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Parents seek DCPS accountability

(Published August 13, 2001)

By CHRIS SMITH

Staff Writer

Parents, teachers, students and concerned residents challenged Superintendent Paul L. Vance and D.C. Board of Education members for accountability in response to the introduction of Superintendent Vanceís strategic plan for the public school system July 31 at the University of the District of Columbia.

The purpose of the town hall meeting, the second in as many days, was to present an overview of the plan, how it was developed and where the board was going in the planning process of the plan, said DCPS Chief of Staff Steven Seleznow.

The board presented its DCPS business plan for strategic reform, the latest effort by the school board to turn around a school system that has been plagued for years by high dropout rates, declining enrollment, poor literacy and low test scores in math and reading.

Since March 19, numerous committees have been working on the five-year plan that consists of three phases. According to the summary available at the meeting, the planís goals are to improve student academic and social learning, provide dynamic schools able to provide an excellent education to all students and reliable and capable organization focused on each studentís education.

The plan in its entirety will be available for parents at each school when the academic year begins on Sept. 4, officials said.

Vance, who will enter his second year as DCPS superintendent this fall, said the town hall meetings were a critical juncture in the planning of the strategic reform. "We want to be more inclusive and communicate to a broader audience in D.C. Donít judge me by what I say, judge me by what I do. Make me accountable," he told those present.

One parent, James Cunningham, said the town hall meeting was a joke, observing the sparsely populated auditorium that barely drew 100 people in a public school system that enrolls almost 69,000 students.

"Accountability," Cunningham said to the superintendent and panel of board members. "Whereís your audience? Parents talk a great game, but I knew there would be a response like this. As parents we need to be more proactive and not reactive. Board members, how do you grade yourselves?"

The turnout was "below basic," board member Tommy Wells responded, referring to a low score on the school systemís standardized tests.

"We need to stop playing games," Cunningham said as the small crowd applauded. "We are trying to talk about the rest of these studentsí lives in two days. We need to demand students to be successful instead of asking students to be successful. Put consequences to demands."

Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz admitted the board needs a budget to mail advertising, instead of relying on free radio and television advertising.

Despite the disappointing turnout, Vance said the cross pattern of parents and advocates was extremely important in the planning process.

Audience members also questioned the boardís ability to handle more immediate issues for DCPS Ė how parents can support the new plan, the availability of materials at schools such as supplies and food, the rift between teachers and parents, and the treatment of students with special needs - as students prepare to return to school.

Board member Roger Wilkins said parents can support the new plan by doing what parents do naturally Ė pay attention to their childís education, visit schools, tell board members how they can enhance or impede parental involvement and how the plan can be changed.

One teacher in attendance said instructors felt excluded in the decision-making process of the plan, despite being blamed for the failures of the students.

If the school board does nothing else, they will work hard with the teachersí union to improve relations, Vance said.

"One of the most distressful things is the relationship between parents of students and teachers," board member Wells said. "Since 1950 we have built schools in the District that look like prisons. No wonder parents will not come into schools."

Outraged parents questioned whether schools will open on time and have adequate books and school supplies as well as fresh food available when doors open in less than three weeks.

"There is not one question this year of whether or not schools will start on time," Vance said. "We hope we can convince you of our sincerity to deliver a world-class public education to every boy and girl that is comparable to children all over the country.

"The board members will continue to work with the residents they represent in anticipation of one of the smoothest opening of schools in recent years," he said.

He also added that the board has a "working plan" of what every student and parent expects from the school system, including a $3 million textbook budget and an additional $1 million for school maintenance.

"We will continue to provide money if necessary," he said.

Joe Patterson, another parent, asked how the school system plans on improving its human relation skills toward special needs students.

Schools need to be safe for every student, Wells said: "We are training principals, teachers and counselors to be sensitive to students with special needs."

Another parent asked the superintendent and the school board how the community can hold them accountable if they do not produce the promised results of a reformed DCPS system.

Board member William Lockridge said evaluation forms are being sent to Advisory Neighborhood Commissions as well as other community outlets so residents can rate the superintendent.

"A timeline will be added to some of the initiatives in order to get things done," he said. "We will not give the superintendent an easy ride. The results of the evaluation will also be available to the public."

Cafritz added that the board is negotiating a new contract for the superintendent "based on performance standards."

Vance responded to the parentsí challenge as well.

"The board representing the citizens will continue to seek input from the citizens on my effectiveness," he said. "If I am found not to be effective, I wonít fight. I will just go silently into the night," he concluded as the crowd applauded.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator