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Henderson, Gray Introduce New Plan for D.C. Schools

James Wright | , WI Staff Writer | 4/26/2012, 2:29 p.m.

The chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools and the mayor presented a new plan to improve student performance, increase math and reading proficiency on standardized tests and boost graduation rates.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced a five-year strategic plan, titled "A Capital Commitment," which is an aggressive effort to rebuild the public schools system, during a press conference at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest on Wed., April 18.

"This is the last year of the five-year plan that my predecessor [Michelle Rhee] put into place a few years ago," said Henderson, 40.

"We want to build on those achievements that have taken place such as hiring staff for schools, paying people on time, and making sure that students have textbooks. We want to move more aggressively and urgently to promises that we made to our stakeholders that our students will be better educated."

The plan will help guide spending and programming decisions through 2017 and some of the goals include: increasing District-wide math and reading proficiency to 70 percent while doubling the number of students who score at advanced levels of proficiency; improving the proficiency rates for the 40 lowest performing schools by 40 percentage points; increasing high school graduation rates from 53 to 75 percent; ensuring that 90 percent of students like the schools they attend; and increase overall District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) attendance.

Gray, 69, backs Henderson fully.

"As I said in the State of the District Address in February, every child in every neighborhood in our city deserves the opportunity to gain a first-rate public education," he said. "This plan will move us into the District's next phase of school reform, building on our recent successes and capitalizing on the dramatic population and economic growth our city has seen in recent years."

One way to reach the goals of the plan is to extend the school day and school year.

"We have found that school ending at 3 p.m. does not work for anyone," Gray said. "By having an extended school day, we can have after-school programs that can help our students academically."

On the matter of year-round school, he said that the late August to June time frame is "an agrarian concept" that is outdated.

"We need to rethink these truisms," he said.

Matilda Carter, a parent with school-aged children, agrees.

"I am for a longer school year 100 percent," Carter, 46, said. "We need longer school days because so many of our youth are latchkey children [because] they have nobody to go home to after school. A longer school day would reduce crime and keep them involved at least until 6 p.m. when the parents come home."

One aspect that is undefined in Henderson's plan is the closing of some schools. The chancellor said that part of the plan will be addressed in the near future.

Henderson said that parental involvement and making sure that high school students will be ready for standardized tests for higher education will be priorities.

"We have to engage parents differently," she said. "When parents are involved, children do better and so do the schools."

Henderson said that she's working on a pilot program to have a firm that prepares suburban students for college admission standardized tests work with District students.

Washington Teachers' Union president Nathan Saunders said that the plan is headed in the right direction but needs to go farther.

"To improve the quality of education of all students, it is imperative for schools to spend more time on tasks and less time on testing," he said.

"We must acknowledge that education not only happens in classrooms, but also in our homes and communities, making it essential to secure and maintain the support of teachers, parents and students as the plan is implemented over the next five years."

Carter, a resident of Kingman Park in Ward 7, said that Henderson is on the right track.

"Our children must be able to compete in a global market," Carter said. "It takes a village to raise one child and parents and teachers have to work together to ensure a quality education for all of our children in the District of Columbia."