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Exclusive interview with Abigail Smith, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education

I was extremely honored to sit recently with Washington D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith. Our conversation started with me asking for her opinion on the state of public education in the District today. She answered almost before I could finish getting the words out of my mouth. “I think we are in an incredibly good place,” Ms. Smith replied. “There is a real optimism out there. We still have an incredibly long way to go, but we are now seeing both qualitative and quantitative progress across both the traditional and charter school sectors.” I then inquired of her to name specifically the quantitative indicators to which she was referring. “There are huge indicators,” Ms. Smith responded. “Enrollment is going up in each school system; families have faith and optimism in our offerings. The rich choice we have here locally certainly helps. The test scores are also a positive indication of how the quality of public education is rising. Some people may criticize the recent NAEP scores, and we know they are not at the level that we want them to be, but the jump in the scores has outpaced everyone else. This is a big deal. We have a momentum that we could not say that we had just a few years ago.”

Ms. Smith continued, “The other aspect of public education in the District that really excites me is the kind of collaborative work between schools and between sectors that we are now seeing. There are tons of individual examples of this activity. In addition, we have had a tremendous response to the common lottery. By the close of the first round application period for high schools, over 3,000 children had applied for the high school lottery through MySchool D.C. For the Pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade lottery so far over 9,000 kids have signed up and the application period will be open until March 3rd. When we look at who has participated it is distributed across the city and across sectors. This is a great example of something people said could not be done in this town. But we were able to accomplish this feat by bringing stakeholders together and listening to what they had to say.”

I had never before personally met the Deputy Mayor. My only experience with her was in meetings. But I did have an overwhelming immediate reaction to the information she was providing. I can sum it up in one word: competence. I asked Ms. Smith what direction Mayor Gray has provided to her in completing her work. Again, she answered without hesitation.

“He said to me during our very first meeting that he absolutely believes that having high performing schools in every part of the city has to be our main objective. In his view charter schools play an important role in this effort. At the same time, the Mayor has unwavering support for DCPS and Chancellor Henderson’s leadership. He is not interested in competition between public schools. He wants to see all of us working together to achieve the basic goal of quality in every corner of the city. ”

I then reminded Ms. Smith of the goals she identified for her department last June when she met with charter leaders. They are:

1. Provide DCPS with chartering authority with the ability to have schools with a neighborhood preference,
2. Create a data system to assess programmatic education needs across the city,
3. Provide facilities to charter schools,
4. Access city’s ability to serve various student subgroups focusing on at-risk children,
5. Update the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to provide funding equity between the two systems,
6. Institute a common lottery,
7. Form “Re-Engagement Centers” which are “a one-stop shop” for disconnected youth that will reconnect them with appropriate educational and support services, and
8. Simplify student assignment by initiating feeder patterns from DCPS schools to charters and the reverse.

I then asked the Deputy Mayor for updates on each item. Regarding providing the Chancellor with chartering authority Ms. Smith stated that not much progress has been made in this area. “We introduced a bill, but we are also exploring other alternatives to give Ms. Henderson the flexibility she desires so that she can reach her goals,” the Deputy Mayor explained.

Ms. Smith indicated that her office has done much work around design of a data warehouse. “We have culled information around facilities, test scores, and demographics across sectors, along with population projections by neighborhood. We recently released the Adequacy Report which contains a wealth of information regarding school financing. We have also made a lot of headway in terms of making data on public schools more accessible to families. Along with the D.C. Public Charter School Board, The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and District of Columbia Public Schools we developed the Equity Report that compares schools to one another across various characteristics. Parents also have access to Learn DC which has a host of statistics regarding traditional schools and charters.”

I gave Ms. Smith credit for identifying 16 shuttered school buildings that can be leased to charters or for other community uses. But the Deputy Mayor is not satisfied. “We want to improve the Request for Offer procedure regarding these buildings. The goal is to do a better job of identifying the needs of the community and to become smarter about where we site programs. Something that is extremely important to me is that facilities that were school buildings remain as school buildings.”

I discussed with Ms. Smith the issue of the city serving at-risk children in terms of the recent decision by the PCSB to begin the revocation process against Options PCS. The Deputy Mayor had much to say on this topic. “Options PCS has presented us with a complicated and difficult challenge. The charter is not serving these children well. Providing severely emotionally and physically disabled students a quality education has been a challenge across the country. Many of these kids have already been moved from school to school. Collaboration between all parties is really important right now. We have to take the attitude that this is not your problem or my problem but our problem. When we all come together then the right outcome becomes apparent.”

I changed the subject to her department’s outreach to the public around the common lottery. Here Ms. Smith became excited. “We are receiving many positive comments about the process from both parents and schools. Our staff has knocked on thousands of doors concentrating on areas of town where parents may not have as much access to information about picking schools for their children. People were able to signup right then. We have had office hours, people can call our hotline, and staff in all libraries are available to assist with access to the lottery.”

I then asked the Deputy Mayor about goal number 7 around disconnected youth. The Deputy Mayor answered, “Students that leave school that are in the 16 to 21 years of age group are often lost forever. These are the people that often end up in jail or worse. When they become disconnected like this it becomes much harder to reach them. My office, OSSE, and D.C.’s Department of Employment Services, are working together to launch a Re-Engagement Center. We have developed a proactive outreach strategy. The goal is to conduct a pilot plan this spring with an implementation of a full scale program the next fiscal year.” Re-Engagement Centers frequently offer individuals who have left school assistance with tutoring, child care, job training, and other services so that they can graduate from high school or obtain a GED.

I concluded my time with the Deputy Mayor by asking about the move to have DCPS elementary school students feed into charter middle schools. She informed me that a number of interesting conversations have taken place between DCPS and the D.C. International Charter School, although nothing definitive has been worked out. She said that this type of collaboration was also on the table to be discussed during the student assignment review process. Ms. Smith revealed that changes to the School Reform Act would be required to make new feeder relationships between charters and traditional schools a reality.

We then engaged in a general philosophical discussion around school choice during which the Deputy Director paused to make sure I knew how proud she was of her 10 person staff that has been able to achieve so much over just the last 10 months that she has been in her position. Her kindness to me over the hour and her compliments to her team reinforced to me how fortunate we are to have Abigail Smith as our Deputy Mayor for Education.

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