Katy Thomas Testimony – DCPS Budget Hearing – April 18, 2018

Chairman Grosso, Councilman Allen, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I really appreciate this opportunity since I was out of town for spring break during the original DCPS Budget Oversight hearing in late March. I am not an education policy expert or an education budget analyst. This is our family’s second year participating in DCPS and the first school year I have really tried to pay attention to not only what is happening in our school building, but what is happening with our school system. I clearly picked the wrong year to start taking notice.

I serve as the Civic Liaison for the Miner Elementary PTO, where two of my children are enrolled (Kindergarten & PK3). Miner is our in-bounds neighborhood school, three blocks from our house and is in the home stretch of ending a really great year. We were thrilled to have Bruce Jackson named as permanent principal in February; our new administration team has infused the school with excitement and positive changes for students, teachers, staff, parents and the community.

In preparing for today’s hearing, I reviewed parent testimony from the last time Miner representatives testified before this committee, in February 2016. Three Miner parent leaders cited the years of failed efforts by waves of Miner parents working earnestly to end the cycle of failure for Miner students. Something that struck me from their testimony was the following:
We sit before you as the next wave. Will you help us break this cycle? If you don’t, then be prepared for the saddest Groundhog Day ever – where at next year’s hearing, a new wave of earnest parent leaders will come before you and tell you the same story, as others have done before us. And once again, hundreds of poor black and brown students will again spend another year failing to get the education they deserve. This is an embarrassing cycle that must be broken; we shouldn’t have to work so hard for an amazing public education for our children. That should be just what our kids get.
Sadly, all three of those parent leaders from 2016 have since left Miner for schools with more dynamic programs, presumably where they don’t have to work so hard to get their kids an amazing education. So, here I sit….part of the new wave of earnest parents seeking more for Miner kids.

Like many other DCPS Title 1 schools, Miner has dealt with a wide variety of challenges throughout the past, some within the control of the school community, but the majority a result of a failed system. Many of the challenges for us could be resolved with a more common-sense based budget. The Miner FY2018-19 budget fails to provide enough resources for us to continue to afford a STEM teacher, adequate reading intervention support and SPED inclusion/resources. Sixty-six percent of our student body is classified as “at-risk”, sixteen percent of the student body has special needs with IEP’s, our math scores are 16 percent, ELA scores are 8 percent and we continue to face declining enrollment. The commitment by our new school leaders, combined with a more involved and engaged parent body signals a positive new direction, but our new earnest administration leaders and parent body cannot do this alone.

Miner’s current building is relatively new, yet our outdoor campus is in desperate need of comprehensive renovations to provide safe, suitable and age-appropriate outdoor learning and play-based experiences for our students. One of the best and most recent examples of investing in outdoor learning facilities is just a few blocks away at Ludlow-Taylor Elementary. By partnering with school leadership, parent leaders and community members, all Capitol Hill families can be proud of the improvements at Ludlow-Taylor. Miner parents, school leaders and community members are ready and willing to make that success story happen at our school.

Throughout the past few years, Miner’s outdoor campus has been the victim of a number of vandalism incidents, including arson during non-school hours. A top priority for our PTO is to work with all appropriate city agencies to install a complete upgrade of our outdoor security systems to address the continued irresponsible use and vandalism during non-school hours. We understand DCPS has initiated a process to identify the many outdoor security needs, yet the most robust plans cannot make an impact if left unfunded. Based upon conversations with our ANC leaders and community advocates involved in neighborhood playground renovations, we estimate this endeavor will require a minimum $1 million budget in order to update all outdoor security systems, play areas and learning spaces. We strongly advocate for a deliberate and cohesive approach to improving and securing the campus.

The Washington Post article by Perry Stein published April 14, 2018 put a new spotlight on how DCPS budgeting is not meeting its obligations for our schools and more importantly, at-risk children within our schools. This article comes on the heels testimony you have recently heard from many witnesses, including DCPS budget analyst volunteer extraordinaire Mary Levy, who pointed out to you in her March 28 testimony, DCPS continues to use at-risk funds to supplant core program funding in direct violation of the law. Additionally, the October 2017 report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor (ODCA) provided great detail regarding schools being forced to use at-risk resources to fund core staffing positions and other fundamental school needs. ODCA reported Miner is compliant with CSM standards, only because 1.5 related arts positions were funded through at-risk dollars. “ Five of the eight schools in this study—Bancroft, Barnard, Miner, Nalle, and Moten—funded some of their related-arts positions using supplemental at-risk dollars. Without the positions funded by at-risk dollars, Barnard, Miner, and Moten would have fallen short of the related arts staffing levels prescribed in the CSM.”
The recommendation from the October 2017 ODCA report to the Council was to provide careful oversight on how at-risk funding is being utilized and whether those uses are consistent with your legislative intent. The Post article from last weekend quoted Chairman Grosso as recognizing the seriousness of the problem, but having no solutions to remedy this widely-acknowledged breach of intent. In a city brimming with smart, highly compensated, Type A personality professionals, I reject the sentiment that there are no avenues to hold the school system accountable. We don’t have the luxury to hit the pause button to get through the scandal de jour; students still need educating, buildings still need maintenance and at-risk kids still need more resources.
The ODCA report also highlighted the wholly inadequate budget made available to schools with students facing extraordinary challenges outside the classroom. At four schools—Noyes, Miner, Nalle, and Moten—interviewees stated that the challenge of serving needy students from struggling communities overwhelmed the social-emotional resources of the school. There is “never enough mental health support,” one teacher stated, because “students see so much outside of school that they bring to the classroom.” Another teacher explained that even the outstanding social-emotional staff at her school cannot meet the needs of children who have limited capacity to learn because they are trying to survive. Similarly, a parent who stated that his school needed more counselors noted that, “A lot of these kids are raising themselves.”
I echo the recent testimony of fellow Ward 6 parent leader, Heather Schoell, who pressed this committee to explain why so much non-education support, such as social workers and psychologists consumes such a significant amount of the education budget. Schools cannot succeed in doing their prescribed job of teaching when they have to cut the number of teacher positions in order to provide social/emotional support. Schools receive resources from other agencies such as MPD for school security offices, Department of Health for school nurses and Department of Transportation for crossing guards, yet are required to use education funds to pay for social/emotional supports. The Department of Health and Child and Family Services are designed to provide the means to address social and emotional support and should be providing the necessary budget to meet these needs for our school children.

Last fall, I was encouraged to read then-Chancellor Wilson’s commitment to address inadequate technology funding of DCPS schools in his response to the ODCA report. Specifically, the report made four recommendations to DCPS, including one focused on technology:
Recommendation #4:
DCPS should create and make public a multi-year technology needs plan to define and provide adequate technology to each school. The plan should include expected costs and and planned funding sources.
DCPS Response: DCPS agrees with recommendation #4. Prior to the issuance of this draft audit report, DCPS’ Office of Information Technology began work to develop a comprehensive Technology Roadmap. Our roadmap includes five key areas: devices, infrastructure services, shared technology platforms, technology proficiency and data reporting. These core focus areas will provide mass enhancements in all areas of concern as detailed in the report. To date, the initial draft of our Technology Roadmap has been shared internally within DCPS’ central administration to obtain feedback from internal stakeholders. Additional feedback will be sought from school-based leaders, teachers, students, parents and members of the community. Upon completion and approval of the Technology Roadmap, the associated funding requests will be presented during the FY19 budget process.

The response from ODCA recognized DCPS’ response to draft a Technology Roadmap, but pushed back with the need for a multi-year technology plan to that defines and funds the school system’s technology needs while also providing ongoing maintenance and upgrades of existing equipment. Chancellor Wilson’s response to the ODCA report was the first and last I’ve heard or read about a DCPS Technology Roadmap or any funding requests for FY19.

I urge the Committee to inquire on the status of the Technology Roadmap, a timeline for engagement of school-based leaders, teachers, students, parents and members of the community and whether students and schools will have to wait yet another year before the overwhelming need for technology is addressed. At minimum, any DCPS Technology Roadmap should standardize how many devices are required per classroom/student in each grade; how many Smart Boards/projectors and other technology-based teaching implements are required and the frequency with which each should be refreshed. Those identified needs and requirements should be fulfilled by DCPS or individual school budgets provided enough resources to meet the requirements.

Prior to the start of SY2016-17, DCPS removed eighty (80) computers from Miner that were approximately a decade old. In return, central office provided thirty (30) laptops for teacher and staff use, but the devices were configured for students instead of staff, which made actual utilization by staff a headache. To mitigate the overwhelming need for additional computers, a staff member acquired a small number of used computers, yet significant needs remain. The 2017 ODCA report quotes a central office staffer noting, “Miner student technology is in desperate need of an upgrade.”

Current DCPS budget guidance on technology is for schools themselves use their budget to refresh one-fourth of technology, so that everything ends up getting refreshed every four years. However, budget allocations don’t provide anywhere near enough to refresh one-fourth of computers per year. To illustrate the bare minimum budget needs:
Twenty (20) general education classrooms times five (5) computers/class (average) x $500 per computer (cheapest student computer on menu from DCPS) = $50,000 x 1/4 = $12,500 per year from the school’s budget. This illustration does not include teacher computers, tablets, printers or projectors or any other technology, nor does it include special education classrooms, specials classrooms OR providing more than five computers per classroom.

For FY19, Miner’s proposed budget provided approximately $5,000 for “at-risk technology”. The budget guidance for at-risk technology states: To successfully compete in a global workforce, all students must be able to be comfortable with and capable of using basic technology. Technology in schools must also support instructional goals and support online assessments. In order to ensure all DCPS students have an equitable distribution of, and access to technology, DCPS is allocating additional funds for technology to schools with at least 25% students identified as at-risk for academic failure.
This is a really inspiring statement that comes nowhere near reality. At a November 2017 DCPS budget field hearing, I challenged Chancellor Wilson and his staff to perform their jobs on the technology utilized by Miner students and staff. Today, I pose the same challenge to members of this committee and the Council at large. I suspect living up to the at-risk technology statement detailed above and investing in technology would soon find its way to becoming a budget priority if my challenge was accepted.

Miner is a participating school in DCPS’ Restorative Justice (RJ) Initiative for both community building and as a response to student behavior. We have seen an overwhelming reduction of suspensions this year compared to last. For this initial year of RJ implementation at Miner, a handful of trained adults are using reactive circles in order to respond to occurrences of misbehavior; teachers are encouraged to conduct community building (proactive) circles; and one of our fifth grade teachers will soon begin hosting an optional morning PD for teachers on restorative justice practices. Over the course of the next two school years, Miner will fully develop the RJ program so long as budget resources are made available.

Unfortunately, Miner is not provided with adequate resources from DCPS to ensure RJ is comprehensively implemented schoolwide. Our administrative leaders have had to expend their limited time tracking down and applying for non-DCPS grant funds in hopes to achieve the full positive impacts of RJ. Additionally, the middle and high schools in our feeder pattern (Eliot Hine and Eastern) are not participating in the same manner as Miner in this highly-effective program due to the lack of funding. Successful implementation of RJ takes three to five years in order to fully develop the skill set among staff, teachers and students. It would be a significant step backwards for a student moving from an elementary school with RJ into a middle school or high school without RJ programs implemented. DCPS has a publicly stated goal of developing a three-year ongoing implementation and support plan to scale the program; I urge the committee to fully fund the RJ program and ensure the DCPS implementation plan will prioritize scaling within the same feeder pattern, rather than randomly increasing the number of schools participating each year.

Despite this being the first year I have taken the time to educate myself about our school system, I sincerely appreciate the years and years of hard work this committee and countless others have invested to make improvements for our students. Clearly there is more work to be done, more investment to be made and more accountability and oversight to happen. I look forward to working with the committee to ensure we are doing everything possible to set our children up for success.

Thank you again for the opportunity to be here today.

Published by Suzanne Wells

I work at EPA, and have a son and a daughter. I commute just about everywhere by bike. I like to volunteer in my community, and to knit.


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