Local: Education

Jonetta Rose Barras: At last, education leadership in D.C.

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Local,DC,Education,Jonetta Rose Barras,Vincent Gray,David Catania

In just a few months, at-large Councilman David Catania has demonstrated why many people were excited about his appointment as chairman of the Committee on Education and Libraries. He has awakened the District's comatose education reform movement, bringing to the public square issues Mayor Vincent Gray has seemed reluctant to discuss.

For example, Catania has asked how the government should hold parents more accountable for their children's excessive absences from school. What damage is done by promoting a child to the next grade before he is academically ready; should the city eliminate social promotions?

"[He] is a welcomed tonic for the whole environment. I haven't agreed with everything," said Ward 6 education leader Peter MacPherson, who has called publicly for DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to resign. "Now that we have an education committee, a more skeptical eye is being brought to things."

Last week, Catania proposed an "application" middle and high school east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8.

Undoubtedly parents shouted hallelujah. Each year, hundreds of parents seeking high-quality academic programs have been forced to take their children to schools outside their neighborhoods. Catania has called that dynamic a "morning diaspora."

In 2009, it seemed DCPS was going in that direction. A highly regarded principal was assigned to Sousa Middle School. Dwan Jordon immediately restructured the staff and faculty. Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee told me she hoped families in Ward 7 "who had been sending their kids to Hardy or [Alice] Deal [middle schools in Wards 2 and 3, respectively] actually will look at [Sousa] and say we don't have to drive across town."

But Jordon left DCPS. Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty wasn't re-elected. Rhee was sent packing.

Gray interpreted his 2010 mayoral victory as rejection of the Fenty-Rhee agenda. Some parents may have wanted a kinder DCPS, but they have continued to plead for significant change.

They have urged the firing of low-performing instructors and consistently demanded academic programs that would compete with charters and private schools. That, they have said, means librarians in every school, more music and art teachers, and creation of more language immersion, International Baccalaureate and gifted-and-talented programs.

DCPS may soon announce an expansion of its gifted-and-talented programs, according to sources. But parental issues have not been sufficiently addressed -- although increasing amounts of taxpayers' dollars have gone to public education.

Reviewing DCPS' proposed 2014 budget, MacPherson said problems surrounding school librarians "could actually get worse" than they are currently. Henderson appears to be limiting full-time librarians to schools with 400 or more students, ignoring a key recommendation of her own library task force. DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz promised to get back to me about the library issue but didn't.

Since entering the education arena, Catania has said he expects measurable improvements from charters and DCPS. Oddly, some people have characterized his attention to critical issues as micromanaging.

But Catania has been providing much needed oversight. That's a good thing. District children shouldn't wait any longer for the quality education they deserve.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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