jonetta rose barras: Wanted — an education architect for DCPS

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There’s a temptation to parse the search for the next chancellor of DC Public Schools, with some education advocates arguing that any individual selected must focus on improving the quality of teachers and principals, providing equity funding, enhancing the voices of individual schools, serving up a technology plan for all schools, ensuring adequate maintenance and modernization of facilities, and creating a rich curriculum. That’s all good stuff.

Those are the parts — not the whole. What’s more, elected officials and senior managers already have trained their attention on those areas. For example, at-large DC Council member David Grosso has, for much of his tenure as chair of the Committee on Education, examined the suspension and expulsion rates at DCPS and charter schools; his efforts, bolstered by legislation introduced by himself and others, have been met with some success. The council has approved additional funding for at-risk students. There also have been consistent improvements to the DCPS curriculum, particularly after the Common Core was adopted as the basis for the annual testing regimen.

Photo by Bruce McNeil

Using what appears to be the fractured or narrow lens offered by some advocates would be a mistake. Myopia may be one reason that DCPS has landed at an education weigh station, marked principally by mediocrity, flat test scores, a widening achievement gap and predictable management scandals. Rather than a seamless system where the parts work in tandem and in service to the whole, consistently benefiting families and children, public education in the District has morphed into a ragged patchwork of programs, resulting, more often than not, in the stuff of magical realism.

DCPS requires a proven visionary and skilled public education architect and builder — one who can construct a comprehensive foundation and strong edifice, replete with those proverbial bells and whistles over which everyone salivates. One thing the school system doesn’t need is more money. It shares an annual budget of more than $2 billion with the charter school sector.

Equally important, DCPS needs the direct involvement of Mayor Muriel Bowser — not just an advisory search committee — throughout the entire chancellor process. She should participate in meetings of the advisory committee and attend all community forums, hearing for herself the concerns and desires of the residents she has been elected to serve.

When education reform was approved in 2007, it was imagined as a triumvirate: Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, the DCPS chancellor and the deputy mayor for education would work collaboratively, shaping the initial changes and then implementing necessary renovations and improvements. After Fenty lost his re-election, his immediate successor — Vincent Gray — held regular meetings with then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson and other education officials, but began to shift more responsibilities to his deputy mayor for education. Bowser continued in that vein, but placed even more duties in the hands of her deputy mayor, Jennifer Niles, who resigned earlier this year during the school enrollment controversy.

Now is the time for Bowser to reassert her leadership, not through proxies but directly. After all, surveys have indicated public education is one of the top two issues for the majority of District residents; affordable housing ranks No. 1. Significant progress — or at least measurable advancements — in those two areas could determine whether the city will continue to blossom or eventually wilt, having failed to meet its promise.

Translation: DCPS needs more than just a seasoned educator; it already has a bunch of those, including the current interim schools chancellor.

Citywide advocate Matthew Frumin and Ward 7 Education Council member Eboni-Rose Thompson have been pushing for a solid matter-of-right, neighborhood-based system of public education in all eight wards of the District. “I know what good looks like. We’ve used specialty as a proxy for quality for a long time,” said Thompson, adding there are certain pockets of communities that have not been invested in. “It’s not about individual kids or individual families. It’s where you have put resources to create possibilities.”

Frumin said the city needs a “chancellor who sees the system through a feeder prism, seeing the system the way parents see it. That doesn’t mean the chancellor has to be a prisoner to the feeder system.”

Undoubtedly, a solid feeder scheme, established around every community having high-quality elementary schools that connect to equally excellent middle and high schools, would provide the building blocks for strong architectural design by an educational visionary. Thompson and Frumin also said a new chancellor must be a “fierce champion of DCPS,” willing to take on power centers, like those associated with charter schools, which heretofore have not been confronted.  

Fortunately, Bowser has chosen advisory search committee members who understand where the city began and where it was trying to go. Victor Reinoso was the first deputy mayor of education. Prior to his appointment by Fenty to that position, Reinoso had years of experience researching and analyzing public education around the country and in the city. He is a former member of the DC Board of Education. Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former Ward 4 DC Council member, helped resurrect Southeastern University and is now a member of the University of the District of Columbia Board of Trustees. I only wish Patricia McGuire, president of the Trinity Washington University, were on the committee; she almost single-handedly reinvented that institution on which many District residents and workers have come to rely.

“The fundamental question is, ‘What are we trying to do?’ We have to come up with the idea of what we want to achieve and then build a strategy to achieve it,” said Frumin. On something like this, we can’t just go where the river takes us.”

This post has been updated to provide more detail on how Adrian Fenty’s successors managed education during their tenure.

jonetta rose barras is a DC-based author and freelance writer. She can be reached at

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