Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this Performance Oversight Hearing for DCPS. I am Iris Bond Gill, a parent of two at JO Wilson Elementary School and chair of the Upper Grades Committee of our school’s PTA.
I’ll start by saying that for the first year I can recall, DCPS has listened to the calls of many in our parent community and is now offering much more central office support and attention to the issues and concerns around culture and climate as well as teaching and learning at our school. There have been years of stagnant test scores even with many investments from DCPS and community support and involvement. I attribute that attention to Chancellor Wilson who told me that he was fully aware of these issues and was committed to helping us. I hope that the support and attention continues under Dr. Alexander’s leadership.
I am also here to talk about some larger issues in the education of our children.
We need a clear vision of where our education system is headed, grounded in the reality of our education context.
We have lulled ourselves into believing that we live in a total “choice context” in DC. I think, if anything, what Chancellor Wilson’s resignation has taught me is that’s not the case. It’s as though he didn’t realize that zip code and neighborhood dictates, in a very fundamental way, where your child will go to school in DC. Why is that? I think it’s because, for too long, we’ve acted as though neighborhood schools don’t matter in DC. I’m not against choice– I was a founding teacher at the first charter school in New Orleans in the 90s and am proud of the work we did there. But we need to be honest about the context in which we exist in DC and embrace that the backbone of our system is a system of by-right neighborhood schools. If lottery choices don’t pan out or you move here mid-year or you need to change schools in September, the public option is your neighborhood school, a lesson that was recently hard- learned. We need to understand and embrace this and only then will we invest in improving them to where anyone of our leaders would send their kids there.
Speaking of school improvement: We also need to ask ourselves whether we believe school improvement is possible. We have decades of chronically low-performing schools (I don’t have to call them by name), and so far the actions in DC’s education leaders reflect a belief that it’s easier to create a new school than to fix a broken one. When I reviewed the ESSA state plan that OSSE put out last Spring and the state board approved it was clear that the “school
improvement” was non-existent. I commented as such throughout the fast review process. I wonder, is the underlying belief of the mayor and this council that instead of improving schools we should create new ones? Is that what’s shaping our education system? If so, can we hear that articulated and have a discussion about that as a city and community? If we believe, as I do, that school improvement, albeit difficult, is possible and necessary, we have to change our priorities and systems of support for these schools. That’s more evident now than ever. The students at Dunbar deserve to know that their school is good enough and that we are serious about making the investments and improvements they deserve.
I agree wholeheartedly with the council members like Robert White, Mary Cheh, and Elissa Silverman who have called for a step-back and thorough review of our education strategy and I ask you to clearly articulate the underlying beliefs shaping that strategy. Engage the community that has the most to gain and lose with any education strategy.
Let’s stop churning out talking points and articulate a real vision for our city’s education system. The experience that Chancellor Wilson had is not unique among families in DC. Let’s use this as an opportunity to learn, communicate, and build it together.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify.