Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

DC Public Schools as permanent snafu: the latest examples

The Power of Bad Ideas

While many people think that the "reform" happening to the DC Public School system is positive and forward-oriented, my sense is that the system is being destroyed, with the exception of pockets of excellence in Wards 3, 2, and 6. Otherwise, most of the energy in K-12 education has been captured by the charter schools and most people make the mistake of connoting action with improvement.

I've written about K-12 education issues quite a bit since the start of the blog. I've always advocated a third way: that the stark choice between "bomb them [teachers and schools] back to the stone age" vs. "accepting poverty as an excuse" is a false one, that the point really is to build the systems and processes for students, families, teachers, principals, and schools, so that sustained excellence is routinized. This is not the path chosen by Michelle Rhee and her supporters, and it's unclear that the new regime has changed anything.

See this past blog entry, "Missing the most fundamental point about urban educational reform," which mentions this article, When ‘Unequal’ Is Fair Treatment" from Education Week, about Montgomery County Maryland's award-winning program focused on reducing and eliminating performance gaps between high income and low income children.

I've mentioned frequently how I've been influenced by a Harvard Business Review article on "positive deviance," "Your Company's Secret Change Agents."

The basic point is that even the most dysfunctional organizations have pockets of excellence, and that these pockets of excellence need to be expanded and extended to rebuild success--that other people in the organization can't excuse these examples as impossible "best practice" imported from elsewhere and therefore not relevant, because the "deviants" function in the same conditions.

One example of positive deviance in school reform is now retired area superintendent Kathleen Cashin of New York City. She was militantly ignored by Mayor Bloomberg's reform effort, yet the schools in her domain functioned more highly than most of the schools across the city, even though they served predominately low-income students. See the blog entry, "Positive deviance in New York City schools goes unrecognized" and "Positive Deviance and the DC Public Schools."

So here are at least three examples of positive deviance/success in DC schools:

- the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools
- the Langdon Montessori program in Ward 5
- the Spanish-English bilingual program at Oyster Elementary.

So the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools are serving as a foundation for improvement in Capitol Hill schools more generally. See "Has D.C.'s Black Middle Class Given Up on Neighborhood Schools" from the Washington City Paper.

The bilingual program at Oyster has been expanded.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the Montessori program at Langdon is being eliminated.

Interestingly, where I live, in Greater Ward 4, the Latin America Montessori Bilingual elementary school charter school is growing like gangbusters. It captures many of the children in my area--White, Hispanic, Black--and the school is growing from one campus on Military Road to include a new campus in Ward 5 and is slated to receive a building on the Walter Reed campus, once that land reverts to DC control. In the meantime, the DCPS elementary schools closest to me, Whittier and Takoma, have fewer than 300 students each, and many unused classrooms.

Is it any wonder that the city's public school system is failing?

Also see "Disruptive technologies: Charter schools for public school systems are like the impact of the Internet on newspapers" from May 2011.

In a separate initiative, one of the schools that's being declared surplus and being put up for sale is Young Elementary School on the Spingarn campus in Ward 5, off Benning Road. See "32 More Acres of the District Up For Grabs!" from the Washington City Paper.

The funny thing is that in 2001-2002, the DCPS contracted with the urban design studio at the U of Michigan to do a planning project for the Spingarn campus, which came up with multiple scenarios. The UD studio is led by Roy Strickland, who has published a book about schools. The book discusses the Spingarn example, and is summarized in this paper, "The City Of Learning: School Design and Planning as Urban Revitalization in New Jersey, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C.."

I never did track down their final reports but what a waste of resources to have done this study and then chuck it. Speaking of good resources on schools as community hubs, check out "If hubs are the solution, what's the problem?" from the Belonging Community blog (Toronto).

I haven't read the "multiple property" historic preservation context study for the DC schools, but clearly in the 1920s, a very specific decision was made to organize and create multi-school campuses, in high profile locations. Spingarn is one example, McKinley is another, where there are elementary, junior, and senior high schools. Coolidge is across the street from Whittier Elementary and on the backside of the campus is 4 blocks of public park and recreation facilities.

We've declined significantly since then.

Passing laws to require students to apply to college ("Kwame Brown Proposes Mandatory College Applications for DC" from NBC4-TV) is merely an "emperor and his new clothes" kind of tactic that completely misses the point.

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