In the days leading up to and following D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee’s announcement about the most recent gains on the PARCC assessment, some teachers and administrators east of the Anacostia River mulled over their instructional strategies and how best to address the circumstances that hinder student achievement.

In some Ward 7 and 8 schools, conversations have focused on homelessness and the connection between student absenteeism and low PARCC growth.

A Southeast middle school teacher who requested anonymity said he and his colleagues went above and beyond to address attendance concerns, often at the cost of the limited time they had to teach important material.

“I had the most improved math data out of all the grades but that’s because of the work I had to do, like walking students to the bus stop, holding after-school tutorials for students who missed, and contacting parents regarding attendance,” the middle school teacher said.

During professional development this summer, he and other teachers discussed possible changes to the math curriculum and instruction, and barriers teachers face.

“I still don’t have my students” where he would like them to be academically, he said. “All my students made growth, but the ones with attendance concerns made small growth. Even though my students didn’t go backwards, they could have done better.”

In August 2018, OSSE counted more than 5,000 homeless children enrolled in a District school. Since then, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the District has increased by 5.5 percent while percentages for families dropped by 10 percentage points. However, not even housing assistance could prevent a cumbersome school commute, as staff members at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project found out in a survey completed by homeless families living in the Holiday Inn and Quality Inn along New York Avenue.

More than likely, children from those families counted among the thousands of young people who took PARCC, also known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, toward the end of the most recent academic year.

PARCC measures students’ preparedness for college and career opportunities on a five-point scale, with four out of five points demonstrating college readiness. To the chagrin of parents and teachers, less than a third of D.C. students received that designation on the math and English portions of PARCC. In Wards 7 and 8, That happened to be the case for less than 25 percent.

While the proportion of all District students meeting academic standards in English and math rose by 4.9 and 1.9 percentage points respectively, as Bowser and Ferebee announced, young people enrolled in Ward 8 schools experienced slightly lower growth of 3.2 and 1.6 percentage points. In Ward 7 schools, progress on the math portion of the PARCC dropped by less than a percentage point.

Calculating Chronic Absenteeism

At least 89 percent of students in any grade level in the D.C. public and public charter school systems made it to school during PARCC testing. However, some schools fought harder than others for their students to consistently attend class in the months leading up to the big test.

Data from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) showed that 39 out of nearly 120 D.C. public schools had a chronic absentee rate higher than the citywide average of 21 percent as of October. Sixteen schools, seven of which serve Ward 7 and 8 students, had chronic absence rates of more than 50 percent.

About that time, charter school leaders testified before the D.C. Council about chronic absenteeism, telling them that daunting, time-consuming trips across the city complicate parents’ efforts to get their children to school on time. These issues persisted late into the school year, affecting east-of-the-river public and public charter school students. By April, the District’s overall year-to-date chronic absentee rate rose to 26 percent. More than 45 schools, including Eastern Senior High School in Northeast, and Kramer Middle School and Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast, had rates surpassing that.

Moving Forward with Solutions

Bowser’s fiscal year 2020 budget included $20 million to help homeless families transition to permanent housing. DCPS’ central office has also attempted to address the lack of housing and supports through its Connected Schools model that creates resource hubs within schools for students and families. With the launch of a CarpooltoSchool app, families will also be able to coordinate different modes of travel to and from school.

On Aug. 26, a week after the release of PARCC results, Mayor Bowser and Chancellor Ferebee welcomed more than 49,000 DCPS students back to their academic dwellings, some of which had undergone modernization. The first day of school also marked the launch of Bard High School Early College DC in Southeast, Coolidge High School’s early college academy, and Ida B. Wells Middle School in Northwest.

For Ferebee, these improvements aligned with a commitment to expand opportunity and provide students and families in D.C. with proximate, quality educational options.

In regard to the most recent PARCC scores, the chancellor noted the need for improvements. While he didn’t provide a desired benchmark, he acknowledged that many teachers shared a similar sentiment.

“We have more work to do and you can feel that in the schools. Staff is working really hard with the end in mind: students are prepared for college and career,” Ferebee told The Informer. “We want to continue to put those opportunities in front of students and continue to build progress and identify different strategies.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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