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In Era Of School Competition, Cooperation At D.C. School Yields Big Gains

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Stanton Elementary School, located along Alabama Avenue in Ward 8, posted three consecutive years of test score gains.
Stanton Elementary School, located along Alabama Avenue in Ward 8, posted three consecutive years of test score gains.

As public and charter schools in D.C. fight for students and resources, the talk is often more about competition than collaboration. But in one school in Southeast, a partnership between the two has produced surprising results — and could serve as a model for bring the sectors together.

On Thursday, D.C. officials announced that Stanton Elementary School on Alabama Avenue in Ward 8 had moved from up from "priority" to "developing" status on the federal scale used to assess school quality. The upgrade came after three consecutive years of improvements in test scores, gains that city officials say come from a unique charter-public school partnership. (Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7 also moved up on the scale.)

In 2011, day-to-day management of the then-failing school was turned over to Scholars Academies, a Philadelphia-based charter school operator. Teachers and administrators remained DCPS employees, but the school gained independence and autonomy usually reserved for charter schools, which currently enroll 43 percent of the city's public school students.

"I would say that at the crux and the foundation of it is just thought partnership, and I think what happens at Stanton is the synergy of all of the good thinking," says Rena Johnson, the school's principal. "What the partnership [also] offers... is some autonomy in how we spend our money."

Johnson also says that home visits over the last three years — 411 in the last school year alone, up from the 156 in the first year they were started — have helped foster communication and understanding between teachers and parents. The visits have been organized through a partnership with the Flamboyan Foundation, which works with schools in D.C. and Puerto Rico.

The combination led to dramatic jumps in math and reading proficiency: a 13.8 percent increase in 2011-12 and a 7.7 percent jump in 2012-13. Test scores fell 1.46 percent in the 2013-14 school year, though school officials attribute that to the incorporation of over 100 students from the Winston Education Campus in Ward 7, which closed last year.

The gains — and the partnership that spawned them — have drawn attention from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who held the school up as a model for the future of public education.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson seems to agree, saying that she's considering exporting the model to other parts of the city. "Of course we’re in discussions around how we could use this model in other situations to turn around persistently low-performing schools," she says.

Henderson also linked the school's gains to her request that she be given chartering authority, a request that the D.C. Council swatted down last year.

"We've been able to fashion a nice set of autonomies here at Stanton that I wish I could give to more of my schools. We try as best as possible to give as many of our schools the autonomy that we want to, but this is sort of one of the things that came up in the 'Why does the chancellor want chartering authority?'", she says.

"The chancellor wants chartering authority because if we believe that autonomy and flexibility are key to success in the charter school sector, why don't we don't we believe that autonomy and flexibility are keys to success in the traditional public school sector? I want access to whatever resources, whatever freedoms I can give my principals so that they can compete on a level playing field," she adds.

Not all partnerships have worked though. In 2010, Henderson ousted a charter operator that had been brought in to run Dunbar High School after complaints about management and security.

Johnson, the school's principal, hopes to extend the partnership in the years to come.

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