Testimony of Heather Schoell
Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization (CHPSPO)
Middle Grades Education in the District: Preparing Our Students for Success in High School and Beyond
Public Oversight Roundtable
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Good morning. My name is Heather Schoell, and today I am representing the Capitol Hill Public School Parent Organization or CHPSPO, formed in 2005, and made up of PTA members, principals and interested community members from the elementary and middle schools on Capitol Hill. CHPSPO’s mission is to promote cooperation among the parent organizations of the public schools on Capitol Hill in order to improve the education received by all children attending our schools.
We are very pleased Chairman Kwame Brown is taking a leadership role on the issue of middle schools. CHPSPO began a Middle School Initiative two years ago because we have seen great successes in our neighborhood DCPS elementary schools, and want families to have confidence in the public middle schools on Capitol Hill. Students from Ward 6 as well as other Wards including Wards 5, 7 and 8 attend the public schools on Capitol Hill. We have a great diversity of offerings in our elementary schools, including Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Special Education, Spanish Immersion, Arts Integration, World Cultures, Museum Studies and more. We want to see a continuation of the teaching methods at the middle school level that are being successfully implemented in our neighborhood elementary schools. We began our Middle School Initiative because we wanted to see a comprehensive plan for our neighborhood middle schools that would lift up the educational experience for all middle school students. We believe strong middle schools in Ward 6 are one of the keys to attracting students to Eastern High School.
We conducted a survey in the summer of 2009 to capture attitudes of parents surrounding middle schools, and found that parents are looking for strong academic programs, safe environments, and teachers with a reputation for excellence. Taking this information, parents and principals worked collaboratively throughout the winter of 2010 to develop a proposed middle school plan that we presented to DCPS in March of 2010. Elements of our proposed plan included:
- vertically integrating the Special Education programs at our elementary schools into our neighborhood middle schools;
- beginning an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program for all students at Eliot-Hine which we believed would vertically integrate well with the diverse offerings from our neighborhood elementary schools; and
- expanding Montessori education through 8th grade.
Over the summer of 2010, DCPS held a number of public meetings to get broad input on ways to strengthen our middle schools, and expanded our plan to cover all of Ward 6. DCPS began the process of certifying both Eliot-Hine and Jefferson Middle Schools to become International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program Schools, and to strengthen the Museum Studies program at Stuart Hobson Middle School. DCPS also decided to move the Capitol Hill Cluster School’s Watkins Campus Montessori program to the Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan School which opened three weeks ago in order to expand the opportunities for Montessori across the city. DCPS has shown its commitment to these middle school improvements by establishing Collaboration Teams at each of the middle schools that bring together principals, parents and teachers from the feeder schools with their respective middle schools.
We have learned much through our involvement with the middle schools. First, and foremost, we have learned it is important to be purposeful in developing a middle school plan that reflects the desires and interests of neighborhood families. It is not easy to develop such plans. It takes long hours of conversations and exchanges of ideas, but in the end we have found it is time well spent. Without such plans, we and DCPS have nothing to guide ourselves along the path of improvement. Parents ultimately decide where their children go to middle schools, and their hopes and dreams for their child’s education must be taken into account in any efforts to revitalize the middle schools or middle school improvement plans will likely miss the mark in creating middle schools that will draw families to them.
We have learned it is important to offer a diversity of options for families to choose from at the middle school level. Children do not all learn in the same ways, and families have different goals for their children’s education. Some children need special education services. Some children thrive under the Montessori model or a project-based learning model. Others want to continue the foreign language they’ve been immersed in at the elementary school level. While some will thrive in small learning environments, many sixth graders are looking for independence and thrive in larger settings that offer a diversity of clubs, after-school activities, sports and drama along with giving them their first glimpse of what high school has to hold for them.
We also know that many students are not performing at grade level when they reach middle school. We have learned that two things can help in ensuring students reach middle school performing at a proficient level. First, we have found it is important to establish a dialogue between teachers at the elementary feeder schools with the teachers at the middle schools. Rarely does this happen, but when it does, teachers can develop a deeper understanding of what 5th graders should master before they leave their elementary school and devise strategies for helping the students learn the materials they need to master. Second, it is important to develop strategies to help those students who do not arrive at middle school performing at a proficient level. Strategies such as summer programs focusing on the math and reading skills necessary for 6th grade or establishing academies within the middle school to help raise students’ performance to the proficient level have proven to be successful.
We also know that school facility modernization continues to be a concern, and that it is important for our city to continue to proceed with modernization of the middle schools. Many of our elementary schools have undergone the Phase I modernizations, and we believe that is one of the factors attracting families to the public schools. All children in our city deserve to be educated in buildings that provide safe environments that promote learning. At the middle school level, it is important to ensure access to modern technologies, including internet access, and to have functioning science labs and inviting libraries. Two of the middle schools in Ward 6 have not received Phase 1 modernizations, Jefferson and Stuart Hobson Middle Schools. Addressing the facility issues will be a key factor in strengthening the middle schools across the city.
We strongly believe DCPS has the capacity to operate outstanding schools, and to operate schools that offer a wide variety of options to meet the educational needs of the students in our city. We believe DCPS and the City Council should focus its efforts on support for our neighborhood public schools. We believe the public charter schools decrease our student population, and detract from efforts to improve educational opportunities within our neighborhood public schools. We believe strong principals who provide continuity from year to year are vitally important. We believe exceptional teachers who are trained in their subject area are vital to strong middle schools. Our experience has shown that families and communities will support their neighborhood public schools in partnership with DCPS. We know that a strong and vibrant public education system is vital to our city and our nation, and that our public schools provide our children with the pathway to opportunity and a better life. Too much is at stake for our city not to succeed in revitalizing our middle schools.