December 16, 2013

Chancellor Henderson wants to hear from you regarding middle grades 


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Dear DCPS Community:

At the recent hearing on DC’s boundary and feeder plans, I commented that DCPS is working on a plan for middle grades.  I elaborated on this priority at DCPS’ public budget hearing in November.  We continue to collect feedback from parent and community members regarding their priorities for middle grades.  I am excited to hear this thoughtful feedback and to use it to help shape a budget that focuses on middle grades as a priority for the upcoming year.

I would like to share a few more of my thoughts regarding public engagement and how we can improve our middle grades both so that you understand my thinking and, I hope, to inspire more of you to provide us with your ideas and feedback at  We will also conduct community focus groups to gain a deeper understanding of what you expect from our middle grades.  While DCPS will not create a middle grades plan without significant public input, I want to provide an update on our current thinking based on the feedback we have received to date.

I’m excited to move forward on our efforts to improve middle grades.  This is a natural next step after we invested in elementary schools this year by ensuring every student had quality reading instruction and 45 minutes of art, music, PE, and foreign language every week.  It will also help prepare us for the following year when we rethink our approach to high schools.  More personally, I am excited about our focus on middle grades because that is where I spent my teaching career.

Please take the time to provide us with your feedback.  I’m eager to hear from you.

Middle Grades

DCPS has operated both strategically and with a sense of urgency in addressing the needs of our schools.  Our measured approach mirrors our theory of action under which we first worked to ensure that we had high quality educators in our buildings and then created a new district-wide curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  

We began our work at the elementary school level in FY 2014.  In planning for the current school year, we worked with principals whose schools had elementary grades to build a schedule and a staff that met critical needs and that ensured equity across the district.  Specifically, we funded schools such that every student would receive a 120-minute literacy block and 45 minutes of weekly instruction in art, music, physical education, and foreign language.  We chose this approach because it supported our approach to implementing the Common Core State Standards and because it ensured that students received opportunities to explore a variety of courses.  Overall, this approach has been very successful for our elementary schools.  

As I announced at my public budget hearing in November, we plan to follow this same approach for middle grades in the upcoming school year.  We have already begun to seek public input and have reached out to our educators so they can be partners in the work we plan going forward.  This engagement will be critical to our success next year.  Community and school-based expectations for middle grades vary greatly.  Our efforts will be most successful if we can fully understand the varied interests as we make our plans and ensure that our plans are responsive to community input.  Releasing a plan for middle grades developed by DCPS’ central office without significant input from schools and parents would represent a lost opportunity.

As a result, we do not have a packaged middle grades plan at this point.  We expect that, based on the input we receive and the planning and research we do in the coming months, we will have a thoughtful plan that we will submit as part of our FY 2015 budget.  

While we will not articulate a specific plan at this point, we can explain the principles that will guide our work going forward.  

First, we will ensure that every middle-grade school student, regardless of the grade span of the school or what ward the school is in, has access to a consistent level of services.  This may include multiple options for foreign language, the opportunity to take Algebra, increased access to special courses, or access to technology courses.  I am eager to hear from the community as to what our middle grades should offer, but I am committed to ensuring equality of opportunity for our students.

Second, we will ensure that our middle-grade students are prepared for high school.  For some of our students who may already be behind or who may need additional assistance to be ready for high school success, this may mean a longer school day or a longer school year – or even both.  Part of ensuring that our students receive an equal opportunity is ensuring that students who need extra time receive it.  

Third, we will build on the successes we have already seen in our middle schools.  Several of our schools, including Kelly Miller Middle School and Hardy Middle School are showing great improvement and are providing high-quality programming to our students.  In fact, we have seen the greatest growth in proficiency rates in our middle grades.  In 7th and 8th grade math, we have seen nearly 30% gains in proficiency since 2007.  In reading, we have seen more than 20% gains in the same grades.  Our NAEP data mirrors these results, showing outsized gains in reading and math at the 8th grade level.  We are eager to communicate these successes and build on them as we improve our middle schools district-wide.

There are a wide range of possibilities that we are already considering based on feedback we have received from the community.  We know that we must do more to ensure that our 8th graders are all prepared for the rigors of high school.  We must address the challenges faced by 6th through 8th graders at our education campuses where we do not have economies of scale.  We must ensure there is sufficient time in the school day and the school year to provide remediation for students who need additional help, to meet the needs of our advanced students, and to give students a chance to explore new interests.  

We will focus on improving our middle grades in FY 2015, and will then move on to improving our high schools in FY 2016 (the 2015-2016 school year).  This work is very complicated and requires us to address not just course offerings and scheduling, but also to reflect on what is required to receive course credit and to graduate from high school.  

Our experience is that when we apply our full effort and sufficient resources behind any reform, we are successful.   When we try to do work too quickly and without sufficient engagement, we are not successful.  Our staged approach–first elementary schools, then middle schools, and then high schools with robust opportunities for public engagement–sets us up for long term success rather than chasing quick fixes.

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