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Chancellor sees major emotional problems in D.C. schools

Study: 10% in 8th grade tried suicide

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says middle schools must focus on lagging literacy rates and address a series of emotional issues undermining student performance, such as sexual promiscuity, safety concerns and the 10 percent of the city's eighth-graders who have attempted suicide.

"Our middle-grade children deserve developmentally responsive schools that meet all of their needs, not just the academic ones," Ms. Henderson said at a hearing before the D.C. Council's Committee of the Whole.

"Students in these grades are undergoing so many changes and are facing many challenges."

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said 53 percent of D.C. students who drop out of high school do so by ninth grade, and more than 80 percent by 10th grade.

"Clearly there's a problem with the transition between middle school and high school," he said.

Ms. Henderson said her staff will "hunker down" this winter to find solutions to the systemic and developmental problems these students face.

Citing "sobering statistics" from a 2010 study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ms. Henderson said nearly 1 in 10 of the city's eighth-graders have attempted suicide, nearly 30 percent had engaged in sexual intercourse and nearly 20 percent of sixth-graders missed school in the preceding year because they felt unsafe at the facility or en route to school.

She said DCPS will rely on information contained in an ongoing facilities study by the deputy mayor for education to analyze how resources are spent in the public schools system ahead of the 2013 fiscal year budget process.

Ms. Henderson said she looks forward to a "shared-decision process" in the coming months with Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Council on a plan to enhance reading and other skills — it is hard for students to "catch up" as they grow older — and troubles that extend beyond academics.

Mr. Brown, a Democrat, repeatedly said adults appear to be the ones who are hurting students' chances for success in the public schools.

He noted that deficiencies in parts of the city prompt parents to fight for spots in a select few schools, which in turn sparks enrollment inequities.

"What parents want to know is, 'What's the best place to send my child?' " Mr. Brown said. "And if it's not in their neighborhood school, they're going to do what's best for their children at that moment."

Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, resorted to legislative action Sept. 20 to address the absence of schools in his ward tailored to grades six through eight.

He introduced a bill, the Middle School Parity Act of 2011, that would allow public school students who live within a boundary that does not have a middle school to attend any public middle school in the District.

On the flip side of the issue, council member Mary M. Cheh said enrollment at the Alice Deal Middle School — the lone middle school in Ward 3 — is swelling beyond control. The school has a capacity of 980 students, and if no changes are made, enrollment will surge to 1,200 in three years without even taking into account out-of-boundary students.

"We don't want to shut our gates, so to speak," said Mrs. Cheh, a Democrat, citing the promising level of diversity at the school. "But even if we did, what I'm telling you is we don't have enough capacity."

Ms. Henderson and her staff are charged with examining these issues and how resources are doled out in relation to school size. Schools with lower enrollment do not receive enough to keep up with the program offerings of its larger counterparts.

She noted that Prince William County, Va., places 80,000 students in 90 schools, while the District spreads 47,000 students among 125 schools.

"I think what you see in our larger middle schools is the opportunity for more flexibility and variety in the offerings," Ms. Henderson said.

Mr. Brown said he hopes to find swift solutions to these issues, because "every child should have access to a quality seat."

"You see," he said, "our students can't wait any longer."

Asked after the hearing to verify the statistics she cited, particularly the figures on eighth-grade suicides, Ms. Henderson replied, "That's what the survey said."

Schools officials later said the question was part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered last year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and funded by the CDC.

The answers came in response to the question, "Have you ever triedto kill yourself?" in a wide-ranging survey of 1,686 randomly selected D.C. middle school students.

The results were consistent with what the survey has found in other cities in recent years. The 2009 report, for example, recorded the same answer from 10.5 percent of eighth-graders in Chicago and 9 percent in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

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