Kojo sits down with Gary Cohen, recipient of the 2015 MacArthur "genius" grant, to find out more about his work promoting environmentally sustainable practices in hospitals and healthcare settings worldwide.
Few neighborhoods are as emblematic of D.C.’s evolution as Columbia Heights — a place that’s greeted waves of new residents and a tectonic demographic shift in the past two decades. But the long term arc of these changes may well hinge on the future of the District’s network of schools. We measure where schools fit into the future of D.C.’s rapidly changing neighborhoods.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., WAMU 88.5 welcomes you to "Kojo In Your Community," connecting this neighborhood with the world. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Change is a loaded word in a place like Columbia Heights. During the past 20 years here, it's meant waves of new neighbors, more expensive homes and new metro stop and a super size shopping complex.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut one thing change has not meant so far is a network of schools capable of keeping both old and new residents happy. Some neighborhoods boast schools that are the envy of the city, vibrant communities that enrich urban life for everyone around them, while parents in other places fight tooth and nail to send their kids out of boundary or to a rising crop of charter schools. The arc and the pace of all the activities sweeping through Columbia Heights today just may end up turning on the changes that either come or don't come to the city's education system.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo tonight we ask whether you're a parent of school-aged children or not, how would you say the future of your neighborhood is tied to the future of its schools? And joining us to help facilitate this conversation is Abigail Smith, who is an independent education consultant. She's parent member of the board of E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District. She is also the former director of the Office of Transformation Management at D.C. Public Schools. Abigail Smith, thank you for joining us.
MS. ABIGAIL SMITHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDISam Chaltain is an education activist and author who's writing a book about school choice in Washington, D.C. He's also the father of a school-aged daughter. Sam Chaltain, thank you for joining us.
MR. SAM CHALTAINThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII said school aged and the last time I looked you were trying to find a school for your daughter. Have you succeeded?
CHALTAINIt's my son and yes.
NNAMDIIt's your son. And yes, where?
CHALTAINAt LAMB Latin American Montessori Bilingual, but we're working on trying to get him to stop bringing his stuffed bear to school.
NNAMDIWell, good for you. Tonija Hope Navas is the president of the Parent Teacher Association at Bancroft Elementary School, which is part of the D.C. public school system. Tonija Hope Navas, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. TONIJA HOPE NAVASThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'll ask the question that I guess I'd like each of you to answer. Where do schools fit into your decision to live here or whether you plan on staying here? I'll start with you first, Tonija.
NAVASWell, my story's a little bit complicated. We already lived in Columbia Heights when my first child was born. And the main thing that I was looking for was a bilingual program so that didn't leave many options open. There's -- and I wanted her to start when she was three. So that means I was looking for a pre K three bilingual program, which is like four schools. So LAMB was one, D.C. Bilingual and Bancroft. And I was like 67 on the wait list at D.C. Bilingual, I was like 300 at LAMB and I didn't -- and I was a little higher on Bancroft and I was pretty sure she wasn't going to get in anywhere.
NAVASBut in the middle of the summer, I got the call that she had gotten into Bancroft and that's where she was going to go and that's where she's been for -- this is her fourth year now and we're very happy. So...
NNAMDISam Chaltain, same question to you.
CHALTAINI think this is a factor that's both changing and staying the same in the minds of parents. My wife and I chose to buy a house in Columbia Heights before we had started a family, but I also knew that increasingly in just about every major American city, and certainly in D.C., your zip code is no longer your destiny. And so where our son went to school would include a range of options that included both DCPS and charters.
CHALTAINBut it's also staying the same because as, you know, Kojo, that Mayor Gray commissioned report that looked at the state of school choice in D.C. showed that despite the fact that we have a more robust market for choice more so than any city other than New Orleans, and I think you can figure out why New Orleans is first, the majority of families still send their kid -- two-thirds of D.C. families still send their kid to a school that's within walking distance.
CHALTAINAnd I think that's telling and I think that's significant which is both that we are moving into this brave new world where folks can choose schools from all over the city. And clearly it's still very important for families to find a school close to home, and I think for an obvious set of reasons that we should continue to honor and protect.
NNAMDIWell, Abigail Smith, as former director of the Office of Transformation Management at D.C. Public Schools you've seen the forest. Why choose this tree, Columbia Heights?
SMITHWell, listening to people talking about why they love Columbia Heights and live in Columbia Heights during this last part of our conversation, much of what people said resonated for me personally. My husband and I moved to Columbia Heights when I was pregnant with our first child a little over 11 years ago and wanted to be in this community because of its diversity, because it's a vibrant community that we thought would be a wonderful place to raise kids understanding that they live in a world with all different kinds of people.
SMITHThe biggest challenge, even at that point when I was still -- only had a child inside and not actually a real one outside, we were concerned about the schools.
NNAMDII've never heard it described like that before.
SMITHSo even before he emerged, we were concerned about the schools, and that was the one really big challenge that we worried about a lot. And we have gone through, both in my professional life and in my personal life, I've done all kinds of lotteries through the D.C. public schools. Actually my child started a D.C. public school out of boundary. We moved to a charter school after working three years in lotteries to get into E. L. Haynes, which is where both of my children now are.
SMITHAnd it really is challenging. It is the most important thing for parents that your kids are in a school that you feel is safe and is going to nurture them and challenge them and is going to reflect the kinds of values that you want in raising your own children. And when you have to literally play the lottery to do that it's really hard.
NNAMDIWhat can charter schools offer in your case, Abigail, that your neighborhood school couldn't?
SMITHAt the time that we were first looking for our oldest son, the neighborhood school that we were zoned to was a school that was incredibly low performing and incredibly under enrolled. It actually has since closed. But we really knew that it was not a place that we felt was going to be easy to really grow and excel. Which is not to say that it wouldn't be possible but we were looking for places that we felt were going to feel more joyful and more challenging for kids.
SMITHAnd for us that meant looking in DCPS and it meant looking in charters. It meant looking at all of our options and seeing whether there was a place that could be a good fit for us as a family for our child. And again, one of the values in our family that was really high on the list is diversity. And that's why we choose to live in Columbia Heights and that's why we in many ways were really attracted to E. L. Haynes as a school, which is a phenomenally diverse school.
NNAMDIIf there are any of you in the audience here who have children of school age, please raise your hand. I'd like to come to you at some point to ask you exactly what living in Columbia Heights means to you in terms of your school-aged child. Tonija Hope Navas, why did you choose a public school?
NAVASWell, like I said, the most important thing for me was having a bilingual program, and not just like a program within a school but I wanted the whole school to embrace a bilingual approach. I actually had to do the lottery to get into Bancroft. We don't live in the Bancroft neighborhood so we used to live in Columbia Heights and that's in Mount Pleasant. Harriet Tubman was our -- actually no, Bruce Monroe was our neighborhood school. And I just really wanted a bilingual program.
NAVASAnd I looked at charter schools and I looked at Bancroft and Bancroft was really the one that just -- it was the only one we got into frankly. And after having been there and spent time there and, you know, once I commit myself to something I like to stick with it. And that's why I joined the PTA so that I could -- if it wasn't what it -- what I wanted it to be I can help it get to what I want it to be by being involved. So...
NNAMDIWell, you know, the more things change the more they stay the same. In the 1970s when my own twin sons had finished their Montessori preschool which was bilingual I wanted to get them into a bilingual elementary school. And there was none in our neighborhood and they ended up initially going to Marie Reed on 18th Street NW. And after camping out for what seemed like several months on the front steps of Oyster and the principal's house and everyplace else I could think of, they eventually got into Oyster.
NNAMDIOf course, Abigail Smith, there was no charter school system in place at that point so you just kinda had to hang around until you could do it in the public schools. But you, sir, had something to say. You are a parent of a D.C. child, John Chambers.
JOHN CHAMBERSYes. I have a soon-to-be two-year-old this month and so I've got a year. She's home with me now. But I've talked to parents as they come to BloomBars and their kids come of age and they're all going through these same dilemmas, public school, charter school, send them out and move out of the district. And to me -- I mean, I guess I think she's coming of age at a great time where there are some great options where you have all these bilingual schools. I know it's going to be difficult by any means. I don't think it's going to be easy, but (word?) and Creative Minds has just opened.
JOHN CHAMBERSI just had a parent come in and tell me how wonderful Tubman is and how great the principal is at Tubman. So there's a lot of options. I'm still nervous about the lottery system but I think in terms of our values and where we'd like to have our daughter, diversity and just a quality education, engaged parents and not so much focus on test scores.
NNAMDIMention BloomBars. He is the executive director of BloomBars, which is a nonprofit here in the Columbia Heights area. But his daughter, two years old. Have you started actually making applications yet?
CHAMBERSWell, the way the charter school situation works that you can't get on the list until March. So it'd be -- we don't have to worry about that until I think March but, yes, we're researching all the schools and all of our options. And hopefully in our neighborhood that's where that would be the ideal situation.
NNAMDIYou keep saying we don't have to worry about that. Should he be worrying, Abigail?
SMITHSo here's what I say to parents, and I have these conversations all the time with parents of -- I mean, you know, your child's two. I have conversations with parents of six-month-olds where I say...
NNAMDIThat's what I was thinking.
SMITH...you know, let's worry about the child walking first before we move on to the school thing. I think that the most important thing for parents who are in this situation is to assess your own level of tolerance with uncertainty. And if you are someone who is going to just make yourself crazy because you don't know exactly what is going to happen and when it's going to happen then you should probably figure out how to move to a school zone that you feel comfortable sending your kid to the school they're assigned.
SMITHBut if you are willing to live with a little uncertainty there are, as you just said, a lot of options. And one of the things that's so interesting Sam pointed out that most families in D.C. do send their children to school relatively closer to their home, and that's true. But another interesting statistic is among public school students -- and I'll remind you, Kojo, that charter schools are public schools...
NNAMDIThis is true.
SMITH...that about 70 percent of public school students are in some way choosing their schools. So for a bunch of them it's because they're applying at charters and they're going through lotteries. But in other cases it's because they're going through the D.C.P.S. out-of-boundary lottery or at schools that aren't over enrolled or oversubscribed or just walking into a school that's relatively near their home but not the one they're zoned to because they feel like it's a better match.
SMITHSo there's an immense amount of choosing going on and there are a lot of options. And the options are changing quickly and developing. So if you can handle a little uncertainty hang in there and you'll find a good spot.
NNAMDIWe have a member of the audience here, Cassandra, your turn.
CASSANDRAI don't want to put a damper on your experiences or yet to happen, John, but I felt like when we -- two years ago we did the lottery and I felt like in the beginning I was very optimistic. I had a lot of options. I ended up having a giant spreadsheet keeping track of all the deadlines for applications. And we've applied at 13 schools and then once we started seeing that we were 100, 300, 200, a million on the waitlist I really felt like our options were dwindling. I mean, at a certain point you just kind of hope your kids gets into any school. You don't even care what school it is.
CASSANDRABut what was important for me was that the school community reflected the values that we hold as a family. And that meant that would -- the adults that I see, the parents that I see of these children, is the kind of adult that I would want my son to be. You know, there are a lot of schools in D.C. that the parents are worried about whether or not their kids are going to go to Harvard or Yale because they go to this preschool program. And I didn't want my son to be in such a competitive environment.
CASSANDRAAnd we're very, very lucky, just dumb luck here. We got into Bancroft and just were thrilled with the emerging program there. We're thrilled with the community of people that are there. We're thrilled with the PTA president and we're just so, so fortunate. It's close enough that we can walk, but it's -- we did the out-of-bound lottery so...
NNAMDIWell, Cassandra, you describe getting into Bancroft as dumb luck. It seems to me that given what you described in terms of how hard you prepared, it looks as if you're saying the harder you work the luckier you got seems to apply in this situation. So congratulations for being able to accomplish that. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Kojo in Your Community conversation about schools from All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're at All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a place that has been ground zero of the demographic and economic changes that have swept through the District in the past two decades. We're talking about how those changes are affecting education. And one of the panelists helping us to facilitate this conversation is Sam Chaltain. Sam, you wanted to say...
CHALTAINYeah, I was just going back to the issue of choice. When I think about the issue of school choice in D.C. and across the country, to me the biggest challenge/opportunity is to figure out how to ensure that every parent is as thoughtful and as well prepared as Cassandra. Because one of the things that I see in education reform in general -- you know, the great short story writer Ray Carver has a book called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." And it's a series of short stories about, you know, kind of odd characters who are struggling to say the things that they really feel, so they talk about the weather.
CHALTAINAnd what I would say is there's a parallel to education reform and it's what we talk about when we talk about ed. reform. And although it's starting to change, to this point that's been test scores which is a valuable and overvalued way of assessing the overall health of a school. So what to me needs to happen as a community is figuring out how to help parents decide which things are most important for a community.
CHALTAINAs Cassandra said, we're really important about -- diversity was important, bilingual program, the values that the school held. And to me it's that type of clarify that we as a community need to think about ensuring that all people bring to the rather chaotic process and perilous process of finding a school for your youngest son or daughter.
NNAMDIThank you very much. We have -- yes, young lady.
DIANAHi, my name's Diana. I'm actually not from Washington, D.C. I'm a perspective future teacher here at Washington, D.C. So my question -- I actually Tweeted it, but 140 characters is not enough for my question so my comment is so much -- I understand you guys have a lot of concerns regarding schooling and how to place your children. But what about the actual new and up and rising teachers that actually want to make a change in public schools?
DIANAFor example, I'm interning in a couple schools here and I see that there's more hands-on opportunity here in D.C. to work with children and to be able to give them that one-on-one attention. How do you feel about attracting teachers to actually forget about what has happened with the public school system and see that they can help change that?
NNAMDIYou couldn't say that in 140 characters or less?
NNAMDIAbigail Smith, care to respond to that?
SMITHSo I think it's a great question and I actually think that D.C. is a magnet for teacher talent. I think that the robust choice in charter environment that we have and frankly all of the energy that's been going on with D.C. Public Schools -- and I know that some of that has felt like negative energy to some people and some of it positive energy, but we can all agree that there's been a lot of attention on what's happening in D.C. Public Schools as well as in the charter sector.
SMITHAnd I think that's an incredible opportunity for teachers to come and be able to exercise their creativity and talent. And to do it in an area that really is thinking in very forward ways about all different kinds of ways of thinking about education. So I think it's a great place for teachers to come.
NNAMDIYou next, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1Actually I moved here when I was 19 years old and I had my son when I was...
1No. I'm upwards closer to 50 now, but my son is a senior at Capitol City Public Charter School. And it's actually one of the partner schools I believe at E. L. Haynes. It's an expeditionary school. And I grew up in the military. I lived all over the world. I lived probably in every state. I think my parents moved every three months and I went to every type of school in every type of condition. And my parents had this wonderful philosophy that we will thrive no matter what. Education will find us. We'll have an experience no matter what's happening.
1And that's sort of the attitude I took when I put my son in school here in Washington, D.C. And of course, I was disappointed of not having, you know, a lottery spot. He did apply on lists for many different schools and didn't get in. But I was very lucky for him to get, I think it was the last spot at our charter school. It started above the CVS on 14th and Irving and we were a founding parent.
1We did take a little bit of a break. I home schooled him for about seven years and I did that because we're a little bit fanatical in our family about history and arts. And there was a wonderful arts organization in the neighborhood, the Sitar Arts Center and my son would home school with me for three hours in the morning and then he'd go four or five hours in the afternoon at this community art center that had partnerships with everybody in the city and they're just wonderful.
1But my son, you know, he wanted to go back to high school. And the year he went back they decided -- and they said they would never do this but they actually wanted to go beyond the elementary school years and actually found a high school. The problem is in Columbia Heights is at the time they wanted to find their high school there was no space left. But there was a great need with the students that had moved up through the years that they wanted to continue on with their Capitol City education and the expeditionary learning that they had and actually be a part of that same type of high school.
1And he was one of the founding members of the high school for Capitol City and he was there, I guess it's three -- maybe four years, four years. He started in 8th grade and they actually could not find a building in this neighborhood. I think they're in the neighborhood that's sort of east of Fort Totten, I think it's Manor neighborhood?
NNAMDII'm not sure.
1I'm not sure. I'm just getting used to it. He used to be like a block from his school and now he has to do a two-hour commute to get over to his high school. But it has some of the most amazing teachers. And, you know, they're very hard working and very meaningful. I do have to say anybody who wants to teach for D.C. school systems, there's such great opportunity. And the teachers work so hard and we have some of the best teachers, I believe, in the country frankly. We do get that talent pool and I do think there's a place for everyone to teach here. And actually that's what my son wants to do is go to college and come back and teach.
NNAMDIIn another conversation with you, you mentioned the difficulty of continuing to live in Columbia Heights and your fear that you may have to move. To what extent did your choice of living in Columbia Heights have to do with your child and your child's education?
1Well, they just -- coincidentally they actually happened at the exact same time. They were completely unrelated but then they became very related. We were living on Capitol Hill at the time, a block from Eastern Market. We had amazing crazy rent. It was so low, I can't even tell you and it went from about $600 a month up to 2,000 because we were living on a month-to-month and we hadn't renewed our lease.
1So we were looking for a neighborhood to move to and we thought, okay well, we're making this huge commute to go over to this charter school why don't we look into Columbia Heights. It's very diverse and, again being a military brat, this seemed to be the best neighborhood that had that sort of same flavor of living all over the world. But we are at the point now where we are having trouble living in Columbia Heights. And my son is turning 18 in two weeks. He wants to live in Columbia Heights, if not Washington D.C. I know that we can't afford to live here. I don't know how he's ever going to live here unless it's like with 20 people.
NNAMDIWhen he comes back and teaches, he wants to teach in Columbia Heights?
1He wants to teach -- yeah, I could see him teaching in Columbia Heights if not, you know -- I mean, it wouldn't matter which neighborhood. He is very invested in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIHe just wants to be in the city.
1He really just wants to stay in D.C. and he's getting kind of sad as his parents are that, you know, he may not be able to live here. He may not be able to afford to live here.
NNAMDIWell, he seems to be doing a great deal and he seems to be doing it all very well, the kind of son that made me look back in high school. But you talked about diversity and I'm just wondering, starting with you, Tonija Hope Navas, how important is it to you that the school your child attends has a diverse population?
NAVASIt's incredibly important to me. That's the other reason that I love Bancroft. I actually have two children at Bancroft and I marvel all the time at who my daughter's friends are. You know, she's got -- her best friend's Vietnamese. She's got Native American, Italian, French. I mean, it's beautiful. And she is absorbing all of that and it's incredibly valuable to me.
NNAMDIHow about you, Sam Chaltain?
CHALTAINI think it's hugely important and I think it relates to another key issue that we have to think about as a community when we talk about choice. And you just heard in the comment the energy, the galvanizing power that choice can bring to not only kids and teachers but a whole community. There's something very powerful about being able to opt in to something. And at the same time we make a mistake when we stop there and assume that choice in and of itself is a panacea.
CHALTAINAnd so what often ends up happening is we get competing conversations of my school's better than your school, whether it's a charter or a public school. And to me the idea of what we need is intelligent choice, which is why I refer to Cassandra's comment. And so -- and also people talk about the idea that in a place like D.C. the market will take care of itself and people will vote with the law of two feet and we'll have winners and losers.
CHALTAINThe problem is unlike with say our restaurant culture in D.C. we can have no winners and losers in D.C. And actually the best way that we can honor our shared commitment to diversity in the District is to think much more explicitly and proactively about the ways in which regular neighborhood schools and public charter schools can work together, if not fully in a spirit of cooperation than also not fully in a spirit of competition, coopetition, corroboration. I'm not sure exactly, but it has to be a more explicit step to think about how to create a rising tide that lifts all boats.
NNAMDIAbigail Smith, how important is diversity to you in terms of where your child goes to school?
SMITHIt's incredibly important. And again, you know, I'd say that my husband and I put it pretty high on our list. Now were things like school safety more important? Sure. We need to ensure that our kids are in an environment that feels safe and positive and nurturing and where they're going to be challenged and have exposure to lots of things. But diversity was really, really high on our list and it's something that we have seen at E. L. Haynes.
SMITHOne of the things that's really rare in the city is not only racial diversity, of which there's an immense amount at that school, but also socioeconomic diversity. There're very few schools that have that level of socioeconomic diversity. And that's also something that's been really important to us. I do just...
SMITHI want to make one comment about what Sam had said around the collaboration between charter schools and D.C. Public Schools. I think that it's really important and I do think we're seeing it in some pockets and it's bearing fruit. So having that kind of interaction among our different public school streams is something that's really going to benefit our community.
NNAMDIWhy do you feel that socioeconomic diversity is so important?
SMITHI think that in a city like D.C. it can be easy to be in a little pocket and think, oh I understand the world because there're people who look different from me who are -- I'm interacting with. And that's a good thing. But I think your understanding of the world when that's limited to racial diversity and doesn't include socioeconomic diversity, I think your understanding of the world is very, very limited.
SMITHAnd all of our discussion around, you know, the 1 percent and all of the discussions happening in the presidential election, a lot of that has to do with people who have no clue what it is to be a different socioeconomic status than your own.
NNAMDIYou, sir, Eric?
ERICHello. My -- I have three kids and they go from preschool age to first grade. And they've been in four schools during that time, two different charter schools, two different D.C.P.S. schools. They're now altogether in the same D.C.P.S. school, which is great. It's just a couple blocks away. On our block we have other families and everyone on the block goes to a different school. So we all wave hello and goodbye to them as we walk out the door every day.
ERICAnd recently my eldest said to me, are we changing schools? And I said, well not that I know of, although my wife and I think every year, do we want to potentially look at another school. And he said, well his friends who go to other schools are telling him that we are applying to various charter schools for next year. And they're looking forward to meeting up with their friends at the other school. So it's interesting.
NNAMDIInteresting. Do you also think of it as a significant challenge? Do you think A. that kids who live in the same neighborhood ought to be able to go to the same school or B. that kids who have grown used to one another in the same school need to continue going to the same school?
ERICI would love for all of my friends and neighbors to be together in the same school like I did 30 years ago, 40 years ago when I was growing up. But I also think that school choice has been good for the city overall. It's helping to retain a lot of families here. So I'm of mixed emotions to that.
NNAMDIWell, if you don't have children but plan to, do you expect to stay in Washington, D.C. once you have kids or could the choice of schools here, or maybe lack thereof, make a different for you? Yes, ma'am.
MARY BETH TINKERYes. I'd like to speak. I'm a nurse and I go into the schools quite a bit because I work with teenagers and children. And there's been talk about all the options. And it sounds pretty rosy even, you know, comments about how we're thinking in forward ways and we're grasping the robust charter movement, etcetera, etcetera. But I'm thinking also of what Sam said about being realistic.
MARY BETH TINKERAnd, you know, the socioeconomic issue and the issue of democracy, which is also important to me as well as to Sam Chaltain -- he's written about that issue with schools and democracy. Our schools in D.C. are not democratic as far as the input of community or the students or the parents, as I see it. Especially -- there's a study I know a lot of you involved with schools have heard, about the Walton Family Foundation funded study called the IFF Study. And through that study, which is a company in Illinois that deals a lot with charter school of real estate, they have recommended that 37 schools in D.C. either be closed or turned around.
MARY BETH TINKERAnd those announcements are being made right now by Kye (sp?) Henderson and our mayor. And a number of -- mostly they follow the socioeconomic map of D.C. In other words where there are low income and children of color, schools are recommended to be turned around and/or closed. The parents have no say about these IFF Studies. It's totally based on test score, as Sam said. Every decision of every 37 school is based strictly solely on test scores. And who do you think gets high test scores? Could it be upper income children?
MARY BETH TINKERAnd, yes, let's talk about race. It is mostly white kids. I mean, it's -- you know, so this is very transparent. It's funded by the Walton Family Foundation. They've come into our city. They're also opening six Walmarts, determined which 37 schools should be either "closed or turned around." It's called an IFF study. People running for counsel and mayor right now aren't talking about it as much as they should be. They just say, we're for education. Of course, we want education.
MARY BETH TINKERWell, actually there's a lot of issues and which side are you on? I mean, it's so -- I'm just saying, I just want to not smooth everything over. There are a lot of issues.
NNAMDIWell, no, you've said -- you've said a great deal and there are indeed a lot of issues. But, Sam Chaltain, from the point of view of a parent with a child in a school, when you hear issues like the lack of democracy in the schools, the fact that parents aren't allowed enough influence in the schools, when you hear points being made as you have made about the emphasis on test scores, what do you see that having to do with the education of your child in the public school system?
CHALTAINSo first I just have to say it should be no surprise to anyone in this room that the questioner just decided to do some rabblerousing, because I have to say she's at the core of one of the most significant Supreme Court cases in our history. You may have heard about a case that originated out of Iowa in December 1965 when a few very young children, in fact one that wasn't even a teenager, decided to wear black piece armbands to protest the escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
CHALTAINThe case is known as Tinker vs. Des Moines, and the questioner is Mary Beth Tinker, so thank you Mary for your continued advocacy.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for the history lesson.
CHALTAINAnd I didn't mean to blow your cover. So in response to your question, it's interesting when one considers that the original intent of charter schools was to empower small groups of teachers and parents to have more autonomy and decision making in coming up with innovative practices that would better serve the needs of kids. And I think it's also true that whether it's charter or district, we have become increasingly impatient with the fact that the wheels of democracy go slowly, and yet the reality is -- was it Churchill that said that democracy is the messiest and the least efficient form of government that we've ever had, but it's the best that we've got.
CHALTAINSo I think there's real merit in thinking as a community, DCPS, charter and community meetings like this, to what extent are we still building up the skills and the capacities in adults and young people to have sustained democratic conversations to honor and protect equity and to make decisions that don't get streamlined too quickly. And I think as a parent, it's very important to see that happening in school communities just because -- and this is I think one of the things that charters do provide a model for that should be extended throughout the district, when people are able to make decisions that directly relate to their own work and learning environments, it is more likely that those decisions will be good ones.
CHALTAINAnd that's a lesson that any school district, whether it's a district of the entire city schools or a district of one should probably heed.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. You're listening to Kojo in Your Community, a conversation from All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, and we're talking about where schools fit into the rapid changes sweeping through here, and other DC neighborhoods like it. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you from All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC. We're just a little more than a mile north of the White House in the geographic center of the district. This is Kojo in Your Community, and we're discussing education. Sam Chaltain, when we took that break you were talking about charter schools and how they allow parents to make certain kinds of choices. I want to get back to the theme of -- well, one of the themes that were -- that was raised by Mary Beth, and that has to do with the emphasis on test scores in the schools. Abigail Smith, how do you feel about that?
SMITHSo my view on test scores is that test scores are one important indicator that is worth looking at, and far from the only one. So as a parent, do I want my kids to be at a proficient level on what are minimum skills tests? Yes, I do. I want my kids to be able to demonstrate that they can read and do math in that basic way. Do I think that's enough and do I think that provides a whole picture of what a school offers? Absolutely not.
SMITHAnd so as a parent looking at schools, what kinds of offerings are there for kids? Is there art and music in a real way in the school as opposed to, you know, once a month you walk by art room. Is there an opportunity to learn a world language. How do the adults in a school relate to the children, and how do the children relate to each other. All of those things are incredibly important, and on a day-to-day basis, affect a child's experience much more than any test score.
SMITHAt the end of the day do I think test scores reflect at some level how kids are performing? I do, and I think it's something that we need to look at.
CHALTAINCan I speak to that, too? Yeah. I think -- I'd like to offer actually a hopeful story on this issue, and it revolves around the same organization that place a huge role in parents making choices about schools here in DC. It's called Great Schools. The website is greatschools.org. There are 37 million visitors to this website every year, and that's because they were way ahead of the game in realizing that parents in major cities were going to be freaking out about how to pick a school for their kid, and needed some place where they could go as a one-stop shop.
CHALTAINNow, for much of its lifespan, Great Schools, if you go to the website and you look up Bancroft Elementary School, you can read through parent testimonials, et cetera but the main thing that people look at is the shorthand that gives a numerical rating one through ten. And that rating is entirely based on test scores. And just to be clear, when we talk about test scores, those are reading and math scores that as Abigail said, are designed to measure basic levels much literacy and numeracy, and I agree with Abigail, that's important.
CHALTAINEverybody should care about literacy and numeracy. But the hopeful part is, because I think we can all see that that's problematic. The hopeful part is Great Schools has recognized that what they're doing has ultimately been a disservice to the parents that they genuinely want to serve. And so now they've spent a lot of time thinking about what would a more balanced scorecard to help parents make a decision look like. And to some degree, they're constrained by the information that they can pull.
CHALTAINBut in a couple of cities, they're on the ground in three cities including DC, but it's on two other cities, in Newark, New Jersey, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Beginning this month, they're now piloting a different rating system that includes test scores. It also includes also existing quantifiable points that tell you something about the health of a school, faculty absenteeism, student attendance, but they've also started to look for me qualitative measures.
CHALTAINHow important does the school value social and emotional learning and growth of children? How balanced are its curricular opportunities? Is this a school that is still offering art classes, or is it one of these schools that has actually gotten rid of recess? What are the environmental conditions that store a healthy democratic learning environment, and I think that's a sign that we're in the earliest stages of starting to see the pendulum swing back towards a more reasonable approach.
CHALTAINJust three years ago you wouldn't have been able to even question test scores without seeming like you were just some softy that cared about nothing but, you know, a kid's feelings. Now we're starting to get to the point that you know what, kid's feelings actually matter, and we should pay attention to them.
NNAMDIWell, Tonija Hope Navas, you see a lot of elite private schools that do not have that kind of emphasis on test scores. On the other hand, you see surveys of parents who say yes, test scores are very -- my child's test scores are very important to me. Where do you come down in terms of what you want for your child?
NAVASWell, my kids are still too early to -- they haven't been tested yet. I'm dreading that time. And I don't want to have this emphasis. I echo everything that both of them have said. I think there is an overemphasis on test scores in general, but I hear a lot of parents, you know, including, you know, at Bancroft who are constantly wondering, you know, what are the test scores at Bancroft, why are they here and why aren't they here and what are we doing about it, which is important, but I don't think that it's the only reason that people should choose to not -- to send or not send their children to Bancroft or any other school.
NAVASBecause I think at the end of the day, any child could get a good education in any DC public school because I think one of the things that really missing is parent engagement, and wherever they go, if the parent is involved, then the kid is going to do well.
NNAMDIMary Beth, you said I should talk race, and here in Washington DC, the African American population is a little less than 50 percent of the population, but more than 73 percent of the population in public schools, and you mentioned that the schools that are cited for closing are invariably in low-income, and I would asked predominantly black communities. How important is it white enrollment in public schools in terms of getting residents more invested in our schools?
NNAMDIOur schools Chancellor made some remarks to that effect about a year ago and took a lot of heat because of it.
TINKERWell, of course we want to have quality schools that all children want to go to, and these should be strong public schools that are publicly funded as well as publicly managed also. Charters, just to be clear, I mean, I don't have necessarily, you know, anything against charters, but they are publicly financed but privately managed. Whereas public schools are publicly funded and publicly managed. So we're publicly funding the charter schools which are privately managed, but regardless, the real issue as far as race as well is that these are schools -- we're talking reality here.
TINKERRoosevelt High School lost almost a million dollars last year. Most of the high schools in the city lost almost up to a million dollars each. They lost their after-school coordinators, they lost their librarians, their libraries. I tried to donate library books to Roosevelt High School. Someone said what library? it's some closet down the hall. Whereas you go to other schools -- there's so much disparity between the schools.
TINKERI walk in -- because I go to all the high schools a lot, and all over the country too, and these issues are repeated in city after city. The same issues that we're dealing with, they're the same in Philadelphia, they're the same in New York, they're the same in Denver, they're the same in LA.
NNAMDINot to mention Chicago.
TINKERAnd especially Chicago. So, I mean, these are issues. We're having kids that are going to schools that are not fair to the kids. These kids are getting ripped off. A lot of kids.
NNAMDIWhat do you see as the solution to this?
TINKERFighting for the kids, and fighting for them to have a voice, and have democracy which in the end is the solution. When kids and parents have a voice, and these parents talk about white and black. I mean if the majority of kids that go to the schools are African American, or kids of color, Hispanic also, are their parents being included in these decisions about so-called closings and turnarounds? No. I go to meetings with them all the time. They have -- they're kept out. They feel they've been cut out and they have been.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2Related to that, my understanding is that the Walton Foundation study is actually recommending that every single public school in Wards 7 and 8 which are virtually a hundred percent African American schools be closed. And this conversation, you know, it strikes me -- the folks who are talking have done a great job, you know, finding the right school for their children, but that's a huge amount of work. And, you know, it's -- not everybody has time to do that huge amount of work, and not everybody has the privilege to be able to send their kids out of bounds.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2You know, they may be a single parent who needs to have the school be in walking distance in order to get them to school on time and pick them up on time, and that's why it's important that every neighbor have a quality school, and that's -- we're not seeing that emphasis currently in DC. Yes, there's more options, but there's not options in every neighborhood, and there's not the option of publicly-funded and publicly-managed schools that are within walking distance of everyone's homes in DC.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1How you doing? Good afternoon everyone. I'm here to just witness and see some of the means -- end and the means of gentrification and how it's fueled the change in education, and our school systems now are demanding more from the teachers as well as from students. But the diversity in income doesn't necessarily allow all students to react positively enough to be identified as a worthwhile candidate in the school system, and that's the testing -- the testing itself doesn't judge the teacher or the school system, just the child.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1Thus the child is then being labeled for life, and the impact on the child is very important. So I'd like to see the testing system say to the curriculum, say to the teachers, modify for the students who are being left behind who get the lower scores, because they need more attention. Those students who do well, they need to keep being made available to compete on the global sense now. When he and I was in school, we was competing for the mid Atlantic area of the eastern seaboard.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1But now you're competing with Asia, Africa, you're competing with Russia, all over the world. So learn those languages and meeting people from other places, diversity is very important, but income has a significance in the diversity of our school systems.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Obviously income plays a role, but Abigail Smith, I think the fundamental question being raised by the last speaker is exactly what are we educating our children for?
SMITHSo it's a great question, and I think if we went around this room and gave everyone a chance to answer, we would get as many different answers as there are people in this room. I think part of that is, you know, I have my own answer for it in terms of what I want for my kids, but I think part of that is the informed chooser piece that Sam was talking about. And I do want to say that I think it's absolutely right what you had mentioned, and I'm forgetting your name, but around depending on different family situations, their ability to be an active chooser is very different.
SMITHI think that's a valid point. I also think that it is unfair to sell short low income families and families of color who are actually making lots of those choices right now in Ward 7 and Ward 8 and Ward 5, and all around the city, and looking for options for kids and putting their kids in the schools that are doing right by them. So I want to be a little bit careful about not assuming -- and I'm not suggesting that you're making a blanket statement, but I think it's important to recognize that people across the city and across socioeconomic lines are making choices for their kids in really conscious ways.
NNAMDIAnd we're just about out of time, and as always there are several more people who would like to join the conversation, but this obviously conversation on education will continue, and we'll be doing it in different locations on Kojo in Your Community, so we're going to ask you to continue to join us. Abigail Smith, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDISam Chaltain, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Tonija Hope Navas, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you all for being here. Kojo in Your Community is produced by Michael Martinez, Kathy Goldgeier, Brendan Sweeney, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney and Elizabeth Weinstein. The engineers today are Jonathan Charry are Kellen Quigley. Thanks to everyone at WAMU who helps make this happen, including Paul Mozzocci, Benae Mosby, Seth Liss, Christopher Lewis, and Naomi Gingold, and especially our wonderful volunteers, Glenn Ihrig, Deborah Lah-Lond, Cathleen O'Brien, as well as Julia Greenwald, Ryan Mixson, Stephannie Stokes, and Chiavani Guyess (sp?).
NNAMDIAnd thanks to all of the folks here at All Souls, including senior minister Reverend Robert M. Hardies, as well as Reverend Susan Newman, Katie Loughary, Cathy Rion Starr, Diane Johnson and special thanks to Gary Penn and Thomas Collohan. And extra special thanks to all of you for choosing to spend your evening with us. Please give yourselves a warm round of applause. Transcripts, podcasts, and a full online archive of previous shows are available at our website, kojoshow.org. This has been Kojo in Your Community from All Souls Unitarian Church in Northwest Washington. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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