FOCUS DC News Wire 11/13/2012

  • DCPS closure proposal expected today
  • A much-needed pruning of D.C.'s overbuilt school system
  • Charter High School Graduation Rates Above Average [Friendship- Collegiate Academy and Washington Latin PCS mentioned]
  • D.C. parents deserve data on school safety
  • District Grapples with High Truancy Rates
  • What information do D.C. parents need as they're choosing schools for their  kids?
  • A second-term agenda for Obama: Stop messing with school vouchers in D.C.
  • Kevin Chavous asks President Obama to stop interfering with D.C. voucher program
  • D.C. principals may lose control of budgets
  • Education, starvation and obesity
  • Finding good schools in average neighborhoods

DCPS closure proposal expected today
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
November 13, 2012

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s long-awaited list of proposed school closures is expected to be made public Tuesday in an announcement that is sure to trigger intense debate in coming weeks.

Members of the D.C. Council have been briefed on the plan, as my colleague Mike DeBonis previously reported. Most have declined to share details but Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told dozens of residents at a public event Monday evening that he expects DCPS to propose closing 19 buildings. A DCPS spokeswoman declined to comment until after the list is released.

The anticipated announcement has already drawn opposition from community organizers and neighborhood activists who argue that the city needs to better articulate a vision for the public education system before closing any schools. Shuttering buildings could drive students out of the school system, they say, accelerating enrollment losses and leading to further closures in the years ahead.

Henderson has been saying for months that DCPS is operating too many underenrolled buildings and must downsize in order to run efficiently and provide a full range of academic programs at each school.

The school system enrolls about 45,000 students in 117 buildings; Fairfax County, meanwhile, has about four times as many students in 196 schools.

One key question is what will happen to the buildings that the school system vacates. Under city law, public charter schools — which are funded by tax dollars but operated independently — have first right to any surplus buildings.

Another question is how the proposed closures will be distributed around the city. A study commissioned earlier this year by Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright recommended dozens of low-performing schools for closure, many of them in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8.

Those wards were among the most affected in 2008, when then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee moved quickly to close 23 schools, igniting angry protests and long-lasting political backlash.

The closures directly affected about 5,000 students who were reassigned to other schools, according to a study of those closures by the 21st Century Schools Fund, the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

Students from closed schools were twice as likely to enroll in fast-growing public charter schools as students from other DCPS schools, the study found, leading to a loss of enrollment that cost the school system about $5 million in 2009. And a recent city audit found that the 2008 closures cost far more than previously thought.

Henderson has said she learned lessons from the Rhee-era closures and has promised to do more to seek public input this time. She’s banking on the idea that communities will be more willing to accept closures if they’ve had the chance to hear and respond to her proposals.

But there is limited time to take public comment. Henderson has said that she hopes to make final closure decisions by January, and some parents and activists wonder how sincerely officials will listen to their input.

The D.C. Council has scheduled two public hearings on the proposed closures for Nov. 15 and 19. No details have been released about DCPS community meetings on the closures, which are widely expected.

A much-needed pruning of D.C.'s overbuilt school system
The Washington Post
By The Editorial Board
November 12, 2012

EVEN BEFORE DETAILS are released, critics are circling to attack the school-closing proposal that D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson will release Tuesday. The shuttering of a beloved school can be one of the hardest blows to a neighborhood. But some schools have to close, and facts ought to trump emotion or nostalgia in the process.

A report commissioned by the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) prepared the ground this year. The report examined the geography of school quality, cataloguing neighborhood by neighborhood what was offered by traditional and charter public schools. The report confirmed that there are too many under-enrolled and low-performing schools. Ms. Henderson has made no secret of her belief that school reform depends upon right-sizing the system.

Even after closing 23 schools under former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, the District operates many more schools for the number of students served than do surrounding jurisdictions or other urban districts of similar size. D.C. has 123 schools for 47,247 students while Fairfax County has 196 schools for 181,536 students, even though Fairfax covers far more area. Many of the District’s public schools are operating well below capacity, with some enrolling as few as 131 students. Under-enrolled schools do not allow for the best or most efficient use of resources. Schools with larger enrollments have more robust staffing, including librarians and art teachers, and encourage collaboration that is difficult to achieve in small schools.

Ms. Henderson has been careful to brief council members whose wards will be affected, and she reportedly plans a series of meetings in neighborhoods as plans are refined and finalized. It is important that she explain how students will benefit from the consolidations and also what will become of the closed schools. Previous administrations allowed closed schools to lie unused and deteriorate; Mr. Gray’s interest in providing space for quality charter schools is an encouraging sign that better choices will be made with this important real estate.

The D.C. Council has no formal role in school closure decisions, but council members can help build support for the hard choices that need to be made. It will be instructive to see which members rise to that challenge.

Charter High School Graduation Rates Above Average [Friendship- Collegiate Academy and Washington Latin PCS mentioned]
The Washington Informer
By Dorothy Rowley
November 9, 2012

As of June 2012, District public charter high school students garnered a 76.7 percent graduation rate, which far exceeded the state's target of 63 percent in accordance with the federally-approved Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Flexibility Waiver.

"Many of our charter high schools have much to be proud of, and we congratulate those with strong graduation rates," said Brian W. Jones, PCSB Board chair. "Among the noteworthy results this year -- more than half of the 888 students who graduated from public charter schools in four years reside in wards 7 and 8 -- in neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of poverty in the city."

While the ultimate goal of the District i to achieve an 85 percent graduation rateee by 2017, Scott Pearson, Public Charter School Board executive director, noted that the overall charter school graduation rate was down from last year's rate of 79.8 percent.

"The documentation procedures in the collection of graduates and dropouts were more stringent this year compared to last," Pearson said. "While we welcome the increased rigor, we also recognize that it had some effect on school graduation percentages."

Pearson also said that many charter students who did not graduate with their class after four years are still working towards their diplomas.

"We are working with the State Superintendent to calculate and release five-year graduation rates. It is important to recognize students who persist in their goal of earning a diploma, even if it takes more than four years," he said.

 The new preferred measure which was first introduced last year measures a cohort of students: identifying what percentage graduate high school within four years.

This year, District charters graduated 77 percent of their students within four years, compared to 56 percent for District of Columbia Public Schools, according to information submitted to The Washington Informer by the charters' communications officer.

Dan Cronin noted that among schools with the highest graduation rates, is Friendship Public Charter School's Collegiate Academy, which boasts a 91 percent rate for 2012. That rate – which compares to city schools like the School Without Walls, and McKinley Technology High School and Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School -- is up five points from 86 percent last school year.

"While it [Collegiate Academy] is the second highest charter high school in the graduation rate rankings issued recently by Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the first, Washington Latin, serves far fewer economically disadvantaged students," Cronin wrote in an email. "Seventy-four percent of Collegiate Academy's students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch. And, 100 percent of their graduating class is accepted to college."

D.C. parents deserve data on school safety
The Washington Post
By Don Soiffer
November 9, 2012

“Is my child’s school safe? Is it a good school?” These are the first questions most parents, and especially most urban parents, want to know at the start of a school year.

In the District, reliable student performance data on individual schools is not difficult to find. Scorecards for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and school performance reports for D.C. public charter schools are easily accessed online, each containing clear, straightforward information about academic outcomes, including test scores and graduation rates (for high schools) for students at every school. Other indicators about a school’s learning environment, such as student attendance and re-enrollment rates, are provided as well.

But when it comes to information about school safety, D.C. families are still pretty much on their own.

The District’s public safety officials are quick to reassure that “our schools are safe.” This does not clash with the general impression that readers of The Post or other news outlets receive.

But how safe is that? Compared with what?

DCPS school scorecards do include a line for safety, but they do not offer information about actual incidents. Instead, they include the results of a survey of students, parents and staff members about their perceptions of safety and order at each school. The survey is taken every two years. The average perception for a DCPS school is “65 percent safe,” and the largest high schools had scores between 50 percent and 65 percent.

Certainly this information has some value for parents. But does it show them how safe their child’s school actually is? As well as, say, data on the number of incidents in which safety was an issue?

To their considerable credit, both DCPS and the D.C. Public Charter School Board (on which I serve) now also put data online on student discipline — particularly the rates at which students are suspended or expelled — for parents to see.

By contrast, in Virginia online reports for individual schools list information such as the number of weapons offenses, disruptive-behavior offenses and offenses against both students and staff members that occur every school year, alongside the numbers for previous years. The use of broad categories help to safeguard the privacy of the victims of these incidents.

Such data would be even more useful in the District, where, unlike in Virginia, families have numerous alternatives to their neighborhood schools. And the District’s public transportation system makes many options practical.

As decision-makers consider the soon-to-be-announced slate of proposed school closings, reliable, accurate information on school safety would benefit affected families as they consider their options. The comprehensive report published earlier this year that largely informed those decisions, commissioned by the mayor’s office and conducted by the nonprofit Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF), contained a wealth of objective information and analysis about every school in the city. It was described as the first step in a process to evaluate how to adapt public education here to best address the city’s educational needs. But the IFF report also did not include any data on school safety.

Is this because no such data exist? It is difficult to believe that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) could not provide accurate and timely data about the number of incidents it was involved with at every school in the city.

In Virginia, school districts are required by law to report safety data to the state. A D.C. reporting system need not be burdensome to schools, especially if the police already maintain such a database.

An analysis I co-authored in 2009 based on such comprehensive MPD data found that police incidents responding to violent crimes at DCPS schools occurred at an average rate of 1.9 per 100 students each year, with the total rate for all incidents averaging 7.4 per 100 students during the 2007-08 school year. The rates varied widely at schools across the city. The rate for public charter schools was much lower, but it is important to remember that the police department has designated first-responder responsibilities for DCPS schools, while charter schools have a variety of security arrangements.

So just how safe are D.C. schools today? Why not make this information available to parents on school report cards as well?

District Grapples with High Truancy Rates
The Washington Informer
By Dorothy Rowley
November 12, 2012

Less than a year after the District of Columbia launched a $500,000 anti-truancy program aimed specifically at improving graduation rates through radio commercials and mass transit advertising, a recently-released report reveals that truancy remains a big problem.

The report, titled "Truancy Reduction in D.C. Public School System Year 2012-13," which was the topic of discussion during a Nov. 8 D.C. Council hearing on anti-truancy, also stated that at some District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) high schools most of the students were chronically truant, with 15 or more unexcused absences during the 2009-10 school year, and that such absences from classes often result in lower graduations.

The District has the distinction of having one of the nation's worst dropout rates, and during the hearing which involved Chancellor Kaya Henderson and an official from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), Henderson -- who referred to DCPS's four-year graduation rate -- described the system's high rates of truancy as "an educational "crisis."

In acknowledging that more than 40 percent of students at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools missed a month of classes last year over unexcused absences, Henderson, 42, added that many older students who are years behind on their age-appropriate reading level, have given up.

Students fall into a high rate of truancy after missing more than 21 day from schools. Ballou students head the list with 46 percent truancy and a 50 percent graduation rate. Anacostia, Spingarn, Roosevelt, Dunbar, Cardozo and H.D. Woodson follow, with some of the schools targeted for closing in accordance with recommendations earlier this year from the Chicago-based Illinois Facility Fund.

A 2011 Washington Informer article stated that on any given day in almost every District neighborhood, youth who should be in school are seen loitering and getting into mischief, and that city police picked up more than 4,000 students that year for truancy.

Truancy usually begins at the middle school level and as many as 2,000 students in the District skip school each day. An August 2012 report to DCPS from the Office of the Inspector General indicated that among reasons students give for truancy are lack of clothing to wear, pregnancy, fear of gang violence and problems at home.

In addition to DCPS truants being picked up by District police, some are referred to CFSA for educational neglect.

Michele Rosenberg, CFSA chief of staff, said the District mandates that her agency be informed whenever a student age five through 13 has 10 unexcused absences within a school year. She added however, that that when younger children are chronically truant, their educational progress and ability to contribute positively to society is put in jeopardy.

"What's more, it may signal that family difficulties are getting in the way of getting children to school regularly and on time," Rosenberg said. "The family may be struggling, and this may be an opportunity to help."

According to DCPS, these are key terms aligned with unexcused absences:

• Truant – A 5 – 17 year old student who is not in the school on a school day without a valid excuse;

• Chronically Truant - Describing a student between the ages of 5 and 17 who has accumulated 15 or more unexcused absences for the school year in a school in which he/she has been enrolled for at least 25 days;

• Truancy rate – The value reported by DCPS reflecting the percentage of students in a school who are chronically truant;

• Average Daily Attendance (ADA) – This is the daily attendance rate. It reflects the average number of students who are present or have excused absences for a period of time. Excused absences are defined by DCMR Ch. 21; and

• Chronically Absent – Describes a student of any age who has missed 10 percent or more days in a school year, excused or unexcused.

What information do D.C. parents need as they're choosing schools for their  kids?
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
November 12, 2012

The school-choice movement in the District and across the country is built on the faith that parents are better equipped than anyone else to make decisions about their children’s education.

But for parents to make good decisions, they need good information. And maybe there isn’t enough good information easily available to parents who face a growing — some might say daunting — number of school choices in the nation’s capital.

That’s the argument that Don Soifer — a school-choice advocate and member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board — made in an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Soifer points out the lack of hard data on something parents care deeply about: school safety. From his piece:

    The District’s public safety officials are quick to reassure that “our schools are safe.” This does not clash with the general impression that readers of The Post or other news outlets receive.

    But how safe is that? Compared with what?

    DCPS school scorecards do include a line for safety, but they do not offer information about actual incidents. Instead, they include the results of a survey of students, parents and staff members about their perceptions of safety and order at each school. The survey is taken every two years. The average perception for a DCPS school is “65 percent safe,” and the largest high schools had scores between 50 percent and 65 percent.

    Certainly this information has some value for parents. But does it show them how safe their child’s school actually is? As well as, say, data on the number of incidents in which safety was an issue?

Other jurisdictions do publish school-by-school information about incidents that affect school safety.

Soifer highlighted Virginia, where school report cards “list information such as the number of weapons offenses, disruptive-behavior offenses and offenses against both students and staff members that occur every school year, alongside the numbers for previous years.”

(To see how Virginia records safety stats on its school report cards, click here and scroll to the last page. This is the report for Fairfax County’s Annandale High School.)

I’d love to hear from parents: Would more information about school safety be useful to you?

What other data would you appreciate having as you choose schools for your kids: Teacher turnover rates? Length of the current principal’s tenure? Number of minutes of recess per week?

Update: Officials with the advocacy group Education Trust have put together a list of the kinds of school data they think parents need and should have.

The District provides very little of that information, the Education Trust found.

That list includes school safety measures and a bunch of other interesting data points, such as the percentage of teachers who are long-term substitutes or in their first year; the percentage of high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other advanced courses; trends in per-pupil funding at each school; and the ratio of special education teachers to special education students.

A second-term agenda for Obama: Stop messing with school vouchers in D.C.
The Washington Post
By Kevin P. Chavous
November 9, 2012

In April of last year, when President Obama (D), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed on a budget averting a government shutdown, the winners weren’t just the government workers and various recipients of government assistance who didn’t miss a paycheck.

The winners were also children from low-income D.C. families.

That’s because the budget deal also reauthorized the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for another five years, ensuring funding for the voucher program that had raised graduation rates, improved academic achievement and left parents satisfied.

Or so we thought.

Fast-forward a year and a half, and we see how that agreement extended only so far. Last fall, the first year after the reauthorization, saw a 60 percent increase in OSP enrollment, giving D.C. families hope that the trend would increase this year, allowing them to participate in the oversubscribed program.

But maneuvering from the U.S. Education Department prevented the scholarship program from growing. Numbers released last month highlighted enrollment increases in traditional D.C. public schools and public charter schools. But despite an increase in funding from $15.5 million last year to $20 million in 2012-13, there was a net decrease in the number of students participating in the voucher program.

It’s not because of lack of demand. I have long been a supporter of the president, and I continue to applaud many of his education initiatives, including his embrace of charter schools. But his administration’s opposition to giving low-income families the full slate of educational options — captured when he zeroed out funding for the program in his budget this year, despite the earlier deal in which he agreed to reauthorizing the program for five years — is unacceptable.

The drop in participants is a natural outgrowth of two unforgiving scheduling decisions. First, the Education Department prevented the program’s administrator from accepting applications after an arbitrary date of March 31 of this year, shutting out anyone who came forward after that cutoff. Then, scholarship lotteries for the 2012-13 school year weren’t allowed to take place until July, far later than many parents could wait to make decisions about where their kids would attend school in the fall. Nobody at the department can give straight answers as to why.

In practical terms, what this means is that only 319 new students were offered scholarships, despite demand for many more.

These roadblocks are part of a long history of the administration’s resolute opposition to the voucher program, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescinding 216 scholarships in 2009 to the department ignoring the positive results of a gold-standard study, conducted by its own Institute of Education Sciences, that found that D.C. voucher students graduate at a rate of 91 percent — more than 20 percentage points higher than those who sought a voucher but either didn’t get one or didn’t enroll in the program after being accepted. Because of the delaying tactics of the department, a credible — and federally mandated — new study of the program cannot be conducted unless the program enrolls hundreds of new students next year.

It’s sad, too, because the Opportunity Scholarship Program has an eight-year history of positive results for kids. More than 11,000 families have applied since inception.

The Education Department says its mission is to “promote student achievement . . . by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Instead, it’s standing in the way of the District’s children, which not only isn’t in the spirit of the law to which the president agreed — it’s also just plain wrong.

It’s a tragedy that even with more money, higher demand and more space, fewer low-income parents are able to choose to put their child in a better educational setting. Why is the Education Department standing in the way of the city’s poor children? When will the administration stop playing politics with our kids?

On many occasions during his first term, President Obama demonstrated an ability to embrace education reforms that help kids, and I expect that to continue now that he has won a decisive reelection. What’s different about this one? This is an easy one: All he and his Education Department have to do is get out of the way and let a successful program work.

Kevin Chavous asks President Obama to stop interfering with D.C. voucher program
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
November 13, 2012

Last Sunday Kevin Chavous, former D.C. Councilman, had an editorial in the Washington Post respectfully asking President Obama to leave the Opportunity Scholarship Program alone.

Don’t hold your breath.

Since Mr. Obama came into office he has tried every trick in the book to end giving students an escape from attending failing schools. These moves have included terminating funding for the program on two separate occasions in his budgets, blocking new entrants, and moving lottery deadlines long past the time when parents need to make decisions on the school their kids will attend. The most disgusting act was in 2009 when he had U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan send a letter to 319 families telling them that the scholarships awarded to their children were being rescinded due to funding uncertainty created by his boss.

Each and every time Mr. Obama has made one of these moves, brave individuals came forward to save the OSP. But make no mistake abut it; now that the President has been re-elected he will work tirelessly once again to achieve his goal. This will be a thank you gift to the unions that spent so much time and energy to keep him in office.

It does not matter.

You see, I have a picture of Joe Robert standing with me in my office. I will never forget how this man, sick and undergoing chemotherapy, defiantly stood up for the program. Each time Mr. Obama tries to hurt underprivileged black children there will be many who will defend those without a voice. Over time right always wins over wrong.

Try us again Mr. President. Your legacy will then be that you tried to thwart poor children from obtaining a high quality education. And you will fail.

D.C. principals may lose control of budgets
The Washington Examiner
By Lisa Gartner
November 11, 2012

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson wants to take control of some school budgets away from principals who she says "are not making wise decisions" about their spending.

Henderson wants to take staffing decisions out of the hands of some principals, who currently have almost total discretion over how to use the money they receive from the city each June.

"Autonomy is earned, and if you're not making wise decisions about how to spend your money, I am going to step in," Henderson said. "Moving into this school budget season, we will be incredibly prescriptive with our principals."

Henderson announced her intention to take more direct control of the schools' budgets in response to concerns raised by D.C. Councilman David Catania, D-at large, over why schools that have high truancy rates aren't hiring full-time staff to deal with the problem.

At C.W. Harris Elementary, in the Southeast neighborhood of Marshall Heights, 20 percent of student missed more than 20 days of school last year without an excuse, but the school still didn't hire someone to track student attendance, as many other District schools do. Kenilworth Elementary didn't have an attendance counselor on its books, either, although 13 percent of the Northeast school's children missed a month or more of school.

"For next year's budget, you should be able to ask me any question about why schools are spending X and not Y, and I will have an answer for you," Henderson said.

The District's public schools spend more per student -- $18,667 -- than any state in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but smaller schools receive less money than larger ones, leaving their principals wondering how they could fund extra positions DCPS required without additional dollars.

"That's going to be kind of tricky ... for a smaller school, where your budget only allows for you to have A, B and C," said Atasha James, the principal of M.C. Terrell/McGogney Elementary School, who was concerned that Henderson's initiatives could take money from the Congress Heights school's own priorities.

Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for Henderson, said DCPS "will work with principals to ensure that their staffing is built to help them reach their goals and that their staff are used strategically."

Education, starvation and obesity
The Washington Examiner
By Jonetta Rose Barnes
November 12, 2012

The boundary for Ward 3's Wilson High School tracks through parts of Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 4 and Ward 6. That wicked gerrymandering and a misguided out-of-boundary admissions process have caused overcrowding in some facilities. Other schools are severely under-used.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson have cited the latter as reason for school closures while ignoring the former and the role the government has played in both.

For example, Ward 4 families, among others, have been encouraged by DCPS' established boundary to enroll in Wilson. Yet schools in their communities, like Roosevelt or Coolidge High Schools, have suffered dwindling student populations, leading to a reduction in critical resources.

A change in boundaries could reduce overcrowding in Wilson and other Ward 3 facilities. It also could revive schools in other wards, eliminating the reason for closure.

Ward 3 D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh has pleaded for years with DCPS to redraw boundary lines. But neither former Chancellor Michelle Rhee nor Henderson has taken action.

"Part of the problem in terms of redrawing boundaries is that it's a hot political issue," Cheh told me last week.

Here's the raw truth: DCPS' boundaries and its out-of-boundary process are remnants of an inglorious past. They were designed to quell protests about academic inequity in a once segregated system.

But those neo-busing strategies have solved nothing. They have camouflaged the city's continued failure to invest adequately in many of its public schools, particularly those in low-income and working-class neighborhoods. They have protected local leaders against criticism about the absence of innovative methods for stimulating socioeconomic diversity, including citywide magnet schools.

The cure is the cancer. It has begun to destroy neighborhood choice for many families while decimating other communities through an aggressive, myopic school closure program.

Cheh has introduced legislation requiring a study of boundaries followed by appropriate and periodic adjustments. She believes the change could improve educational outcomes and lead to a more thoughtful diversity program, placing students from "well-resourced" backgrounds with those who are economically challenged. A public hearing on her proposal is set for Thursday.

"The legislation is not the solution. It puts the issue on the table," continued Cheh, adding that she thinks the DCPS should "mix it up."

Don't expect too much from the mayor or Henderson. DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said there was consideration of boundaries in the new school closure plan. But, she didn't elaborate.

It is time for change. The council should enact emergency legislation mandating Chancellor Henderson submit a proposal for new boundaries by Dec. 31, before closures take effect.

Children should not be subjected to overcrowding and warehouse-like conditions in their neighborhood schools. Nor should they be forced to travel outside their communities to receive a quality education.

District leaders created the problems. They should be made to solve them without further burdening the city's children.

Finding good schools in average neighborhoods
The Washington Post
By Jay Matthews
November 11, 2012

In my 30 years writing about schools, one reader question outnumbers all others: “I like where I live, but I have kids now and the local school doesn’t look good to me. What should I do?”

I tell them how to investigate their neighborhood school. I explain that children of education-focused parents like them learn a lot no matter what school they attend. Then I advise them to go with their gut. Even if everybody thinks their local school is great, if it doesn’t feel right they should send their kids elsewhere.

I’ve done a long magazine piece and lots of columns on this, but I have never seen the issue dissected as well as in a new book by Washington area parent Michael J. Petrilli, “The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools.” It is deep, up-to-date, blessedly short (119 pages) and wonderfully personal. He shares all the frustrations and embarrassments he and his wife suffered while looking for schools for their two young sons.

Petrilli started the project with an advantage. There are few people in the country as knowledgeable about schools as he is. He is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on K-12 education policy, and executive editor of the journal Education Next. Thankfully he is a pundit unafraid of leg work, as proven by his intricate probe of state score results in Takoma Park, where he lived while writing the book.

Like many Washington couples, he and his wife wanted a school with a good mix of white and non-white kids from low-income and affluent families. That ruled out Wood Acres Elementary School in Bethesda, the least diverse school in Montgomery County. Its test scores were high but less than 1 percent of its students were low-income. Two percent were black and five percent Hispanic.

The usual rule is the higher the percentage of low-income children, who often start school behind, the lower the school’s average test scores. Petrilli discovered useful secrets in the subcategories available under the No Child Left Behind law to those who look for them. There were several schools near his home with a minority of white kids like his and many low-income children. They all had passing rates in reading above 90 percent, the result of an easy state test that made it hard to differentiate between schools.

So Petrilli looked at the percentage of white children at each school who not only passed but scored at the advanced level. Piney Branch Elementary, 33 percent low income, had a 73 percent advanced rate for white kids in reading. Pine Crest Elementary, 46 percent low income, had a 65 percent advanced rate. This was better than even less-than-1-percent-low-income Wood Acres, with a 62 percent advanced reading rate for whites.

Why? A K-2 school feeding kids into Piney Branch had a gifted and talented magnet program, Petrilli discovered. Pine Crest had a similar gifted program that drew high-scoring children from outside the neighborhood.

Researchers explained to Petrilli that if he and his wife picked a diverse school, no matter what its underreported advantages, he was going to get grief from friends and family. Only choosing a school full of affluent children would shut them up, family dynamics studies showed.

After a long search, he and his wife made a smart pick of a school they thought best for their boys, even though the choice conflicted with some of their stated values. I won’t spoil the ending. It is only one of many surprises in this remarkable book about the clash of school cultures and parental attitudes that has affected most of us, particularly those who live around here.

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