DCPS chancellor search continues with last of three community forums tonight

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DC residents will have a chance tonight to weigh in on their priorities for the next schools chancellor as part of the search for a permanent leader for the DC Public Schools. The Sept. 11 community forum — the last in a series of three such events — will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Ward 5’s Brookland Middle School, 1150 Michigan Ave. NE.

The earlier sessions — held Aug. 14 at Ward 1’s Cardozo Education Campus and Aug. 28 at Ward 8’s Savoy Elementary School — drew a combined total of about 300 community members.

In June, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the beginning of a nationwide search to fill the position, four months after former Chancellor Antwan Wilson announced his resignation in the midst of scandal. In February, Wilson resigned after admitting he circumvented the DCPS lottery system so that his daughter could attend Wilson High School in Tenleytown. Amanda Alexander is filling in as interim chancellor, and she recently confirmed on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show that she is applying for the permanent job.

Wilson headed the school system for about 13 months, having taken over as chancellor in January 2017. To fill the position that time, the mayor’s office sought community feedback through many of the same methods they are using again two years later. Critics are repeating their objections as well — that the role of community engagement in the actual selection of the next chancellor is ill-defined, with a need for greater transparency and inclusion.

Interim Deputy Mayor of Education Ahnna Smith says the engagement process is helpful in guiding the search for a new chancellor. (Photo by Taylor Mulcahey)

But officials say the input from the public forums so far and from focus groups with teachers, principals and students ia providing important insights about what is needed in the city’s next schools chancellor.

“We’re hearing a lot of affirmation about the same things we looked for last time,” interim Deputy Mayor of Education Ahnna Smith said in a recent interview. “But we’re also hearing that some additional areas — like integrity and accountability and transparency — are really important to families and community members as well.”

At the Savoy Elementary School forum on Aug. 28, community members sat in groups of five to six people around tables in the gymnasium. At each table a staff member from the mayor’s office facilitated the discussion.

Following short remarks by Smith and Steve Walker, director of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, organizers posed two questions, asking what the next chancellor’s priorities should be and what qualities the mayor should look for in the next chancellor. Community members were encouraged to look at the DCPS Strategic Plan, 2017-2022, and the 2016 Chancellor Search Community Engagement Report to assist with their answers.

Sherri Watkins, a DCPS parent in Ward 7 and manager of Community of Hope at The Commons at Stanton Square, had priorities beyond those listed in the documents offered by the District. She hopes the next chancellor will direct DCPS officials to re-examine regulations governing suspensions and introduce trauma-informed teaching into schools. She is also concerned about the inequitable distribution of opportunities such as dual language immersion programs, which are clustered primarily in Northwest schools.

Watkins would also like to see a chancellor who was born and raised in DC. This preference was echoed by the others at her table, who agreed that having a chancellor with familiarity and experience with the community — whether from their upbringing or spending time in the city in adulthood — is a top priority.

“[It] will send a message that not only do we trust and believe in our native Washingtonians to work for our school system, but we also trust them to run it,” Watkins wrote in an email to The DC Line.

Members of Watkins’ table were not as concerned about criteria such as educational background or age, reiterating that experience and familiarity with the community remain critical.

After the small-group discussions, representatives of each table shared a summary with the rest of the attendees.

Although each group had a slightly different vision for the search, many people prioritized a commitment to ensuring equitable schools across every ward and to educating the “whole child,” with an emphasis not just on academic achievement but also on social emotional learning. Speakers also urged the mayor to seek out candidates who are trustworthy, have strong leadership skills, are from a diverse background and are committed to staying long term, among many more qualities.

After this week’s forum, members of the Our Schools Leadership Committee will collect and organize community feedback into a report that they will present to the mayor. They plan to complete the report by late October.

In conjunction with the community forums, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education also has been holding separate focus groups for teachers and school administrators. It will host a focus group for students — with two from each high school — in the coming month, with details still being worked out.

The office is also planning a Facebook Live event, during which Our Schools Leadership Committee co-chairs will host a discussion; the date has not yet been set.

Additionally, the office has posted an online survey to get the public’s input, with questions that echo much of the framework used at the community engagement forums. One section of the survey asks whether the schools seem to be “on a strong path to success” or in need of a change in direction; later, a multiple-choice question asks what the school system should set as its top priority, with choices that include engaging families, promoting equity, ensuring “excellent schools” across the city, and educating the whole child. In a third section, those responding to the survey are asked to rank the qualities they would like to see in the next chancellor, such as a “deep understanding of DC culture and climate,” a “visionary who thinks strategically” and a “professional educator with an instructional background and experience in urban education.”

As of a week ago, the survey had only received 160 responses — a number that received a great deal of criticism from State Board of Education members when they were updated at their monthly working session on Sept. 5.

Joe Weedon, Ward 6 representative on the State Board of Education, described 160 people in a self-selected survey as far too few to ascertain views in a school system with 47,000 students. Smith responded with assurances that a push for wider participation would be a priority in the upcoming months.

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