DC Schools Serving At-Risk Students Recognized for Academic Achievement


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Niya White, campus director at Center City Public Charter School in Congress Heights, admits she’s “a bit obsessive” when it comes to her students’ data. In her office, she flipped through pages of filled-in math worksheets and “exit tickets.”

“It’s almost like your ticket out,” Smith said of the forms, which are collected at the end of classroom lessons and used by students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. “Just so you know they understand and master that lesson for that particular day and we can move on or different, or if there are any pockets.”

The pages revealed neatly printed mathematical functions written by fifth graders. She highlighted examples of mastery, but there were also errors. “If I look through it and see, ‘Hey, there’s like eight kids who made the same common mistake,’ let’s go back.” Sometimes White looks at dozens of assignments — from kindergarten to eighth grade.

It’s a strategy that has resulted in the Southeastern Washington campus being listed on EmpowerK12’s list of 2022 Bold Performance Schools. These schools, which educate large numbers of students considered by the city to be “at risk,” outperform their peers throughout the district, according to the DC Education Research Group.

Children at risk include students from low-income families, as well as children who are homeless or in the city’s foster care system. But the educators who teach them, grade their homework, and help them get Spirit Week T-shirts don’t view them that way.

“We don’t have struggling students, we don’t have at-risk students,” said LeVar Jenkins, principal of John Burroughs Elementary School, another school on the list. “We only have students.”

This year’s Bold Performance Schools include 14 elementary, middle and high schools. Students at the schools achieved proficiency rates on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test – widely known as PARCC – that were on average 9.1 percentage points higher than those at other schools with characteristics similar demographics. They also outperformed the pre-pandemic average among similar schools on the standardized test.

At Burroughs, Jenkins said teachers have stepped up their efforts to give students feedback during the pandemic. “You could really see what a student was or wasn’t able to grasp in the moment,” Jenkins said. If a teacher noticed a problem, it was corrected “on the spot”.

In other cases, these schools have found ways to give children more time in class. Center City began offering in-person learning to students in the 2020-21 school year, when many schools remained closed. Families struggling to keep their children online, whether due to work obligations or poor internet access, could send their children to school.

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The Bold Performance Schools include nine chartered campuses: Center City in Congress Heights; Washington Global Public Charter School; Roots Public Charter School; KIPP DC Legacy College Prep High School; Southeast Friendship Primary School; Digital Pioneers High School; Paul Public Charter School; Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy; and Bridges Public Charter School.

The elementary schools in Burroughs, Burrville, Langdon, Garrison and Payne, which are traditional public campuses, were also recognized.

EmpowerK12 uses a mathematical model to calculate how schools with large at-risk populations – at least 30% of the student body – perform on the standardized test compared to their peers. Citywide, about 14 percent of children in schools with high-risk populations read and do grade-level math, according to an EmpowerK12 analysis of PARCC 2022 data. Among Bold Performance Schools, however, an average of 23 percent of children meet this standard.

Schools are spread across sectors and neighborhoods but share some commonalities. According to EmpowerK12, they prioritize family engagement, extended learning time for students, small group instruction, and weekly data monitoring. Teachers are regularly observed and coached to improve.

“A lot of it is about the quality of staff and leadership within these schools,” said Josh Boots, Founder and Executive Director of EmpowerK12, and an “overemphasis on relationships and fun.”

Tarsha Warren, deputy principal of Burroughs, knows all of the students in the building and, in many cases, their parents, aunts and cousins. Just like most of his colleagues.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said of the staff. Warren has been at Burroughs for over 20 years, and most teachers have worked in the building for at least a decade. Warren compared the school staff to a family, where everyone is supported but also held accountable for missteps. That’s what keeps them around. “Our children know that year after year they are going to see the same faces.”

Jenkins said it’s crucial that teachers, along with students, parents and staff, feel they have power and ownership of the school. Hallways and classrooms are decorated with student artwork and hand-painted murals.

One of the hallmarks of the campus is weekly “character education,” which focuses student voices, Jenkins said. Lessons include a theme — a recent topic revolved around respecting the school’s culture and environment, Jenkins said.

“What you’re going to notice is students talking, you’re going to notice students speaking up, you’re going to have students challenging each other,” he said of the conversations. , which are guided by school mental health staff. . About 30% of Burroughs students are grade level in reading and math, according to an EmpowerK12 analysis. Forty-one percent of the majority black school is considered at-risk, according to data from DC Public Schools.

Twenty-eight percent of majority black students in Center City are at grade level in subjects, Empowerk12 found. More than half of the students there are considered “at risk”, a term that makes the principal laugh.

“I find humor in people who ask, ‘Hey, how did you do it?’ How did we do what?” White asked. “How did we teach the children like we were supposed to? How did we take care of them like we were supposed to? security like we’re supposed to? We did what we had to do.

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White showed a room of 4-year-olds practicing their penmanship by writing the date on dry-erase boards. Their unsteady hands gripped their markers tightly, but when White entered the room, one of them dropped the utensil to bend her fingers into a heart shape.

Elsewhere in the building are small support reminders. Vocabulary words or multiplication problems that a student may encounter during a test are posted in the hallways. In the hallway where the college students take their classes, college pennants line the walls.

Students meet regularly with counselors and participate in extracurricular activities, including plays and debates. For years before the pandemic, White organized college trips to Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. “Places they’ve never been, things they’ve never seen,” he said, recalling taking college students to tour the Everglades. “I mean, just for them to see and understand all of this was so important and so huge.”

The school has a long tradition of gathering in the gymnasium before class for the morning muster, during which students greet each other, wish each other happy birthdays or thank teachers for supporting them through a difficult lesson the night before. It’s a practice that makes every student feel welcome and respected, White said, which translates to academic success.

Eighth-grade student Zowie Boyd called Center City a “second family,” which is something students missed when learning virtually.

“It wasn’t a good time for me,” Keniya Brown, a seventh grader, said of the time spent learning on a computer screen. “But coming back to school where you have people who understand you and have known you for a while…makes it easier.”

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