Parents, stakeholders still feel distrust in DCPS as search for chancellor and DME continues at town hall

Photo courtesy of Amanda Menas.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Menas.

By: Amanda Menas

Stakeholders met at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus on Monday evening to discuss the qualities and focus for the new Chancellor for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME). 

After a brief introduction by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who hosted the event, as well as remarks from David Grosso, Chairman of the Committee on Education, and the current State Board of Education Member for Ward 1 Laura Wilson Phelan, a spirited conversation ensued. It was fueled by the lack of trust parents and administrators feel toward the DCPS.

Grosso referred to the town halls, as well as the announcement that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will be an independent body similar to the Inspector General’s office, as “D.C. School Reform 2.0.”

As the district still feels the impacts of recent scandals in DCPS, from student attendance to graduation accountability, Councilmember Nadeau said, “We’ve come such a long way. Where we are right now is rebuilding trust between the government and families.”

Feedback from parents, teachers, ANC commissioners, and others in attendance was similar to comments delivered in a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser in June by a coalition of education advocates, including the NAACP DC and the Washington Teacher’s Union.

Furthermore, the letter focused on a major shift in culture and mid-course corrections for DCPS. Grosso said he had expressed dissatisfactions with the lack of changes made to the search process for both positions. “There are lessons to be learned from the previous time,” Grosso said.

Moving forward, with all in attendance agreeing the roles will provide direction for the future of education in the District, Phelan evoked a sense of community and inclusivity.

“Hopefully you are connected enough with your neighbors and your colleagues that you can think about what is best for the broader community, not just your kids,” said Phelan.

As the event took place at 6:30 p.m. on a school night, the accessibility to the event early in the school year, where parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights are frequent, was acknowledged to be limited.

Councilmember Nadeau admitted the small body eventually choosing individuals for the two positions was not entirely representative of the public. But it was important for the voices of Ward 1 constituents and parents to be heard.

Alex Simbana, a parent of a Ward 1 student, emphasized parent engagement and stabilizing the system as major steps the DME should bring to the table in the first year.

The round table she took part in discussed the lack of equity between public and charter schools leading to increased economic and racial segregation. It also discussed the need for stronger school communities.

“We need a centralized plan of bringing people back to DCPS,” said Simbana. Her group also highlighted the idea that funding should follow a student from school to school, as many children change schools after the official count day.

Other round tables, which involved all three candidates running for the State Board of Education for Ward 1, focused on transparency and ability to admit mistakes and make changes.

Those are essential qualities for the DCPS Chancellor. Mental health and trauma, socio-emotional learning, and culturally responsive approaches to the system were also pointed to as improvement areas for both individuals to be aware of upon taking office.

With the intersectionality of the education sphere impacting many aspects of life, and many constituents throughout the city, conversations ranged from school modernization to the TANF program, to transportation, volunteerism, and infrastructure.

The official start of the search is planned by the end of the calendar year, with individual signatories and coalition members hoping to meet with Mayor Bowser prior to that time. Once individuals are nominated, a minimum of three hearings will be held for community input.

Early Tuesday morning, the State Board of Education submitted their own letter to Mayor Bowser. The letter lists additional qualities for the new chancellor.

They aligned their needs with the Our School Leadership Committee. The added characteristics included insightfulness and proactivity, commitment to sharing data with the public and incorporating public input, innovativeness, championship of DCPS, and the rebuilding of trust.