About half of students in D.C. charter and traditional public schools are labeled “at-risk,” meaning they receive welfare or nutritional benefits, are homeless or in foster care, or are overage in high school. And there’s a big achievement gap between those students and their peers.

A new report examines the schools in D.C. that do the best job of closing that achievement gap⁠ — and finds that many students identified as at-risk don’t have easy access to these so-called “leveler” schools.

We discuss the findings, and how “leveler” schools across the city are promoting growth for D.C. students.

Produced by Margaret Barthel


  • Frazier O'Leary Member, D.C. Board of Education (Ward 4); Former English teacher, Cardozo High School; First Vice President, PEN/Faulkner Foundation
  • Chelsea Coffin Director, Education Policy Initiative, D.C. Policy Center; @cfcoffin
  • Felicia Owo-Grant Principal, Friendship Public Charter School Woodridge; @feliciaowogrant; @FPCSWoodridge
  • Maisha Riddlespringer Principal, Ketcham Elementary School; @PrincipalRiddle;@KetchamES


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWe hear a lot about student test scores. Mostly, the conversation goes like this: the students at certain schools are passing or doing well on tests, but the students at the rest of the schools are not. But that's not the whole picture. It doesn't always include the schools that are raising student scores from year to year. And doing it despite the significant odds that students identified as at-risk face, those educators are slowly, but surely closing the achievement gap.

  • 12:32:28

    KOJO NNAMDIA new report identifies the schools in D.C. that are leveling the playing fields, and joining me to discuss that report is Chelsea Coffin. She is the director of the Education Policy Initiative at the D.C. Policy Center. Chelsea Coffin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:43

    CHELSEA COFFINPleased to be here.

  • 12:32:44

    NNAMDIChelsea, we're talking about this report that you published earlier this week about D.C. schools. What specifically were you looking at?

  • 12:32:50

    COFFINSo, for this report, we identified schools in the city that are leveling the playing field for at-risk students. And we focused on at-risk students, because they comprise about half of the student population in D.C. And there are large achievement gaps between students who are at-risk in D.C. and not at-risk.

  • 12:33:07

    COFFINAnd we also focused on growth as our metric, and not just for efficiency rates to identify leveler schools. Growth is more incredibly important for at-risk students if we want to catch at-risk students up to their not-at-risk peers. And we identified 12 leveler middle schools and 20 leveler elementary schools across the city in almost all of our wards that are doing their very best to improve test scores for at-risk students.

  • 12:33:36

    NNAMDISo, what exactly is a leveler school?

  • 12:33:40

    COFFINSo, the leveler schools, by our definition, are schools that are doing the very best to improve test scores. We do not look at absolute test scores, and these are schools that are in the 90th percentile and above, meeting a very ambitious target on the D.C. school report card in English language arts or math.

  • 12:33:56

    NNAMDIYou mentioned, this is a focus on the growth of test scores from year to year, as opposed to what the scores actually are. Why is growth important?

  • 12:34:05

    COFFINIn D.C., we have an achievement gap between students who are at-risk and students who aren't. And this achievement gap is for differences in proficiency rates. It's between 25 and 30 points between these two student groups. And what we want to do is move the needle for at-risk students in particular to catch them up to students who aren't at-risk. And so the best way to do that is to improve scores, specifically for at-risk students. So, for our leveler schools, we looked at growth specifically for at-risk students, not for all students at a school.

  • 12:34:38

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Frazier O'Leary. He is the Ward 4 representative on the State Board of Education. He taught in D.C. Public Schools starting back in the 1970s. Frazier O'Leary, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:34:50

    FRAZIER O'LEARYGreat to be here.

  • 12:34:50

    NNAMDIWe hear a lot about student proficiency on different tests -- basically, did they pass -- and less emphasis on whether or not the students improved. Do you think the system itself should prioritize growth more?

  • 12:35:04

    O'LEARYI think it should prioritize it completely. I don't think that a test is going to help a student grow. I think that what happens in the classroom every day is what helps a student grow. And what we're trying to do is have our students get better by the end of the year than they were at the beginning of the year, so at the beginning of the next year, they can improve some more and grow some more. And I just don't think that the PARCC test -- or any standardized test like that -- we don't know what the students come to the class with at the beginning of the year. We have to find out where they are, and then we can find out where their growth is.

  • 12:35:51

    NNAMDIChelsea, what students are usually labeled at-risk, and how many of these students are D.C. schools serving?

  • 12:35:58

    COFFINSo, students are identified as at-risk based on five characteristics: if they receive welfare and nutritional benefits, if they are in the child foster care system, if they are experiencing homelessness or if they're overage in high school. And this is also attached to additional funding to the at-risk students. For this report, 46 percent of public school students were classified as at-risk.

  • 12:36:24

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Maisha Riddlespringer, principal of Ketcham Elementary School. She is the 2019 DCPS Principal of the Year. Maisha Riddlespringer, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:36:37


  • 12:36:38

    NNAMDIYou are the principal of one of the identified leveler elementary schools in Chelsea's report, but you prefer not to refer to your students at Ketcham as at-risk. Why is that?

  • 12:36:51

    RIDDLESPRINGERSo, when we talk about students like the students at Ketcham, where about 90 percent of our students are identified as at-risk, I just prefer not to have the label of at-risk students. I prefer to just change the semantics a little bit to call our students, students that have the potential to be at-risk. Because I think when you give students the label of an at-risk student, you're telling them what they are, as opposed to describing their circumstances.

  • 12:37:18

    NNAMDIAnd the students we're talking about, it is my understanding, make up the vast majority of your student body. Is that correct?

  • 12:37:25

    RIDDLESPRINGERAbsolutely. Any given year, we range from approximately 88 percent to 95 percent, probably, at the high for at-risk students during my time at Ketcham. So, when we talk about students that are identified as at-risk, that's the majority of our student population.

  • 12:37:41

    NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Felicia Owo-Grant, principal of Friendship Woodridge International School. Felicia Owo-Grant, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:37:49

    FELICIA OWO-GRANTGlad to be here.

  • 12:37:50

    NNAMDIYou also lead a leveler school, Friendship Woodridge International School, which is a public charter. Many of your students are also identified as being at-risk. What does that mean for you as an educator on the ground? What do your students need from you?

  • 12:38:04

    OWO-GRANTYeah. I think something that our students need from me and from teachers and the school in itself is they need people to understand their circumstances. They need adults around them who have a sense of the challenges that they have. They have a sense of what learning looks like for them and what's important for them to learn. And then also how they should be learning, which I think is a factor that is not always considered. The focus, very often, is on achievement or test scores or even growth, but not necessarily the quality of learning and what learning should look like for the particular student. So, they need us to advocate for them and to be the voice that ensures that they get a high quality educational experience.

  • 12:38:42

    NNAMDIWhen you say how they should be learning, what do you mean by that?

  • 12:38:45

    OWO-GRANTYeah. And so very often, what we find -- even in the curriculum materials that we have sometimes in schools -- are that the texts that are put in front of my students don't represent who they are. They don't see themselves in the text. They don't see themselves, you know, in the materials. They don't have a connection to what mathematics is for and how that's going to connect to the real world because of some of the circumstances that they have to deal with when they're at home.

  • 12:39:08

    OWO-GRANTAnd so we have to be intentional about making sure that our students have pride for who they are and see themselves in the materials that we're constantly, right, putting them through and making them have to work with. And so, in addition to that, I think another part of it is just seeing themselves in the building, right. So, what ways our schools reflect our students and what kind of voice and agency do they have in schools?

  • 12:39:32

    OWO-GRANTBecause, very often, many of the families have negative experiences in schools, right. And that can really be a generational situation that gets passed down to the student. And so they have a negative perspective of what school should be. And so if we don't give them a voice and we, as Principal Riddlespringer said, like, we label them, right, and give them these labels that define who they are and don't allow them to define themselves, we're increasing their potential risk to be average students.

  • 12:39:58

    NNAMDIThis is not your parents' school, in other words. (laugh) We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about D.C.'s leveler schools. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:40:24

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about D.C.'s leveler schools and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Frazier O'Leary, as a longtime teacher, now a member of the State Board of Education, what is your experience that D.C. schools need to narrow the achievement gap?

  • 12:40:41

    O'LEARYThere has to be a sea change in how we look at educating our students. We talk about equity, but we don't live in an equitable city. When we talk about, you know, what can work at one school in one part of the city, and try to use that to work in a different part of the city, it's a different part of the city. I think that there needs to be some real work done on how we look at what growth is for our students and how important what happens between August and June is for our students, and not look at some test that they get after June and find out the results of it. And the schools are rated by that test.

  • 12:41:33

    O'LEARYA major part of the star rating is the PARCC test. And I think that when you talked about at-risk -- I mean, I taught at what were labeled at-risk schools my entire career, but I never felt my students were at-risk. We just tried to make them better.

  • 12:41:52

    NNAMDIAnd you did mention the PARCC test, but test scores aren't necessarily the only factor, here. What else would you take into account in measuring how well a school is serving its students?

  • 12:42:04

    O'LEARYIt seems to me that if you're measuring a school, then somebody's got to come in and look at what's going on in the school. You need to talk to the students. You need to talk to the teachers. You need to talk to the staff. You need to find out from their parents -- like, you were saying, you've got people calling in, maybe, you know, why they chose the school. You know, why do people choose a school?

  • 12:42:26

    O'LEARYI mean, Cardozo underwent a tremendous change in population. I mean, if you go into Cardozo's neighborhood now, it doesn't look like it did 15 years ago, but we have to adjust to that. And I think Cardozo adjusted to it.

  • 12:42:42

    NNAMDIHere now is Nia at Center City Public Schools. Nia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:50

    NIA WHITEGood afternoon, everyone.

  • 12:42:51

    NNAMDINia White is the principal of Center City Public Charter School in Congress Heights.

  • 12:42:57

    WHITEYes, I am. I've had the pleasure of being there. This is my eighth year now. And I was sharing earlier, just like the nature and the world that we live in and that home of mine, being able to do things well for our students, tying it directly to their experiences and their everyday occurrences. So, it's in order to make sure that the students are prepared.

  • 12:43:22

    WHITEBecause, at the end of the day, I want them to be prepared, and I want them to make a choice, right. A choice as to where they go to high school, where they go to college, where they want to live, the jobs or careers that they want to have. And not be limited just because of particular scores or the parameters, or because of the neighborhood that they were born and raised in.

  • 12:43:40

    WHITESo, our big thing, or our big push, one of the reasons why we're seeing a lot of good growth and success and achievement from our students is because we're putting them in those experiences that come out of their novels, making things very real, so they understand that this is not a boring activity or a task that they have to just sit and get. But this is a particular poem or this is a particular work of art, or this novel from this author is meaningful in the world because of X, Y and Z reasons. And then helping them see what exactly that is.

  • 12:44:16

    WHITESo many students come to us, and they haven't been outside of Washington, D.C. They think going or stepping into Virginia is like really going out of town or going on a huge trip. And we want to paint that picture for them as much as possible, what actually is out there, and give them full directions and a map through their academics on how to get there.

  • 12:44:40

    NNAMDICorrect me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding that Center City Public Charter Schools has been named a leveler school in English. Is that correct?

  • 12:44:49

    WHITEYes, sir, we have.

  • 12:44:51

    NNAMDIAccording to the report, there are very few schools that are leveling the playing field in English language arts. Several more -- like yours, Felicia, like yours, Maisha -- are excelling in math. Why do you think that is? First you, Felicia.

  • 12:45:06

    OWO-GRANTYeah, I think, you know, when it comes to being a leveler school, we made significant growth in ELA, as well. But, however, math learning is different, right. And I think a big part of it also is the complexity of what students are coming to us with when it comes to ELA versus mathematics. So, for example, as we know, the building blocks of literacy are language, right, and conversation. And in some of the homes, depending on some of our scholars, they're not engaged in the discourse that's necessary for them to acquire literacy skills at a very early age.

  • 12:45:35

    OWO-GRANTWe also have to look at: what does the education look like within the homes of those families? What does access to text look like in the homes of those families. Are the children seeing their parents reading? Are the parents able to read with their students? Are the students being held accountable to reading, right, and having rich conversations with their families about their day? Or are the additional responsibilities of the families -- maybe it's two jobs, maybe it's a single-family home, maybe it's multiple children and challenges -- not allowing them to have those level of discourse for the kids to come into our schools ready to read.

  • 12:46:08

    OWO-GRANTAnd that is probably where we're seeing the biggest challenge. And it's really important to close the gap at a very early age. So, we talk about third grade and ELA readiness and prison-to-school pipelines. It is very challenging if you don't get them, to get that gap closed, between kindergarten and second grade, to be able to close it when they get through third through high school.

  • 12:46:28

    OWO-GRANTAnd so children not coming to school ready to read, I think, is the biggest challenge, particularly for us and the students that we serve. And then, also, the other piece is just the complexity of literacy acquisition versus mathematics. Mathematics is very conceptual, and students can visualize what math looks like, right. And they can make sense of it. And there's a lot of manipulative views. And so you can reach multiple modalities of learning when it comes to mathematics.

  • 12:46:54

    OWO-GRANTLiteracy's a little bit different, right. And then literacy and ELA, you know, test scores and things like that also have a component of writing. And the transfer of knowledge from reading something to writing something is different. The transfer of knowledge from reading something to being able to articulate your understanding of it is different. Because we have kids who can read fluently, but when you ask them questions about the text, comprehension looks different, right.

  • 12:47:17

    OWO-GRANTAnd so I think that, you know, when it comes to achievement gap closing, at the elementary level, it has to be closed at a much faster rate. And then we have to do a better job with what learning looks like, to be quite frank, in our homes and with our families and how we -- you know, providing wraparound support to families. So, when kids -- before they even come to us or they have a better understanding in our neighborhoods of the importance of literacy in the home and how we get them access to those texts.

  • 12:47:44

    NNAMDIMaisha Riddlespringer, Ketcham Elementary is also a leveler school in math. What are some takeaways that other schools could learn from what you're doing at Ketcham? And talk a little bit about English, too.

  • 12:47:55

    RIDDLESPRINGERYeah, just to echo what Felicia said about English, I think she's absolutely right about English language arts being just a more complex set of skills that students have to master in order to demonstrate mastery on the assessments that are put in front of them.

  • 12:48:11

    RIDDLESPRINGERWhen we think about English language arts and English language arts teaching and learning, we think about critical thinking. And those are some schools that oftentimes are very difficult to teach, especially with the lack of experiences that some of our students bring in to the classroom and to our school communities.

  • 12:48:26

    RIDDLESPRINGERSo, when you think about engaging with text, a lot of times, the engagement with text starts and begins with previous background experiences that we may have had as adults, right. We can see ourselves in the text. We can see ourselves in the characters. We can see ourselves in the conflicts that they face.

  • 12:48:42

    RIDDLESPRINGERSo, as Felicia was saying, some of our children haven't experienced life outside of their own communities, let alone the greater D.C., Virginia and Maryland area. So, it makes it difficult sometimes for them to make that connection with the characters. Which is why it's really important that they see text with people that look like them, that have similar experience to them, so that they can use some of their own background experiences to analyze and critique the text that they're reading and that they're putting in front of them.

  • 12:49:08

    RIDDLESPRINGERI think for us at Ketcham, what has been most successful for us is for us to rethink and re-imagine the way that we think about mathematics instruction. A lot of times when we think about math, we think of the procedural. You do this, you do this, and you get this answer. But we really have to shift the focus on the way that we're working with teachers, so that teachers really understand the conceptual understanding, like the enduring understanding that flows through a mathematical problem or a mathematical practice.

  • 12:49:37

    RIDDLESPRINGERAnd so when we think about the work that we're doing with teachers, so that we are focusing on the learning part of the teaching and learning continuum, we focus on things like making sure that we are grouping students accordingly. A lot of times in mathematics classrooms, you'll see whole group math instruction. And we found that at our school, that's just not meeting the needs of our students.

  • 12:49:59

    RIDDLESPRINGERSo, a few years back, we started homogeneously grouping students so that we can target the specific skill gaps that the students are exhibiting on assessments, on exit tickets and on exams that they have inside the classroom. And what we found is it's been extremely helpful for teachers to focus on students with like errors in their mathematical work, in their conceptual understanding. Because then that teacher -- who we know is the expert in the room, the professional that has the ability and the expertise -- can target that specific skill gap, as opposed to a whole conceptual understanding.

  • 12:50:34

    RIDDLESPRINGERAnd it's made it easier for teachers to identify what kids need to learn. So, we've abandoned whole group instruction for mathematics in favor of targeted, small group instruction, as well as worked with teachers on changing the mindset about mathematics.

  • 12:50:51

    NNAMDIGot to interrupt, because we don't have a great deal of time left, but thank you so much. Chelsea Coffin, the report also looks at the issue of access. You found that there are a lot of students labeled as at-risk who are not within easy commuting distance of a leveler school. You also found a scarcity of leveler schools in the northwest parts of the city. Wards 2 and 3, in particular, they don't have a single leveler elementary school between them. Why is that?

  • 12:51:15

    COFFINThat's a great question. So, when we focused on this report and growth for at-risk students, we used the metric in the D.C. School Report Card. And you need a minimum number of at-risk students to have a growth result. So, some schools in Wards 2 and 3 didn't meet that threshold, and therefore didn't have results. That's not to say that schools in Ward 2 and 3 aren't doing a great job to improve scores for all their students, or the students who are at-risk there.

  • 12:51:41

    NNAMDIHow long are D.C. students' typical commutes to school, and what modes of transportation are they using?

  • 12:51:47

    COFFINSo, typical commutes in the city, we look to a report done by the Urban Institute called the Road to School. And for a kindergartner in the city, the median commute time by car would be six minutes, and nine minutes by car for middle school. However, for D.C.'s households, about half of them don't have access to a car within their household. And we don't know how many children would also have access to someone to drive them to school.

  • 12:52:14

    COFFINSo, when we look at public transit, the commute times move to longer distances, and about 20 minutes for middle schoolers, for example.

  • 12:52:22

    NNAMDIHow segregated are D.C. schools, based on this at-risk designation?

  • 12:52:27

    COFFINSo, because about half of our students are at-risk, it allows for schools to have more of a mix of students who are at-risk and aren't at-risk. We see that about half of our schools have a student population that is about half at-risk and not at-risk. That said, we do have some schools that are the extreme, with very few at-risk students. A lot of them are in Wards 2 and 3, as you mentioned.

  • 12:52:49

    NNAMDIFrazier, you're a member of the Board of Education. This report notes that if all students identified as at-risk had access to a car, they'd be able to reach leveler schools in such six minutes. But many don't have such access. How is transportation affecting access to these leveler schools?

  • 12:53:05

    O'LEARYCompletely, I think. I mean, at Cardozo, we might have had one or two students who drove. And most of the students used public transportation. I mean, that's high school. And I know that the report has to do with middle and elementary schools. But what we are talking about on the Board of Education is having at-right neighborhood schools so that students could go to an elementary school and then go to a middle school and then go to a high school within walking distance, or within short travel distance.

  • 12:53:42

    NNAMDIFelicia, how do your students get to school, and what are some of the challenges for kids coming from farther away?

  • 12:53:48

    OWO-GRANTYeah. So, about 65 to 70 percent of our scholars do come to school by vehicle, right. And that sort of supports the numbers that I saw in the report, as well, which I found to be interesting. The rest of them, about 30 percent or so, are using public transportation, or they're walking to school. And, you know, that number also is sort of similar to what our population of students look like where they're coming from.

  • 12:54:12

    OWO-GRANTSo, like, 55 percent of students at Woodridge come from Ward 4 or 5, right. And then maybe it's around 25 to 27 are coming from Ward 7 and Ward 8. And then the rest are coming from Ward 6. And so there's a parallel, right, with how they're getting to school, also with where they're living. And so I can assume that the majority of our scholars that are coming through public transportation are probably coming from the wards that are farther away from the school.

  • 12:54:36

    NNAMDIAnd I'll have the final word from a parent of a D.C. charter student. You only have about 40 seconds, but go ahead, please. You're on the air.

  • 12:54:43

    UNIDENTIFIEDHi. So, Kojo, I just wanted to say that the school that my daughter attends has a large at-risk population, a relatively new school, about four years old. She's a senior now, so there were no scores there when we decided to go. It wasn't our first choice. It was hers. But rather than leveling the playing field, they were disservicing the students. At least 15 students left the school within a year -- I mean, not 15 students, 15 teachers and staff members left the school within a year, many of them writing very damning letters to the leadership regarding the issues.

  • 12:55:19

    UNIDENTIFIEDBut the most egregious act that occurred was that they circumvented the OC testing protocols by only having the top-performing...

  • 12:55:30

    NNAMDI(overlapping) And we're almost out of time, but it's my understanding that you feel that charter schools should be regulated in much the same way as D.C. public schools. Is that correct?

  • 12:55:38

    UNIDENTIFIEDThat is correct.

  • 12:55:39

    NNAMDIOkay. And I’m afraid that's all the time we have for. Chelsea Coffin, Frazier O'Leary, Felicia Owo-Grant, Maisha Riddlespringer, and if you're still there, Nia White, all, thank you for joining us. This conversation about leveler schools in D.C. was produced by Margaret Barthel. Our look at the public service loan forgiveness program was produced by Victoria Chamberlain. Tomorrow, Dish City, the newest WAMU podcast, tells the story of this changing region through food. But the best part of Dish City is a labor of love from our very own Ruth Tam. Ruth and her producing partner Patrick Fort will join us tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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