- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson outlined an ambitious five-year plan Wednesday to improve student performance, increase graduation rates and fund pilot programs that could lengthen the school day or academic year at specified schools in the District.

Mr. Gray said the strategic plan, titled “A Capital Commitment,” is designed to meet key goals as education continues to be a leading topic of discussion among constituents and is part of his “One City” agenda. The initiative is being launched while investigators continue to look into allegations of cheating on standardized tests in years past at certain schools and as talk of school closures begins to accelerate. It also arrives at the tail-end of the five-year plan started under former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee comes to a close.

While the strategy from Ms. Rhee focused on quality personnel and wholesale changes in how the school system operates, Ms. Henderson feels educators now can focus on their teaching techniques.

“I think we’re finally at a point where we can really ramp up what’s happening in our classrooms,” she said at a news briefing on Wednesday.

The plan is organized into five goals — increase citywide proficiency in reading and math to 70 percent, improve the proficiency rates in the city’s 40 lowest-performing schools by 40 percentage points, increase the high school graduation rate from 52 percent to 75 percent, increase overall enrollment in traditional public schools, and make sure 90 percent of students like the school they attend.

“I know it’s a little crazy,” Ms. Henderson joked about the last item, but she stressed that young people perform best when they are enthusiastic about what they are doing.

Ms. Henderson said the goals “are ambitious, but we know that we have to be aggressive and urgent if we’re going to ensure that our young people are ready for college, career and life.”

The plan is complemented by “Proving What’s Possible,” a $10 million grant program designed to fund innovative endeavors at city schools.

Mr. Gray said some schools may implement a pilot program that lengthens the school day or year. It is time, he said, for the city to reconsider the “agrarian concept” of an academic calendar that runs from September to the start of summer.

“I know we have a couple of urban farms in the city, but actually it is not a huge part of our economy at this stage,” Mr. Gray quipped. “So we’re starting to rethink concepts that have become truisms, [and] that really need to be rethought, revisited and changed in many instances.”

Mr. Gray said a gradual approach is more responsible than systemwide changes to the public schools’ schedule.

“I think you have to demonstrate there is evidence that this works,” Mr. Gray said.

The D.C. Public Schools system is embarking on the multipronged mission while it waits for the city’s Office of the Inspector General to weigh in on accusations that some schools enjoyed dramatic improvements in their test scores during Ms. Rhee’s tenure through a suspicious number of erasures that turned wrong answers into correct ones.

Ms. Henderson said she spoke with the inspector general recently and it appears the office is “wrapping up their investigation.”

“This I.G. does these things at the I.G.’s pace,” Mr. Gray said, responding to a question about why the inquiry has taken so long.

Officials also indicated that school closures are on the horizon. Despite nostalgia for the neighborhood buildings, Mr. Gray said the city uses 220 buildings for instruction of 76,000 students in traditional public schools and charter schools while nearby jurisdictions serve many more students in far fewer schools.

“Just do the math on that,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s unsustainable.”

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