After John McNamara was killed in the Capital Gazette shooting, his wife Andrea Chamblee took it upon herself to publish his last book — a love letter to D.C. hoops: "The Capital of Basketball."
It’s been a mixed summer for D.C. Public Schools.
Several controversies have made local education headlines, including the revelation that a third of DCPS employees have expired background checks, the number of sexual misconduct investigations involving staff, budgetary woes and worries about vaccination rates.
With the new school year kicking off next week, we’ll check in with Chancellor Lewis Ferebee on all of this summer’s developments – and what he plans to prioritize for his first full school year at the school district’s helm.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Lewis Ferebee Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools
KOJO NNAMDIIf you follow local news, you know that it's been a long summer for D.C. Public Schools. Classes haven't been in session, but DCPS has been in the headlines all summer long, news of expired background checks and sexual misconduct cases, for example, and ongoing budget woes. On the other hand, there are a lot of projects very much in progress. Head of the new school year, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee is here to talk about the goals, changes and challenges he's facing this school year. Chancellor Ferebee, welcome.
LEWIS FEREBEEThank you, Kojo. It's good to see you, sir. Glad to be here this afternoon.
NNAMDII'll begin this interview in an unusual way. We usually begin by talking about what's in the news, what are the problems you're having, and that puts you on the defensive, right from the very beginning. So, I'm going to turn the tables this year, and begin by asking you: what are you most excited about taking on this school year?
FEREBEESo, we're excited about building on the success that we've had over the last couple of years. This is our fourth consecutive year of gains on our PARCC assessments, which are strong indicators that our students are college and career ready. And we're pleased that not only have we realized gains, but significant gains over the last couple of years, outpacing the state. Most recently, we've seen gains about five percentage points in our English Language Arts assessment, and about two percentage points in math, and again in our fourth consecutive year of these types of improvements in our test scores.
NNAMDIYou're right. There may have been overall increases in the PARCC standardized testing results, but the story is different if you break the results down by race and ethnicity. There's still a significant achievement gap between white students and students of color, particularly black and Latino students. What's DCPS doing, what can you do to try to address that performance disparity?
FEREBEEWell, let us be clear that we saw significant gains across all subgroups. So, to your point, we still have the challenge of closing what I like to call the opportunity gap, because I think we talk it about it solely academically. The responsibility and the ownership is solely on educators and our schools. And I believe the opportunity gap truly will be closed through a collective effort.
FEREBEEBut it's important to note, for example, with our African American males, that we saw significant gains specifically in literacy, where we've had a focus. And our gains in literacy outpaced the state for African American males. We also saw significant gains for our Latino students, as well. We did see some gap closing there, and so this will remain a priority for us, specifically around literacy.
FEREBEEAnd we also know investing in our families and those that support our families of color is another way that we can continue to address the opportunity gap. More specifically, in our school communities that are furthest from opportunity, we have our Connected Schools model, which is solely focused on brokering supports and resources for families and students, not only to support them academically, but all their other needs, as well.
NNAMDIYeah, I was wondering about that, because what kinds of issues outside of the classroom factor into students' performance on these tests? And are those areas you feel equipped to address?
FEREBEESo, we're building robust supports, but we also rely on a number of partners to assist us. So, for example, we know that many of our students have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences that could impact their experience in classroom and teaching and learning. We also know that many of our families worry about housing. They worry about health care. And all of those could impact teaching and learning.
FEREBEEAnd just having a healthy meal and, you know, just thinking about some of the food that our students might experience. And so we are very fortunate to have a mayor who has an eye on equitable housing. And we also are very fortunate to have other D.C. agencies that we're partnered with, that assist us with meeting some of those other needs. But we also have a number of other nonprofits that support DCPS, as well. So, again, as I mentioned earlier, this requires a collective effort. And DCPS is wired to have staff in the schools that are partnering with these organizations to bring these resources to students and families.
NNAMDIEarlier this month, it was reported that three in 10 DCPS employees have expired background checks. This number included both DCPS employees and outside contractors who work with schools. How did these lapses occur in the first place? It seems like this is a security measure that should've been a priority.
FEREBEEYou know, safety and security, Kojo, is always a priority for us. And as I've said many times to our community and our constituents, that we'll always be as transparent as we can be around our successes, but also our challenges. And so once we have identified this gap and our clearances for those individuals that had expired clearances, we started to communicate that, as soon as possible, and then also communicate our corrective action.
FEREBEEIt's important for the community to know, though, that all of our employees and contract employees and vendors have had their initial background check. However, there is an additional D.C. regulation that requires that, after two years, that initial background check expires. And there's another background check to be completed. That's where we had a gap in monitoring, and we are working now to ensure that every vendor, every employee, everyone that's in a school is not only initially completing their background check, but also on a two-year-annual basis, as well.
NNAMDIYou issued a statement saying that by the first day of school, which is next week, all afterschool staff and contractors would have active clearances. Will DCPS meet that deadline?
FEREBEEYeah. We are working aggressively around the clock now to meet that deadline, and we feel good about it. We're very optimistic that we'll meet that deadline. We prioritize individuals that have not had their first screening, and individuals that are working directly in schools. And then the second tier will be individuals that are not in schools, but are also DCPS employees or contract employees.
FEREBEEWe're very fortunate to have support from the Metropolitan Police Department. DCHR is also assisting us. We have mobile fingerprinting units to get people screened, and so we are working around the clock now to meet those expectations.
NNAMDISpringboard Education is a contractor based in Massachusetts that DCPS has worked with in the past. Reports say Springboard was unable to provide any documentation of background checks from employees. Is it correct now that DCPS is allowing its contract with Springboard to expire?
FEREBEESo, we've discontinued the agreement with Springboard. They're no longer a afterschool care provider for us. We have, since then, done a review of all of our out-of-school term contracts to ensure that they are in compliance with our regulations. And we feel really good about all of our providers that will be supporting students this school year. And we'll have regular monitoring of these agreements to ensure that they are executing their background checks as required.
NNAMDIYour internal inquiry into background checks was the result of a sexual misconduct incident at the Capitol Hill Montessori School in early May this year. We know of at least six investigations of sexual misconduct by DCPS employees since January 2018. And of those two were fired, one resigned, three remain on the job. As of the most recent reports we have, there are another three allegations under investigation. Can you provide any updates on these cases, and are there any more investigations underway?
FEREBEEOf what you just provided, that's all we are able to report on at this time. We typically do not communicate with the public about investigations, as they need to run their course. And there's due diligence that needs to be done there. And once a determination is made about an investigation, we communicate transparently with the school community about the results of those investigations and any corrective action that will be taken.
NNAMDIEarlier this month, you said the DCPS would be enhancing staff training and how to spot and how to respond to sexual misconduct, and that students would get a similar version of the training. Where does that initiative stand?
FEREBEEYeah, so we have been far in our professional development, as teachers have come back. So, teachers are now back in buildings and preparing for opening day on Monday. That training is ongoing, and will take place before the school year starts, and throughout the school year. And then once students are back on campus, we'll start that process with training students, as well.
NNAMDIWhat does that training look like in the classroom? Will it be across all grades?
FEREBEEYeah, so it would be developmentally appropriate. So, it would definitely look different for a kindergartner or a first grader, as compared to a middle school student in grade seven or eight. But we also want to ensure that students know, first and foremost, that they can communicate with adults when they feel uncomfortable with any behaviors as relates to adult-to-student behavior or student-to-student behavior. We also want to ensure students are very familiar with good and bad touch, and they know how to communicate with other adults when they feel uncomfortable in these situations.
NNAMDICasey emailed us with a question. Besides increasing pay, how can we make D.C. the premier destination for teachers? For example, should a DC school teacher be able to enroll their own children in the schools where they teach? Should DCPS provide onsite daycare options for teachers and staff? What are some other ideas?
FEREBEEWe're constantly going to the well of ideas about how we can remain an attractive place for teachers and a place where teachers want to work and retain the exceptional talent we have. We have very competitive compensation, as highlighted, but we're also thinking about other amenities that we can add to our teacher incentive package. For example, we recently had some discussion around teacher housing. We also had discussions around, as highlighted, if there are particular preferences that could be applied for enrollment for children of employees.
FEREBEEWe want our teachers to feel real comfortable here in the city, and there could be other discounts that teachers could take advantage of. We also have been thinking about, you know, our technology. You know, we have a $4.6 million technology investment that students will experience in this upcoming school year. And we've been preparing technology enhancements for our staff members, as well. And so we will continue to talk with our teachers and get a better understanding of their working conditions and what's attractive for them. But we also want as many of our educators to also live here in the District as they're supporting our students and our families. So, housing is one topic that comes top to mind.
NNAMDIHere's Jessica, who identifies as being with Stanton Elementary School in Ward 8. Jessica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSICA (CALLERHi, thank you. I'm just wondering why teachers haven't received the $200 -- last year it was a Staples gift card for us to buy the supplies to prepare for Monday. We haven't gotten them yet, and we haven't heard an explanation of why. I heard through a union email just like about an hour ago that we're going to get it by tomorrow. But tomorrow's already the first day before the kids come back -- or the last day before the kids come back.
FEREBEEYes. Thank you for raising a topic up today. We had a conversation yesterday evening with the Washington Teachers' Union. This was also raised to us with the union representation. And I know that that is being addressed as we speak, and we want to get that in the hands of teachers as soon as possible. We do apologize that teachers have not received that in schools, in certain places, that that hasn't occurred. And we know that supplies are critical to the preparation process. So, please know that that is on the top of our list, and we're working to get those to schools as soon as possible.
NNAMDICan you give a date definite, by which they'll be there?
FEREBEEYeah. So, as she highlighted, the teacher on the call, teachers could receive it as soon as today, but we anticipate that they'll have it before the start of school.
NNAMDIJessica, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. In July, the Washington Post reported that DCPS was facing a $23 million deficit, and under District laws, that deficit must be made up by September 30th. The D.C. Auditors Office has said that personnel costs like overtime and bonuses were behind the deficit. So, what has DCPS done to fill that gap?
FEREBEESo, for the current fiscal year that we're in, we have taken a number of steps to ensure that our expenditures are controlled. For example, we have been under a hiring freeze for months for positions that are not critical and not in a classroom. We continue to monitor other expenditures, as well. As we have planned for the new fiscal year, we have done, I believe, a lot better with just anticipating what our costs will be. And part of that has been ensuring that we have regular monitoring controls on our expenditures, and what we assume for operating costs and inflationary increases. So, I believe that we'll be in a much better position as we go into the new fiscal year, and we'll continue to monitor our expenditures for the current fiscal year.
NNAMDICan you be more specific? Is DCPS on track to resolve that deficit before September 30th?
FEREBEEWe have in the past, and I'm very confident we'll do that again this year. I think there's been ongoing conversation with the OCFO. And, you know, sometimes the numbers have been different, and so we have seen, most recently, in the last couple weeks, we've been able to reconcile with better numbers from both entities. And so I think part of it's just having a clear set of numbers that we're both operating from. And then also just continuing to monitor our expenditures.
FEREBEEIt's important to know that we've taken a big step centrally in reducing the number of employees in our central service team, which has also significantly lowered our costs and our expenditures without impacting the classroom and our schools directly.
NNAMDIA year previously, an internal audit of spending in the 2017-2018 school year showed that some of the $105 million set aside for at-risk students had to be used to pay for music and P.E. teachers. Of course, that was before your time. But with the current deficit how are you ensuring the designated funds are being delivered to the programs that depend on them?
FEREBEEI think, Kojo, there's some disagreements around that particular study that you're referencing. We believe that through our comprehensive staffing model, that we have, in fact, provided at-risk dollars to schools to support at-risk students. And there are a number of identifiers for that particular student population.
FEREBEEBut if there's a particular resource or initiative or programming or a staff member that is being funded through the comprehensive staffing model, it may touch students that have been identified at risk. Or it may touch students that go beyond that particular subgroup of students. And so, I mean, the way that particular study was conducted and methods I don't know is an accurate and clear picture of how at-risk funding is being used. But it's something that we continue to evaluate and monitor to ensure that those resources are going to students who have the greatest need.
NNAMDITo clarify, this current deficit is not responsible for any funding cuts that individual schools would see, right?
FEREBEEYeah, so we've been very protective of the classroom, in monitoring our spending and any reductions to expenditures. And so, most recently, the majority of the reductions that have been made in the spending freezes have been associated with central services and not schools directly.
NNAMDILawmakers allegedly weren't aware of this deficit until June. What is DCPS doing to be more transparent about its operations?
FEREBEEYeah, so we do regular reporting around our finances. I think the questions have been around, you know, the set of numbers that DCPS has provided and numbers that have been provided by other entities. We will continue to be as transparent as possible around our finances. There have been a number of enhancements that have been made and development of our budget for this current fiscal year. And we'll take even more steps as we go into the next fiscal year with a better line of sight for families on how schools are funded and how schools are utilizing their dollars once those dollars have been received at the school level.
NNAMDIOn transparency, let me talk about an individual case. In a February interview with the Washington Post, you said you were aware of teachers' worries about wrongful termination. And for people like former teacher Jeff Canady , that if they are terminated wrongfully, they won't be compensated for lost wages. Canady, who has been written about in The Washington Post in both 2018 and 2019, because an arbitrator ruled he shouldn't have been fired, it's been more than a year since that arbitration. I got a text message from Mr. Canady, who I'm sure you know, because he shows up a lot...
FEREBEEI know him very well. We've had opportunity to talk several times over the summer.
NNAMDIWhy has he still not been paid?
FEREBEEYou know, so it would be inappropriate for me to talk about ongoing litigation, and so I won't go into detail there, but...
NNAMDIIt's ongoing litigation? I thought the arbitrator had ruled in his favor, and that the DCPS had agreed to compensate him.
FEREBEEYeah, you know, I don't want to get into those details until they're fully resolved. I believe that, you know, the ball is in his court to follow up on where we are. And I anticipate we should be at a resolution sooner rather than later. And Mr. Canady has heard, directly from me, my position and my guidance to him of how to bring this item to a closure.
NNAMDIYou're saying that DCPS is not deliberately delaying Mr. Canady until he goes away.
FEREBEEYeah. So, I have not seen any evidence, and I'm very confident that DCPS has not done anything deliberately to delay resolution to this case.
NNAMDIGot an email from Barbara, who says: some teachers do not live in the same parking zone of school, and public transport is not optimal. Can we not give them special permits during school hours?
FEREBEEWe actually have started a pilot program to look at parking and special parking permits for educators where there may be parking limitations on school campuses. So, we are looking into that particular issue. It has been raised, and if we experience success with this particular pilot program, it may be something we expand. But I would encourage our educators and our staff members to think about maximizing our public transit system, as well. We have a great system that works really well for our students. And we'll want to see as many of our staff members take advantage of that opportunity.
NNAMDIHere's Clyde, in Northwest. Clyde, your turn.
CLYDEThanks, Kojo. I appreciate it. I want to know, when is the District of Columbia going to have a public vocational high school like they used to have back in the '60s and '70s and the early '80s? Like Bell Vocational High School, which is a school that is solely dedicated to teaching shop studies such as auto mechanics, diesel mechanics, house wiring, plumbing, things of this nature, instead of having one class at one high school, another class at another high school.
CLYDEWe also had -- I graduated from Bell in '63, and if you graduated at the top of your class, you were guaranteed a job in your field. I want to know if the District of Columbia is going to, and when are they going to dedicate a public school that's going to be solely dedicated to vocational studies? Thank you.
NNAMDISchool Chancellor Ferebee?
FEREBEEYeah, so it's important to know that Phelps Education Campus is primarily focused on our career and technical education program, which is the way we described 21st century vocational education. And students go there solely to engage in career-based curriculum. We also believe, though, it's important to offer those amenities at our neighborhood schools, as well. And so you would find the auto mechanic program that you reference at Ballou High School. You would find similar programming at high schools across the District.
FEREBEEAnd so, students have options. They can go directly to Phelps if they're interested in the programming they're offering there, or neighborhood high schools that have these options. It's important to know, also, that we are expanding the number of career-based programs in our schools to be responsive to interests, but also to be responsive to the job opportunities in the labor market.
FEREBEEBut one point I want to go back to that you hit earlier is this notion of a guarantee of a job. And I think that's a scenario that we continue to think about and want to get better in, because we have to push our employers to ensure that students, when they complete these programs or earn certifications, build these skills, there are, in fact, guarantees for employment. And I think that is a driver for student interest, but also the expansion of career and technical education. And we see more and more students who want to go to work right out of high school, and want to give them those opportunities and help them build their skills to do so.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left. Infrastructure: have you had a chance to talk of infrastructure in schools buildings across the District, during heatwaves? There are worries about older buildings not having sufficient air conditioning.
FEREBEEYeah. So, you know, we are continuing to partner with Department of General Services to complete all of our capital improvements, our modernizations. And HVAC clearly is at the top of the list, because we've heard from school communities where we have had some HVAC challenges. But the community should know, we have had a record summer of capital improvements. We're very fortunate that the mayor has invested over $1.6 million in our facilities. And so we have some of the finest facilities in the nation. But we will continue to work on our HVAC system, the air conditioning, as we start the school year.
NNAMDILewis Ferebee is the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Thank you so much for joining us.
FEREBEEThank you, sir, for having me. I greatly appreciate the time.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, it's the Politics Hour. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld joins us, along with Maryland State Senator Paul Pinsky. It all starts at noon tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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