ESSA Community Meeting Becomes Larger Discussion About Achievement Gap

A photo of the Ward 7 community meeting

Anna Riley

Two sets of concerned parents, an overwhelmed high school teacher, the Executive Director of the D.C. Board of Education (SBOE) and a few others sat in a circle in the Capitol View Library on a hot June 4 Saturday afternoon to discuss The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as it would affect Ward 7.

President Obama signed ESSA into law in December 2015, aiming to get rid of many components of the No Child Left Behind and create a new and improved accountability framework for the D.C. school system, which will be in place for the 2017-18 school year.

ESSA requires that states create a system to identify low-performing schools and schools with large achievement gaps between various subgroups, such as ethnicity, English Language Learners and special education students, according to Executive Director of the SBOE John-Paul C. Hayworth.

The SBOE has to approve the plan by early next year and is holding community meetings in every ward to better-address people’s concerns in creative ways. Some of those concerns include school climate, teacher turnover and access to a variety of courses and curriculum, Hayworth said.

Two parents at the Ward 7 meeting have a daughter entering pre-K in the fall. One of their main concerns is the segregation and lack of diversity amongst the different wards of D.C. Wards 7 and 8 are made up of low-income, minority residents, and the public schools mirror this demographic, according to the mother.

“The testing and scores are lower unless you go to one of the charters, but they are very disciplinary-focused,” she said. “Charters are more strict and not as open as the other schools. They don’t seem to focus on the whole child and wanting to create responsible citizens that can make decisions for themselves.”

Although she and her husband looked at schools in other wards, the mother explained that it is “like winning the actual lottery” to get into those schools because “most of the schools that are half-way decent have really long waitlists because the kids that live in that area are taking up all the spots.”

Anger and frustration erupted in the basement meeting room as the discussion turned away from ESSA to larger issues in the city and DCPS.

“We need to make sure that there’s housing that’s affordable for everyone in every ward so we can have some kind of diversity. It’s all based on where you live, and if you can’t afford to live in upper Northwest, where the schools are going to be better, then it’s going to be all rich, white kids going to that school. I’m not sure if ESSA takes this all into account,” said the mother.

DCPS Ward 7 high school teacher Laura Fuchs explained that it is nearly impossible to do her job successfully because she has so many different responsibilities and very little community support. She does not think ESSA will change much.

“High stakes testing is still in play. So while there is a bit more local control, it seems minimal,” Fuchs said. “We need to have laws that require input from the community on all major decisions that are done in a transparent and inclusive process. We need DCPS to truly invest in parent and community engagement.”

The Ward 7 mother explained that it makes sense why parents in the high-poverty wards may be less involved. “In the poor communities, there are less engaged parents who aren’t paying attention, but also some of them are working 3 to 4 jobs, and they can’t go to PTA meetings and they can’t be home to help their kids with homework or feed them breakfast in the morning, because they’re having to get up so early to get to work.”

Issues |Education

Region |Washington DC

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