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DC Schools Progress: Leaders Share Challenges and Plans

Big city school leaders are placing a premium on equity to ensure all students in their districts have a chance to succeed.

A recent discussion at the Council of  the Great City Schools’ (CGCS) fall conference among school leaders from some of the biggest districts with some of the largest academic challenges clearly outlined this emphasis.

For more on equity, read In their own words: Big city school leaders on making equity a reality in schools

At the forefront of this approach is the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) in Washington, DC.

Despite an outdated reputation of poor student performance and inferior school quality, DCPS has made steady progress during the past decade. As Carolyn Phenicie reports in The 74, DC is the fastest improving urban district in student test scores, and its graduation rate increased by 16 percent in the past five years.

But the city’s schools still face a persistent achievement gap.

In September, the district released its five-year strategic plan. As DC schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who took over district leadership in February, tells The 74, shrinking the achievement gap is priority No. 1:

“What we know is that if we can triple the percentage of those students who are college- and career-ready within the next five years, that would be tremendous progress and would begin to close the achievement gap that has persisted for decades across the country.”

So, how does DC plan to boost achievement? The district’s strategic plan for 2017–2022 outlines five priorities:

1. Promote equity

DCPS aims to “define, understand, and promote equity so that we eliminate opportunity gaps and systematically interrupt institutional bias.” That means focusing on students of color and creating programs that support their success. It also means rethinking budgets to ensure all students get the resources they need.

2. Empower staff and faculty

Public schools are only as good as their employees. That’s why DCPS hopes to “recruit, develop, and retain a talented, caring, and diverse team.” That starts with improving the district’s process for recruiting and hiring new teachers—especially male teachers of color, a population sorely lacking in many of the country’s schools. It also means developing effective school leaders.

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3. Boost school quality and enrollment

By focusing on new multilingual and magnet programs, DCPS hopes to improve its schools through increased diversity and innovation. The district is also emphasizing student retention as more families of middle school students are choosing private charter schools over DC’s public schools, as The Washington Post reports.

As Wilson tells The 74:

“We believe it really comes down to having really welcoming, safe environments where we have talented teachers who love kids and express that. Where we have rigorous academic opportunities both in terms of your core academic programs but also really strong co-curricular and extracurricular activities, with an expectation as students that you will participate in those.”

4. Take a whole child approach to learning

DCPS’ strategy for ensuring more students are college and career ready includes expanding middle school classes and extracurricular activities, as well as college and career prep courses. It also means emphasizing social-emotional learning throughout a student’s education. And, it means starting off students on the right foot by improving early literacy.

5. Engage the community

Wilson and his team know firsthand that student success can only happen with the support of family and community members. That’s why the new strategic plan aims to improve communication and “involve families and the community in children’s learning, including through home visits.”

For more on DC’s strategic plan, check out the video summary below:

How is your school or district tackling the achievement gap? Does your strategic plan include equity as a goal or strategy? Tell us in the comments.