Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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Less than a mile from the Congress Heights Metro and the Maryland line, Malcolm X Elementary School is quiet on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day. A few parents walk their children up the steep hill from Mississippi Avenue in Southeast, past half-million-dollar homes with two-car garages under construction across the street, toward humble garden apartments, aged apartment complexes, and weathered bungalows in Ward 8, where half of all children live in poverty.

In some respects, Malcolm X is unique: Of its 238 students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, 88 percent are considered “at-risk,” meaning they are homeless, in foster care, qualify for temporary financial or supplemental nutrition assistance, or are one or more years older than their grade level. That’s the highest percentage in Washington, D.C. Until recently, it was co-located with a public charter school, occupying the first and third floors of an elementary school that closed in 2008. 

But Malcolm X also is among a subset of D.C. public schools that officials occasionally acknowledge (and almost never by name) in their bromides, soundbites, rationalizations, and proclamations that accompany the latest standardized test scores or status reports on D.C.’s decade-long reform effort: It’s a 40/40 school, a designation borne of DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s five-year strategic plan, A Capital Commitment, which she launched in 2012.

A 40/40 school is among the 40 lowest performing schools in the District. When she announced her plan, Henderson said her second-highest priority—“invest in struggling schools”—was to increase proficiency rates in those schools by 40 percentage points by the end of the current school year. Initially, DCPS defined “proficiency” according to the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS), designed to test mastery of English, math, and science according to local “content standards,” but it abandoned that metric after the 2013-2014 school year.

Schools designated as 40/40 schools have certain traits in common: They mostly reside in parts of the city plagued by high crime, high unemployment, high rates of disease and mortality, and high numbers of single-mother households. More than half are elementary schools, which experts agree is the educational stage that is most critical to any future prospects for success in academics—or life. Of those 21 elementary schools, 18 reside in Wards 7 and 8, two reside in Ward 6 and one resides in Ward 1. On average, more than 77 percent of all elementary students at 40/40 schools are considered “at-risk.” The DCPS average for at-risk students in its other schools is less than 50 percent.

As Kaya Henderson departs DCPS, the schools are nowhere close to the goal she set, with marginal or inconsistent gains in some schools, stagnation in some, and losses in others, according to a City Paper review of DCPS performance data. DCPS, after four years, still lists 10 of the 40/40 elementary schools as “priority” schools, meaning they still need “intense support to address low performance of all students” and require “special quality monitoring and professional development.” Six are labeled “focus” schools, meaning they need “targeted support to address large achievement gaps,” according to the DCPS website. Just five are considered to be either “rising” or “developing.” 

Which is not surprising, given that investment in 40/40 schools has ranged from non-existent to inequitable to compromised, according to DCPS funding data, proficiency scores, budget experts, and education watchdogs. “I think it’s the biggest problem that DCPS has, and the biggest disappointment of the Henderson/Rhee regime, which is now in its 10th year,” says Mary Levy, an independent budget analyst, former research analyst for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and former director of the Public Education Reform Project. “Not that the pre-2007 regimes did any better, but this one has money and power that their predecessors only dreamed of.” Levy is a highly regarded D.C. fixture whom mayors, D.C. Council members, and public school advocates have relied on for years to make sense of the data.

Kaya Henderson Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Henderson introduced her strategic plan five years after Rhee arrived to acclaim and controversy as a school reform change agent. Close observers were already questioning Rhee’s impact and Henderson’s vision. Arts programs, STEM schools, small-school incubators and colorful graphs at the center of the Rhee-Henderson model were not being embraced so much as tolerated amid an emerging culture of standardized testing. At a July 2012 D.C. Council roundtable, DCPS parent, education activist, and freelance journalist Virginia Spatz testified: “New plans offer no more reference to the particular circumstances of the District—strengths, weaknesses, peculiarities—than we saw [years] ago. No research to show the impact of steps already taken or the wisdom behind any specific steps to come.”

The 40/40 initiative in particular was greeted with skepticism. “I remember when she announced the 40/40 goal. I thought, good, this is something she can be held accountable on,” says a former DCPS official. “No school in the history of time has achieved such goals,” counters a D.C. Council staffer familiar with DCPS school reform. “On its face, the concept of this as a reachable goal was ridiculous.” 

A frequent criticism of Henderson, who has flirted with a national reputation as an education  reformer, is that she promotes progress by highlighting aggregate student test scores that either do not account for or obscure one of the widest achievement gaps in the country. With at-risk students scattered throughout DCPS, but in lower percentages than in the 40/40 schools, individual student achievement also can overshadow the realities of struggling schools. When standardized test scores are “disaggregated,” or analyzed school-by-school, the argument goes, she looks less like the star her supporters want her to be. 

In recent months, Henderson herself has walked back her commitment to D.C.’s most struggling schools. When she announced the 40/40 initiative, she forecasted grants, extended learning time, and targeted technology investments. Indeed, several of the schools subject to the controversial “extended day” policy are 40/40 elementary schools. She also pledged to “invest in teachers, principals, and staff who interact with students every day,” a practice that her critics say involves handing out bonuses to “highly effective” teachers and firing those at schools with low proficiency scores. The resulting teacher turnover in 40/40 schools is twice the rate as in schools with 20 percent or fewer at-risk students, according to Levy’s review of DCPS data.

In March, in an interview with Gavin Payne, director of program advocacy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Henderson touted fiscal investments in activities that she and her team would want for their own children: learning how to play an instrument, learning a foreign language, becoming technologically literate, playing sports. She checked off the goals in her five-part strategic plan and claimed that she is held accountable by the city for each one of them. “Looking at data regularly and using that to drive us towards our goals has kept us honest and focused over time,” she told Payne.

But when Payne persisted with a question about Henderson’s “personal goal of closing achievement gaps,” the chancellor explained: “I am not exactly convinced that schools alone can close the achievement gap. I think about the fact that in Washington, D.C., we have the greatest income inequality in the country. That gap is only growing, and the fact that our achievement gap is growing in a similar way shouldn’t be baffling. But I think what we’ve learned is that equity is really more appropriate, giving different people different kinds of support…And for different groups and different kids that means different things.”

Iris Jacob, a professional development director with Teaching for Change and an adjunct faculty member in Women’s Studies at Trinity Washington University disputes the equity claim. “If we look at the holistic lives of these children, they are dealing with so many factors outside of school that account for how they are judged via test scores,” Jacob says. “Families [east of the Anacostia River] are screwed by conditions that would never apply to other kids.”

Parents and teachers at some 40/40 schools are not seeing an equitable investment in the well-being of the children or their surroundings. One teacher at Malcolm X who spoke with City Paper on the condition of anonymity to avoid risk of retaliation describes a student body in need of behavioral and emotional support based on conditions in their homes and neighborhoods. “They are trapped in a school system not adequately prepared to deal with these conditions,” says the teacher.

At another 40/40 school, Benjamin Orr Elementary, parents have been fighting for  renovations to an antiquated open floor plan for years. “Classes are separated essentially by dividers,” says Sirrell Phillips, who serves on a parent-teacher-community panel that advocates for school modernization. “Here it is, 2016, and we’re just getting to the drawing board. It’s difficult to learn in that environment. These kids are not jaded yet, but when the A/C goes out and no one fixes it, they start to feel like they don’t matter.”

Another teacher at a 40/40 school who spoke on the condition of anonymity says resources for the schools themselves also are lacking. As a result of cuts to the technology budget for at-risk students, the teacher says, the school offers blended learning for just half of the students; The computers they do have are surplussed from other schools and out-of-date. “It’s like the Third World over here.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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DCPS oversight reports tout four areas of investment in 40/40 schools: recruitment and training of highly effective teachers; new teacher training by “master educators” and strategies to improve attendance and school climate; extended school days; and hiring of assistant principals to improve literacy. Extended schools days, assistant principals, and reading specialists were supposed to be funded in 2013 and 2014 by a grant dubbed “Proving What is Possible,” but Malcolm X, a “priority” school, did not receive such funding for those years. Other schools on the 40/40 list received $100,000 each for those years, but so did a number of non-40/40 schools. In 2014, DCPS increased grants in some of the 40/40 schools, but cut them back in others. Only 17 percent of teachers in 40/40 schools were rated highly effective in 2013, and that figure has not risen more than five percentage points since. 

Meanwhile, investments in attendance and school climate were systemwide and therefore not unique to the 40/40 schools. Literacy programs were never implemented in more than 50 percent of the 40/40 schools. Extended schools days became a systemwide policy, and enough 40/40 schools implemented it to warrant the most visible reform effort in those schools. But assistant principals were installed in as few as eight 40/40 schools but never more than 11, and reading specialists appeared in 11 of the schools but never more than 21 of them. Master educators were to perform annual observations of teachers in their specialty area with the help of a diagnostic tool known as Response to Intervention, but the 40/40 schools did not complete those plans until 2015. 

Almost three years into her initiative, Henderson had little to show in terms of actual investment. In 2014, DCPS layered a new category of additional funds on top of an otherwise uneven regular funding structure for students “at risk” of academic failure. But this additional funding came just as DCPS was dropping DC-CAS as an evaluative tool, making it impossible to measure investment-based performance in the 40/40 schools over the arc of the five-year plan. The following year, DCPS shifted “Proving What is Possible” funds to all schools to promote “student satisfaction” through field trips, extracurricular activity, clubs, anti-bullying programs, and athletic teams.

For the 2014-2015 school year, schools were supposed to receive $2,079 in additional funds per at-risk student. Under the Fair School Funding Act, such funds were required to “follow the student,” and school officials had discretion to determine how to use them—as long as they supplemented the budget, not supplanted funds for basic school functions. But DCPS decided not to allocate funds to at-risk students the first year, and instead used them for purposes such as field trips, improvements in middle schools, and extending the school day.  

In 2015, a coalition of education advocates, including Levy and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, developed a data tool for tracking school funds that provided a revealing look at Henderson’s investment in at-risk students in struggling schools. The coalition reported 40/40 schools with large numbers of at-risk students not receiving their share of funds, and non-40/40 schools with fewer at-risk students receiving more on a per-student basis. Just two of the 40/40 elementary schools received the requisite $2,079 per at-risk student, the data tool shows. In almost half of the 40/40 schools, at-risk students received less than $1,000 per student. (Malcolm X received $910 per “at-risk” student. Savoy Elementary School, another “priority” school in Ward 8, received just $464 per student.)  

DCPS again allocated $2,079 per at-risk student in 2016 and improved distribution of the funds, Levy says, but not sufficiently. Allocation of at-risk funds ranged from $1,676 per student to $4,683 per student, with most schools receiving between $1,850 and $1,950 per student. According to an analysis conducted by Levy and Souma Bhat from D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, 32 percent of the funding supplanted regular funding. For the current school year, the DCPS budget actually allocated the funds uniformly (at $1,908 per student). But Bhat and Levy found that throughout DCPS, schools as a whole are now dipping into 47 percent of the at-risk funds to supplant, not supplement, core functions.

There are two ways to look at at-risk funding: The total per-school allocation divided by the number of at-risk students, or the total per-school allocation divided by total student enrollment. Although the first method provides a uniform allocation for each at-risk student, the latter varies depending on how many non-at-risk students attend each school. So because DCPS used the latter formula, from the 2015-2016 school year to the current school year, at-risk funding per-student actually decreased at 11 of the 21 elementary schools in the 40/40 program that saw total enrollment gains, including Malcolm X.

Such variations are minor among the 40/40 elementary schools, however, because there are only two outliers among them: Fifty-four percent of students at H.D. Cooke in Ward 1 are at-risk, and just 38.7 percent of students at Tyler, which has an immersion program and is in a gentrifying neighborhood in Ward 6, are at-risk. The rest of the 40/40 schools have a student body that consists of 71 percent at-risk students or higher.

If Henderson looks the DCPS achievement gap squarely in the eye, she would be hard-pressed to show that she has provided the kind of “intense support” needed to appreciably improve proficiency or investment in 40/40 schools. 

“Instead of being focused on educational or social support, they spend money on office furniture and computers designated for [standardized] testing,” says the council staffer. “They just seem to have a different idea of how to approach serving the neediest kids, but it’s difficult to make the argument that they are following through on their stated intent.” 

Adds Levy: “Is anything being done to counteract the effects of mid-year student mobility or homelessness or evictions due to gentrification or family dysfunction? These are big problems at low-income neighborhood schools, and the investments as reported say nothing about them.”

According to the DCPS website, the Malcolm X Elementary student body is 100 percent black and all qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program. More than 88 percent of the students are considered “at-risk.” Housed in the former home of a school that closed almost a decade ago,  Malcolm X has the building to itself for the first time in three years. 

In 2014, The D.C. Council’s Committee on Education cut $16 million from a proposed $21.9 million renovation intended to accompany a management arrangement between Malcolm X, DCPS, and Achievement Preparatory Academy Public Charter School. The two schools were to co-locate at the previously shuttered Green Elementary for one year, then move to the renovated building. Instead, Achievement Prep pulled out of the arrangement this summer and Malcolm X remains at Green in a state of limbo.

Observations from teachers and former teachers suggest a barely manageable learning environment that in recent years has featured regular classroom brawls, students put out of one classroom only to roam the halls visiting others, parents being arrested on site or getting into fights, and children prone to hysterical fits and outbursts.

Malcolm X uses whiteboards with a smattering of smartboards, which are prevalent in schools across the city. There is no science lab. Desktops are cobbled together from bits and pieces. Its ceilings leak, and it has no elevator. Until the charter school left, the computer lab was housed in a storage space, and even now many computers are missing keys. “All that cool stuff, there’s nothing to show you,” one current teacher says. (DCPS also stripped renovation funds from a number of schools in 2014, including Malcolm X and seven other 40/40 elementary schools. Just one 40/40 elementary school saw any increase in funding for renovations.) 

“I’ve imagined if I were to take someone on a tour of our school, with the knowledge that we were a priority status school, what I could show them as proof of this status?” the teacher writes in a 2015 journal entry, which City Paper reviewed. “I imagine myself standing in the foyer of the building, its central hub where, on a few occasions throughout the day, charter and public collide. I walk forward into the shared cafeteria and  auditorium. Nothing in those areas belies priority. I walk down both first floor wings, then trudge up to the third floor to visit the intermediate wing. I glance in the teacher workroom, littered with broken machines and assorted boxes, a large cafeteria bench in the middle. Still nothing.”

On a recent, unannounced visit to Malcolm X—which teachers say is how they are visited by DCPS administrators—a teacher or instructional aide walked into the main office. When he was informed that nine iPads had arrived for teacher use, he inquired, “New ones?” with a skeptical look. “Maybe some of them,” came the reply. “But they don’t have cords or adapters.” The principal was unavailable to speak to City Paper, and officials said all media inquiries must go through the central office. Henderson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Not surprisingly, Malcolm X’s proficiency scores remain at or near the bottom of the 40/40 schools that as a group are falling far short of Henderson’s goals. In reality, her initiative never really got off the ground. 

Under the former evaluation tool DC-CAS, the 40/40 schools would have needed to gain 8 percentage points a year for five years. But after the first two years, only a few met that interim goal, and almost half lost ground, according to Levy’s analysis. Overall, the 40/40 schools gained 1.5 percentage points in English and 6.5 points in math—less than in the rest of DCPS schools. (Student proficiency in 40/40 schools under DC-CAS was just over half the citywide average.)

For the 2014-2015 school year, DCPS adopted the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a test used districtwide of English/language arts and math comprehension that is pegged to Common Core standards. PARCC scores are ranked according to five performance levels that delineate students’ knowledge and skills: Level 1, did not yet meet expectations; Level 2, partially met expectations; Level 3, approached expectations; Level 4, met expectations; and Level 5, exceeded expectations.

According to a DCPS spokeswoman, the 2015 PARCC scores showed 5.8 percent of children in 40/40 schools met or exceeded proficiency expectations in English/language arts and 5.9 percent in math, compared to 34 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in non-40/40 schools. The 2016 PARCC scores, which were recently released, show 7.2 percent of 40/40 school students proficient in English/language arts and 7.7 percent in math, compared to 34.3 percent and 31.4 percent, respectively, in non-40/40 schools. 

Henderson has pinned these PARCC scores on the increased difficulty of the test itself. Michelle Lerner, the DCPS spokeswoman, says they are “excited to hold all students to the higher standard” of PARCC, and she notes that the 40/40 schools improved at a faster rate from 2015 to 2016 than non-40/40 schools. “We’re certainly not where we need to be, and we have a long way to go, but for the 40/40 schools we are proud of the gains,” Lerner says.

Levy says that historically test scores almost always rise after the first year, after students and teachers become familiarity with the test. By any measure, she says, the PARCC scores thus far are “truly pitiful,” and best-scenario gains are nothing to be proud of. “In comparing the two, math cancels out [English/language arts],” she says. “Improvements are so slight for both that they’re probably barely statistically significant, if that.”

At Malcolm X, in PARCC results for 2016, just 5 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English/language arts, and just 1 percent in math. 

Different measuring sticks, marginal gains, and see-saw results over the course of a five-year initiative, have some wondering how children in struggling schools have any chance to succeed at higher education levels. Jacob, the Teaching for Change professional development director, says stewardship of low-performing schools will be a resounding part of Henderson’s legacy, and suggests that the 40/40 initiative was never something she took seriously. “No one thinks she’ll be achieving [the 40/40 initiative],” says Jacob. “No one has the faith to hold her accountable. I’m just not there.”

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Not all of the news about 40/40 schools is grim. At Tyler Elementary, which has the lowest percentage of at-risk students, a lower percentage of students failed to meet math and English standards than the District-wide average in the first two years of PARCC testing, and a higher percentage recently met English standards. Ketcham Elementary, and Stanton, both of which D.C. Democrats for Education Reform identify as among the “most improved on PARCC proficiency scores,” roughly mirror those results, with improvements in math as well. 

Yet the achievement gap still gets lip service as the civic discussion gravitates toward more fortunate schools. When the most recent PARCC scores came out, the lead story in the Post was about how Wilson High School, a legacy of Northwest D.C., had fallen off in its test scores. The second biggest story was about girls wanting to attend a new, boys-only school, a pet project of Henderson’s where students are characterized as “young kings.”  

Some education advocates are more likely than others to take on Henderson. City Paper contacted Catharine Bellinger, founding director of the D.C. branch of Democrats for Education Reform, a “fierce advocate for [at-risk] kids.” Bellinger canceled a meeting shortly after agreeing to one, and in an email offered this assessment instead: “I believe D.C.’s public schools must meet the needs of all of its students, particularly the most vulnerable, so that every child can realize his or her fullest potential. I’m glad we share this belief. It grounds the work I lead.” She offered to answer specific questions, but did not respond to them. 

School reform advocates who cast a more critical eye see in Henderson a leader who has gotten a pass in the media on the achievement gap between at-risk students and students from more stable environments. Teachers in some 40/40 schools in Ward 8 say they sometimes feel invisible, and they lay that perception at Henderson’s feet. “I’m not a fan,” says a veteran teacher at an improving but still under-performing 40/40 school. “She needed to be in the trenches, would’ve had to walk in my shoes to understand how to help us. But she didn’t walk the journey. She’s good at highlighting certain moments, but what about the 40 schools that haven’t had their moment? I love my city for real, but I’m worried.”

Levy believes there is a lack of accountability on multiple levels. “No one calls [DCPS] to account,” she says. “The Council, which was very interested before mayoral control of the schools, nods its head and doesn’t do anything. There is no fiscal accountability, and criticism is not tolerated. If you are not 100 percent with them, you are the enemy.”

David Grosso, At-Large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Education, declined to comment for this story. In an interview this week, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who sits on the committee, says he appreciates the idea of improving proficiency in struggling schools, but that it cannot be separated from how DCPS manages at-risk funds. Allen can see value in some of Henderson’s alternate uses of at-risk funds, but says, “It’s hard to evaluate effectiveness if you don’t have consistency in the use of those funds. The money has to follow the student in an equitable and transparent way.”

If DCPS is neglecting its lowest-performing schools, says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union, her members bear the brunt of poor student performance in those schools. “While teachers acknowledge the gains we have made as a school district over the past decade, they consistently express concern that these gains are not representative of all of our children,” she writes in an email. “Teachers know that this data, if disaggregated, will show that while wealthy students are making large to moderate gains in reading, less affluent students showed much less growth.” 

Davis notes that an annual report in Education Week shows D.C. trailing the rest of country in reducing the achievement gap. In 2014, the report stated, “the combined poverty gap for the District of Columbia expanded by 44 scale-score points, indicating that its poor students are now much further behind their more affluent peers.” (Other more recent studies have found that D.C. has the highest achievement gap in the country.)  

Says Davis, “If the school system itself was evaluated as a single classroom, its teacher would have been fired 6 years ago.”