who will be teaching what if every fifth class has no teacher?

The reasons why teachers leave are simple. DCPS classes can be hard to teach. Many kids are below grade level in math, reading and writing. School buildings are in disrepair. Budget requests to the central office take months to be processed. Salaries are still lower in D.C. than in surrounding counties. Truancy and dropout rates are high. Staff morale is low.

I say this not to lambaste D.C. schools I teach in one, and I believe in public education. I say this because this summer, principals and counselors will be spending a lot of time and energy trying to plan for the opening of school, and I predict that several schools will open either without schedules for the kids or without all their staff positions filled, and kids will spend weeks in September with long-term substitutes.

The time to act on this is now. The solutions are simple. First, manage student rosters more actively so that schools have more accurate enrollment counts. This means asking schools now to clean up their rosters, eliminating students who have transferred or dropped out, calling parents of truant kids and giving schools incentive to get kids off of their books (instead of chasing the per-student dollars). This means doing the official enrollment count the first week of school, and then going after parents who haven't managed to get their child enrolled in school on time. This means separating some of the per-child funding by allocating it per building, to insulate schools from year-to-year fluctuations.

Second, improve staff morale. Fully fund the building renovation budget so that teachers work in a clean, safe and modern environment. Provide training and support to new teachers so that they don't burn out and leave within five years at the 50 percent rate they're leaving now. Provide affordable housing for teachers in D.C. Continue former superintendent Paul Vance's progress in reforming special education so that students get the services they need and teachers can focus on learning. Develop a corps of strong administrators within the system, and promote them, so that assistant principals have both a clear career path and assistance in becoming great principals. Give experienced teachers more incentive to stay by increasing pay and, in exchange, ask for a longer professional work day so teachers collaborate and develop more of a community in their schools instead of hitting the road at 3:30 p.m. Make department chair and mentor roles part of a meaningful career progression for teachers.

DCPS does great things for kids. It also has a lot of work to do to get to where we should be. If we can get some of this work done before teachers run off for summer vacation, September will be a heck of a lot smoother.

***

Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator