By:  Jess Giles*

Grosso Connects with Educators at Summer Conversations

On July 18 and August 2, Councilmember David Grosso, Chairperson of the Committee on Education, invited educators throughout the District to attend a summer educator townhall to discuss issues that impact their ability to teach students. Some fifty teachers candidly engaged in a provocative dialogue with Councilmember Grosso about some of the most pressing issues troubling public and public charter schools throughout the District of Columbia, from their point of view. 

Schools represented: 

  • Achievement Prep Academy Public Charter School- Wahler Place Middle Campus, Ward 8
  • AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, Ward 1
  • Brightwood Education Campus, Ward 4
  • D.C. Prep Public Charter School (School not specified)
  • Friendship Public Charter School (School not specified
  • Hart Middle School, Ward 8
  • H.D. Woodson High School, Ward 7
  • Langley Elementary School, Ward 5
  • MacFarland Middle School, Ward 6
  • Malcolm X Elementary School, Ward 8
  • McKinley Technical High School, Ward 5
  • Roosevelt High School, Ward 4

We’ve highlighted just some of the comments made during the conversations below:

Teachers are not given adequate support to address classroom behavioral issues.

Last year, Councilmember Grosso took a first step to end the school to prison pipeline by passing a ban on pre-K suspensions and expulsions of three- and four-year olds by requiring every local education agency to submit information—organized by campus, grade, sex, and race—to the Office of State Superintendent of Education on suspensions and expulsions. Councilmember Grosso has also been very supportive of the implementation of restorative justice practices as an effective alternative to pushing students out of school. However, he wants to ensure that we continue to make great strides in reducing our reliance on suspensions and expulsions. Teachers shared with us the following:

  • Teachers are pressured by school leaders to reduce their reliance on suspension and expulsion to manage classroom behavior problems, but schools have not implemented alternative policies for them to utilize. 
  • Restorative justice programs must be implemented at the beginning of the school year and fully integrated into the school day so teachers do not have to eliminate it from the schedule because there is not enough time.
  • Restorative justice practices should also be implemented for elementary and middle school.
  • Teachers should be trained on how to effectively use restorative justice techniques.
  • Some teachers stated peer mediation was successful. 

Student attendance is increasing but agencies must efficiently coordinate services and strengthen communication channels.

For the past several years, the D.C. government has passed laws and implemented new regulations to address the issue of truancy in our schools and to boost overall school attendance. Councilmember Grosso has stayed abreast of these issues while serving on the Interagency Council on Truancy. Last year he amended a law on truancy so that students are not unfairly penalized. Councilmember Grosso intends to continue to work to strengthen student attendance policies, and wants to hear from teachers about this issue. Here is what they had to say:

  • D.C. agencies and organizations should use better coordination to keep track of where students are located when they are not in school. There is often a lack of communication between group homes, parole officers, and schools about where students are located. Additionally, schools should be aware when students are missing from class when they are taking care of Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services or Child and Family Services Agency obligations. 

Teachers are often treated like caseworkers and need adequate support to help students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and behavioral and emotional issues.

Throughout the course of his chairmanship, Councilmember Grosso has passionately advocated for more nurses, social workers, psychologists, and other supports in schools to help students deal with trauma.Recently, on these efforts, he has exchanged letters with the Department of Behavioral Health on trauma and immigrant students and introduced and passed the Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015. Even with these actions, according to teachers, students are still not receiving the maximum supports they need.

  • More social workers and mental health professionals are needed in schools, along with better coordination of Medicaid services. Teachers should not be forced to act as case managers for students with behavioral emotional issues, especially when teachers are not given the information they truly need to help students with these issues.
  • Information about a student’s behavioral and/or emotional issues should be communicated with all of the student’s teachers. There was some disagreement about this idea. While some teachers believe this information should follow the student throughout their entire academic career, others voiced privacy concerns.
  • The screening process for diagnosing IEPs takes too long to complete so, consequently, there are many undiagnosed students in general education classes. Several teachers said the diagnostic process takes anywhere from 6 weeks to an entire school year. Furthermore, in DCPS, if a student has an attendance issue, then this process can take even longer. Two teachers said this is the exact reason why they left special education. 
  • Children need effective early intervention services in order to lessen the probability that they will need special education services at a later date. 

Teachers from District of Columbia Public Schools noted:

  • Students should be able to receive help from caseworkers that are outside of school. Currently, outside case workers are prevented from entering schools to help students who are in-crisis- even when the caseworkers may have a better relationship with the student than school personnel. Instead, schools are encouraged to contact the Crisis Hotline, which in some cases can exacerbate an already tense situation if those persons do not have a relationship with the student. 
  • Community Based Intervention (CBI) providers should be allowed to bill Medicaid for services they provide to children. 
  • Behavioral and emotional support (BES) classes at schools must be reworked. Teachers reported that there are often fights, especially in grades 3-5.

Teachers from District of Columbia Public Charter Schools noted:

  • Special education students often transfer from charter schools to DCPS when their needs are not met or vice-versa, but the critical information about the child often does not follow them.
  • Community Based Organizations, which provide help for children living in D.C. facing a behavioral or mental health crisis, are often too slow to respond, do not come at all, or often misdiagnose the child. Teachers are unsure which services are offered to students. 

Principals and teachers agreed that the current school funding mechanism is not strategic and teachers are often left out of the discussion. 

A couple of years ago, the D.C. government radically changed the way it provides financial resources to public schools by adding a weight in the uniform per-student funding formula for students considered “at-risk”. The definition of at-risk takes the following qualifications into consideration: students receiving free or reduced cost lunch; students whose families qualify for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program; students who are experiencing homelessness or in the foster care system; students who are in high school but a year or more older than the expected age for their grade level; etc. However, there is some anecdotal evidence and research that suggest this funding is not following students to the classroom and our teachers seem to agree.

  • It is unclear if at-risk dollars are actually following students to the classroom. Currently, DCPS allocates the funds to individual schools based on their at-risk student population, and principals can choose from a set of options on how to use these dollars; while public charter schools have no restrictions on how to use their at-risk funding. 
  • Many teachers believe they are left out of the conversation about spending. The perception is that the DCPS central office and principals do not share decision-making responsibility with teachers. Also, teachers claimed that school budgets are not transparent.
  • Special education funding should be examined. For example, some schools no longer have special education coordinators so special education teachers have to take on that additional responsibility.

Teachers often do not feel motivated because they are not included in major decisions and there is generally not a lot of job satisfaction.

  • IMPACT (The DCPS Effectiveness Assessment System for School-Based Personnel) often squashes teachers’ creativity because they have to teach what is being tested. Teachers believe there should be a philosophical shift in how education leaders approach education reform – teachers should be viewed as part of the solution, not part of the problem. Furthermore, DCPS should consider utilizing an objective third party platform to collect input from staff, parents, and students before making decisions. They would also like DCPS central office to stop implementing new ideas every year, which makes it harder to stay consistent and measure sustained growth.

Teachers need more development and support for students in upper grades who struggle with reading.

  • Reading specialists are needed in every school because there is a connection between lack of reading skills and behavioral problems. Many of the teachers believe there is a lot of illiteracy in the upper grades so perhaps they should receive some training on how to teach students to read.

There is not enough parent and family engagement with schools.

  • Teachers do not have enough time in their day to call every parent about every issue so technology should be leveraged to help with this obligation. 
  • Some schools need more help getting Parent Teacher Associations started.
  • Resources to help parents are not equitably distributed throughout the district. 
  • Legal action is always a recourse for parents who feel the education system has failed their child but this option is only beneficial to those parents who have the capacity to be actively engaged and knowledgeable about the system. 

As you can see, the discussion we had with teachers was quite dynamic. It was amazing to observe different teachers from various schools all across the city raise the same issues in both sessions. This fall the Committee plans to use this conversation to inform our hearings/roundtables on special education, student disabilities and access, high school graduation, and at-risk funding.

*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.