Isi Ojeabulu teaches math at DC Prep Edgewood Campus on March 24, 2014.
D.C.'s mayoral race is in its final days, and polls show Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser is in a dead heat with incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray. Bowser has repeatedly said there is an increased urgency around education reform in D.C. She’s been short on details, but has highlighted the successes of one school in particular: Alice Deal Middle School in Ward 3.
This is Bowser at a WAMU debate last month: "What I want to see is a plan that would replicate the success of Alice Deal Middle School across the District."
A good Deal
So, what is it that makes Deal successful, and can those achievements be copied elsewhere?
"Good morning! Morning girls! We have some kids who are hip height and some who are a foot taller than me," says Deal Middle School Principal James Albright, greeting students as they walk to class.
Albright says a successful middle school needs to be structured, but also allow students the space to explore.
They're shifting from very, very concrete thinkers to the abstraction and independence in high school. And so middle school is a transition," Albright says. "But middle school can be powerful because this a time when kids are interested in asking really challenging questions but they're not jaded enough to be put off by teacher responses."
Deal Middle School is located in a beautiful brick building, in one of the wealthiest parts of D.C. Students in this school follow the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum. They learn foreign languages such as Chinese and take art, music and P.E. classes. Eighty-eight percent are proficient in Math, 83 percent in Reading.
In addition, Deal has more than 60 after-school clubs to choose from anime to Minecraft to cooking to board games. Students can participate in Science Olympiad, several musicals and even classes on the stock market and more.
"Field hockey, swim team, basketball, lacrosse… whatever we can come up with, we will support it," Albright says.
These programs have helped Deal become one of the most attractive options for D.C. families. In just five years it has added approximately 500 students and currently houses one-fifth of all middle schoolers in D.C.’s traditional public school system. And students such as Connor Yu and Charley Mestrich say they love it.
"There are a lot of schools where kids don't feel like they're having fun but at Deal it’s a lot of fun," Yu says.
"People are really supportive," Mestrich says. "I have friends who are gay or bi and have come out and people are really supportive."
A model for some, but not all
Principal James Albright is proud of what the school has accomplished but says replicating its success is not that simple.
"Just saying we can take this and plop it down someplace and do the exact same thing is not necessarily accurate," Albright says. "Every kid, every teacher, every community is totally different . So you can’t say we're going to take this school and clone it. By virtue of moving it, you've changed what it is."
DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson agrees.
Do I think that some of those various elements can be replicated? Many yes, some no," Henderson says. "Deal might be the model for some of our families but it’s not the model for all of our families."
Henderson says she doesn't know how much of Deal’s success is due to demographics. And that’s why she wants to focus on building great middle schools instead of simply replicating Deal.
"I don't think every middle school needs to be like Deal," he says. "We're trying to build a portfolio of different options for parents and Deal is one of those options."
Deal is definitely not representative of D.C.’s population. Just about 20 percent of Deal’s student population is low-income. Overall in District schools, it’s more like 75 percent. This matters because research shows low-income students need a lot more help in school. They enter kindergarten knowing fewer words, and are often behind in reading and math. They are also less likely to get help with homework from their parents. These conditions put a lot more pressure on schools to catch them up.
So how do low-income students at Deal do? When you separate their test scores, they don't do as well as the top eight public charter middle schools like D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle School in Northeast D.C. It’s not in a very safe neighborhood. Eighty percent of its students are low-income, receiving free or reduced-cost lunches, but 91 percent are proficient in math and 77 percent in Reading.
DC Prep offers another model
At DC Prep, students excitedly raise their hands to answer questions in Isi Ojeabulu's Fifth Grade math class. Neither the teacher nor students looks up at visitors. It’s part of what they call an “unapologetic” focus on academics.
"We demand they need to be in their seats by 8 a.m. or they are considered tardy. And if you’re tardy we’re in constant communication with their parents," says DC Prep Principal Cassie Pergament. "But, we’ll buy you an alarm clock. We’ll text you every morning, we’ll buy your bus fare if that’s what it takes."
And she says DC Prep is relentless about focusing on just two things — academics and building character.
"They have a very long school day. They have an extended school year. They have two or three hours of homework every night after being in school until five o'clock," she says. "And we're unapologetic about it because we want families to know that that’s our major focus."
Students here don't have recess. Pergament says many years ago DC Prep used to have many activities.
"Shakespeare theatre, baseball, ice skating and golf a lot of great opportunities. In a sense it spread us too thin because it made our focus not on the right things that we believe are the most important things to be in high school and do well," Pergament says.
She says they already ask teachers to be on call to teach until 8 p.m. and many students who come in to DC Prep are significantly below grade level.
"If you're a 6th grade math teacher you're creating different lesson plans. Sometimes 20 a week. We can’t ask teachers to do that and then teach dance or coach. It’s too much," Pergament says.
RuKiyah Mack, 14, say she loves knowing teachers are there for her anytime and that students are celebrated for being smart. Sometimes though, she wishes they could have more extracurriculars.
"It would be more interesting if we have more clubs and activities to choose from," May says.
But she says it’s worth the payoff knowing she'll get into a good high school.
"We do have those moments where we wish we had the days DCPS had off. But in the end its worth it," May says. "We're going to excellent high schools and it’s worth it."
Principal Cassie Pergament says students here get into selective DCPS schools and private schools, including Sidwell Friends and St Albans.
"We can't do everything. The approach we've taken works for our kids," Pergament says.
Pergament says she wouldn't replicate DC Prep in a different part of the city.
"I would replicate the mission and philosophy and vision but not the approach and execution," she says. "Because we've changed every year because we have different students every year."
Students at both DC Prep and Alice Deal say they love their teachers, and it’s clear both places have a lot to be proud of. But they are very different populations and it’s not at all clear how each school model would work in a different neighborhood, with different children in different communities. So while the sentiment “Alice Deal for everyone” sounds good, many educators say it’s far too simplistic a slogan to meet the needs of the range of children who study in D.C. schools.