Ahnna Smith
Ahnna Smith from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education helps participants with the selection process for the D.C. Public Schools chancellor during a community discussion at Savoy Elementary School in Southeast on Aug. 28. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)

A school leadership committee comprised of teachers, principals, parents and civic leaders will help D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser choose the next schools chancellor, but not without input gathered from parents and other residents at three community engagement forums throughout August and September.

For Allyson Brown, a 34-year-old mother of a DCPS student and participant in one recent forum, how much Bowser and the committee will actually consider residents’ viewpoints remains an area of concern. Two years ago, Brown attended a forum that took place before Antwan Wilson’s selection as chancellor, a process the Washington Teachers’ Union said lacked transparency.

“I can’t say that I have full faith that this will influence the choice for DCPS chancellor,” Brown, one of more than 40 community members who converged on Savoy Elementary School in Southeast late last month, said as she cradled her 4-month-old baby. “I just want every school to be excellent.”

Throughout much of the meeting, Brown spoke to women at her table about what she described as the lack of school equity. later telling The Informer that the school lottery wouldn’t suffice for parents who want high-quality schools in their neighborhood.

“We need investment in every single school and I want someone who will fight for DCPS,” Brown said. “How much will [this forum] move the mayor to pick a staunch advocate for neighborhood schools, as opposed to someone who thinks we need to offer a better product?”

The Aug. 28 meeting in Savoy’s spacious gymnasium followed a similar gathering at Cardozo Education Campus in Northwest two weeks earlier. Community members will weigh in again Sept. 11 at Brookland Middle School in Northeast. The Executive Office of the Mayor will compile and share the findings from the three forums, which Bowser said would inform the chancellor decision.

In late June, she announced the start of the chancellor selection process, naming Charlene Drew Jarvis, University of the District of Columbia trustee board member and former Ward 4 council member, and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of American University in Northwest, as search committee co-chairs.

Committee members include a high school principal, four parents, one student and Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, among other partners. The group receives support from the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments.

The most recent 90-minute forum included an icebreaker, introductory remarks from Ahnna Smith, interim deputy mayor for education, and a period during which participants, broken into small groups at more than a dozen tables, conversed with forum organizers and recapped points discussed.

“We’ve seen continued and sustained improvements but it’s not enough. The chancellor is driving the mission, from operation [of the schools] to the pedagogical direction,” Smith, key facilitator of the Tuesday evening activities, told residents before they broke into groups for the discussion portion of the forum.

“We’re looking for all of the skills that are needed for a chancellor to be successful,” she added. “We also want transparency, accountability and focus on equity. I want to make sure we’re thinking about what this individual is doing, and that we’re focused on this job.”

Among the forum participants and even DCPS students in attendance, the priorities of chancellor counted as a major topic of discussion.

Robert Blandford, 71, a lifelong D.C. resident and DCPS grandparent of two, stressed the need for strong leadership and brutal honesty about the collective academic progress of DCPS students, particularly those who are Black. He spent much of the evening imparting his knowledge of education policy and D.C. history.

“The PARCC scores aren’t going anywhere — D.C. spins and plays with figures and we’re still at the bottom,” said Blandford, 71, highlighting an erosion of public trust that discourages civic engagement. “The community doesn’t come to the meetings because it’s a done deal [and] the officials choose outsiders. We don’t vet people; the way they try to run the school system here is incorrect. There have been opportunities where people could have really looked at the problem in D.C., and admit they didn’t know what they’re doing.”

DaSean Jackson, an Anacostia High School alumnus and father of two DCPS students, attended on behalf of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, an organization founded in 2016 that centers parents and children’s voices in the shaping of education policy. The 45-year-old Ward 7 resident said his children’s education should be on par with other school systems.

“My concerns are that my children are treated fairly and get a good education,” he said. “They’re close to getting that and as long as I’m active, we’ll get closer.”

Jackson stressed that the future chancellor and other DCPS administrators should have a strong familiarity with the communities they touch.

“I was brought up in DCPS; to see it then and the facelift that the schools are having [now] doesn’t satisfy me at all,” he said. “We need to make sure that teachers are qualified to work with the student demographics and are well versed in the neighborhoods.”

The next chancellor will oversee more than 100 public elementary and secondary schools, some of which have seen stagnant or dwindling enrollment numbers amid the charter school boom and D.C. school lottery.

In recent years, DCPS launched an all-expenses-paid study abroad program, and 13 schools in the system started an extended school year. Last month, on the first official day of school, Bowser and others celebrated the reopening of Excel Academy for Girls as DCPS’ first all-girls school.

Tatiana Robinson, 16, a Ballou Senior High School student who watched the ongoing discussions about the chancellor selection and DCPS’ five-year strategic plan unfolding at Savoy, said the next DCPS leader must commit to student excellence, above all else.

“The goal should be to focus on the children and what’s at stake because me and my siblings, will be affected,” said Tatiana, senior class president at her school and student representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.

Regarding the increasing enrichment opportunities for D.C. public school students, Tatiana expressed a desire for more direct communication from the DCPS central office about its offerings.

“There should be equity east of the Anacostia River [because] a lot of resources are uptown,” she said. “There are a lot of opportunities that go unrecognized. Maybe some students aren’t listening or there should be more advertising.”

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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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