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Chancellor's Testimony at the DCPS FY16 Budget Hearing

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chancellor's Testimony at the DCPS FY16 Budget Hearing



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FY2016 Budget Hearing

Testimony of Kaya Henderson, Chancellor DC Public Schools

Before the Committee on Education
David Grosso, Chairman

April 28, 2015
Room 412
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20004


Good morning, Chairman Grosso and members of the committee.  I am excited to spend time with you this morning discussing our budget for the upcoming school year.  I am very proud of what we accomplished in this budget and confident that this plan will allow us to build on the success we have had in recent years.

Before I talk about those successes, I want to take a moment to thank the Mayor for investing in education.  At a time when many agencies are facing reductions, Mayor Bowser provided DCPS with a 3.4% increase in local funds.  Without this increase, we simply could not have maintained and expanded on our investment in schools.  This is particularly true given the reduction in federal funds that we have seen in recent years.

As you know, rather than force schools to suffer from the inconsistency in federal funding and the increases in costs, we absorbed all costs and funding reductions centrally and provided schools with the full benefit of the increase provided by Mayor Bowser.

Our funding increase was directly tied to our increase in enrollment.  An increasing enrollment is one of the clear signs that DCPS is headed in the right direction.  I want to start today by talking about the amazing successes we have seen.  I’ve spoken to you before about our increased test scores and improved graduation rate.  You have even heard Secretary Duncan refer to DCPS as “the fastest improving school district in the country.”   These are great indications of success.  However, I feel that the most important achievement is that we are attracting more families to our schools.  For example:

  • DCPS is projected to grow by 1500 students for the upcoming school year.
  • We have already seen three consecutive years of enrollment increase, a feat not seen in DCPS for over 50 years. 
  • We enrolled more new students this year than we have in any of the past 50 years, and
  • Since 2010, our enrollment has grown by 10%.

This might be the most important measure of success to me.  I love that our proficiency rates are going up and that more students are graduating.  I keep track of our improving truancy rate and our increases in student satisfaction.  However, when I see that more parents are choosing us, I know that DCPS is on the right track.

It is no mystery why parents are choosing DCPS.  We have great teachers.  We are offering rigorous courses across the curriculum – not just in reading and math, but also in art, PE, foreign language, music, career and technical education, and beginning next year, in a wider range of high school elective and extra-curricular options.  Finally, we are engaging more and more with our community.

In fact, we began the budget development process this year, as we did the previous year, by going directly to our community members to ask them what they want to see in our budget.  However this year, there was one key difference.  We started by talking to our high school students.  This may have been the most revealing and rewarding conversation that I have had all year.  Nobody was more honest, thoughtful, and critical than the young people I asked to give input on the budget. 

We went on to hold three community meetings.   Through these meetings and our EngageDCPS website, we heard from hundreds of parents, teachers, principals, and community members.  The conversations were challenging and thought-provoking, and they helped us to formulate a better budget.

Parents are coming to DCPS because we listen to their feedback.  This year, what we heard overwhelmingly is that parents want to see more rigor in the classroom, that parents want to know they have many viable high school options, and that we need to address the needs of all of our students. 

For the upcoming school year, we are investing in academic rigor in a brand new way.  We want to help teachers see that their students are capable of amazing work and that the most challenging lessons they teach can be the most fun for students.  We are giving every teacher at least four cornerstone activities to teach.  These range from one-day lessons to days-long projects.  They are taken from the very best lessons of our very best teachers.  They teach skills that are critical to student success.  Perhaps most importantly, they are exactly what you want your child to be doing in school. 

For example: our 6th grade students will explore a lesson on water bottle design, determining the optimal volume and surface area for the design of waters bottles to reduce waste.  At the high school level, teachers will engage students in a three-day World History and Geography II lesson on the effects of World War I.  It includes simulations allowing students to act as representatives of the nations in the conflict and to become personally involved in the historic events leading up to the war.  It also gives students the opportunity to explore a range of foreign policy decisions and their consequences. 

I have already told you a great deal about our Empowering Males of Color (EMOC) work.  We are excited to move forward with our mentoring program and our new high school.  Beginning in the middle of next school year, you will also see Proving What’s Possible awards going to individual schools to develop innovative ways to address the specific needs of their population of students. 

We have received incredible interest in this work from the private funding community and will be using these funds to support the EMOC work.

We are also making big investments in our high schools.  As you know, two years ago we invested in our elementary grades.  We made sure that every elementary student would have art, music, PE, foreign language, and library experience at least once per week.  In the current school year, we expanded that investment to our middle grades.  We made sure middle grades students received all the same opportunities that our elementary students had and provided every 8th grader the opportunity to take Algebra, explore college and career options, and access more and better extra-curricular activities. 

Our work in high school is much more complicated. We want so much from our high schools. We want to offer students courses that prepare them for college. We want students to explore their career interests.  We want to give students those unique, formative experiences – the chance to be on the debate team, to edit the yearbook, to be in band, to play football – that make the high school experience so rich.  We want our students to explore their own interests from African-American literature to accounting, from calculus to current events.  We increased our course offerings in high schools to address these needs.

  • Next year, our high schools will all offer at least 6 advanced placement classes.
  • Every high school will offer at least 20 elective courses.
  • We will offer CTE courses that can lead to either high-wage, high-growth jobs or to further education at the college level through our eight NAF academies.
  • We will invest in counselors and other supports to help guide our students through high school and beyond.

This was a long-overdue investment, driven by community demand. I am excited to see our new high schools in action during the upcoming year.

There was one other change for the upcoming year that is worth noting.  For the 2015-16 school year, we invested “at-risk” funds in schools proportionately to the student population.  As Council directed through the Fair Student Funding Act, we made sure that schools with the greatest at-risk populations received the most funding and those with the smallest populations received the least.  This per-pupil rather than programmatic allocation meant that some schools saw big increases and other saw reductions.  Given the wide range in the sizes of our schools and the other variables, the solutions were not always neat.

In particular, we heard from the Wilson High School community that they felt that their allocation was unfair.  I want to be clear that we are proud of Wilson’s success and we will continue to invest in the school.  As we do with all schools, we will monitor Wilson’s enrollment and class sizes over the summer to determine if we need to increase funding.

The other challenge we faced this year was in our capital budget.  If the emails and phone calls I get are any indication, I suspect that this will be the target of many of your questions.  I’m happy to talk to you about the capital budget.  Given the current capital situation, I believe that we have formulated a thoughtful and reasonable capital improvement plan.  That said, the current plan is the direct result of our collective actions – including Council’s and prior administration’s actions -- over the past few years.  As a city, we have moved forward without a strong rationale for prioritizing capital investments.  We can debate whether one school should move ahead of another, but without a real framework for our decisions, we are just prioritizing one set of opinions over another. 

This is why I proposed that we, as a city, prioritize our capital investments based on quantifiable evidence:  actual, not expected enrollment, the date of the last modernization, health and safety needs, etc.  It is also why, I believe, we need to both reevaluate and recommit ourselves to education specifications that focus on creating as many schools as possible that serve our students well rather than winning awards, wowing onlookers, and stretching our budgets to the limit. 

I am eager to move forward with you and with the community to ensure that next year we do not have the same conversation we have had this year, where being loud and being politically connected is more important than doing good for all of our students.

I can’t close on a doom-and-gloom story of facilities though.  Instead, let me celebrate the four new schools that we are opening this fall.  A few years ago, when we had to close schools to improve the quality of education we were providing, I said that our school system must be accordion-like.  That is, we need a system of schools that can contract when enrollment is low and expand when enrollment grows.  There were certainly many doubters.  One school of thought was that DCPS was simply continuing a cycle of failure, a downward spiral. 

This year, we have concrete evidence that that is not true. On the first day of the 2015-16 school year, we will open the much-anticipated, new Brookland Middle School, a new early education program at Van Ness, that will ultimately grow to become a full elementary school, the River Terrace Education Campus to serve our special needs students better, and the Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, formerly Community Academy Public Charter School’s Amos I campus. 

I am thrilled that we are adding schools, but I am not surprised. Over the past four years, we have demonstrated that we have a plan. We are investing in academic rigor in all parts of our curriculum.  We are asking the community what they want and we are delivering on the commitments we make to them.  We continue to improve on the quality of our workforce.  We are in the middle of an upward spiral and I am excited to have the education committee’s support along this journey.