Democratic Ward 4 Primary Candidates' Responses


Question 1. How committed are you to ensuring we have a citywide network of excellent DCPS neighborhood schools serving children from pre-K through high school to which families have a right to attend (without being subject to a lottery)? 

a.    Absolutely
b.    It would be nice
c.    It is not necessary given the other choices available

If “Absolutely,” what steps would you take to make it a reality? If b or c, what is your response to families around the city who crave both quality and predictability?  

LEON ANDREWS: a. Absolutely. Neighborhood public schools are the cornerstone of our educational system and every child should be guaranteed access to their neighborhood public school.  It’s our responsibility to ensure that our neighborhood schools are world-class and parents can find the rich curriculum, extracurricular options, and first-rate staff they desire and deserve for their children at every neighborhood public school.  While the lottery can play an important role in providing a broad array of quality options to students throughout the city, and help level the playing field for those in areas with lower-performing schools, our priority must be on making sure that every child is guaranteed a high quality public education and building out options from there. 


RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: a. Absolutely

Question 2. According to a recent report by the 21st Century School Fund/Code for DC, the city now has 85,000  students in DCPS and charter schools but capacity to serve 102,000 students in the sectors combined. The Deputy Mayor of Education has convened the Cross-sector Task Force, one goal of which is to “Develop a framework for coordinating processes on school openings, closings, and facilities planning.” As we consider developing a framework for opening, closing or expanding schools, what goals and approach would you like to see pursued?

a.    A framework and planning process designed to guarantee a strong matter-of-right option from pre-k through high school in every neighborhood, complemented by choices.
b.    DCPS and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) each opening, closing and expanding schools based on their independent assessment of demand leading to whatever infrastructure results. 

If you do not believe there should be a mechanism for coordinated planning, what is your vision for what the education infrastructure should look like 10 years down the road? How should we ensure our money spent on public education is spent efficiently and effectively? 

LEON ANDREWS: In recent years both D.C. public schools and charters have seen an increase in enrollment.  That’s good news because it means people are recognizing the progress in both arenas, but especially in DCPS where enrollment had decreased sharply for several years before climbing steadily in the past few years.  A lot of that is tribute to great progress at the elementary school level, but also the big investments in infrastructure the city has made. In order to bolster our public schools, and make sure families feel like their children can continue into a DCPS middle school, we need to make sure there are quality elementary, middle and high school options in every corner of the city.  Here in Ward 4, we have a new and improved Powell Elementary School and Roosevelt High School is set to move in to a beautifully renovated building next year and we need to connect the dots by making sure MacFarland Middle School is up to the same standards.

In terms of openings and closings we should certainly have coordinated planning to determine not just where the need is at the moment, but where it will be 5, 10, 20 years out.  We should prioritize new public middle schools in areas without sufficient local charter options, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to ensure good middle schools in every ward.  MacFarland was closed in 2013 and shortly thereafter the city realized that not only did we need the stand alone middle school in Ward 4, but we needed more middle schools in Ward 4, with northern parts of the ward being some of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city and all the middle school options being concentrated in the south of the ward at education campuses.

Making sure our money is spent efficiently and effectively has a lot to do with better coordinated data collection and making sure we are using the right measures- looking at value added and growth, looking at parental involvement in the schools, looking at not just the technology put into a school, but what they are doing with it- are they flipping classrooms, are they establishing innovative programs to get students equipped for 21st century jobs?

If we look at the right measures and compare across traditional public schools and charters, we can get a better idea of what best practices can be applied to similar environments across the city.  If we are increasing enrollment and we see growing confidence in our neighborhood schools we will know those investments are paying off.  

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: b. DCPS and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) each opening, closing and expanding schools based on their independent assessment of demand leading to whatever infrastructure results. 

Question 3. Many believe an increasing number of DCPS elementary schools are gaining traction and the next major challenge is to strengthen our DCPS offerings in the middle grades. Several factors are at play: The Mayor called for replicating the success of our largest middle school – Alice Deal. The final recommendations of the Student Assignment Committee ( called for opening four new middle schools. And, last year’s PARRC scores revealed that half of DCPS’ middle schools have fewer than 1 in 10 students at the highest levels (4 and 5), while many of our DCPS middle schools have yet to be modernized. What is your approach to the middle school challenge?

a. Opening as many charter middle schools as families will enroll in (Please explain what the landscape of middle schools would look like in 10 years, given this approach.) 
b. Investing in our current DCPS middle schools (Please explain what that investment should look like, and what the middle school landscape should look like in 10 years, given this approach.)
c. Another approach (Please explain.)

LEON ANDREWS: A 2014 Washington Post poll found that less than a quarter of D.C. parents would send their child to a public middle school.  It’s simply unacceptable to be in a situation in which Alice Deal is the only acceptable options to many parents to stay within the public school system.  

We need to invest in our DCPS middle schools. One of the positive investments that has been made both in our middle and high schools is the baseline of electives foreign language courses, and experiential learning activities available at all schools like the new free study abroad program for 8th and 11th graders. I think we want to make sure those opportunities are available at all DCPS middle schools and the funds to back up the extra teachers and supplies needed to make those programs work well are ensured.  

In 10 years, with the capital improvements, I expect to have a robust program at MacFarland that children enrolled in dual language in elementary school will feed into and parents will be proud to send their children to that school.  I expect to have quality DCPS middle schools like that throughout the city and be focused on how we keep families in DCPS all the way through high school. 

We also have a few Tier 1 rated charter middle schools here in the Ward and I think that charters that continue to innovate will continue to be part of the landscape of quality choices for parents and families here in Ward 4 and throughout the city.  So yes, I believe in prioritizing the investments in our DCPS middle schools and seeing through this new middle school focus (not expanding simply based on demand alone), but also supporting our high achieving schools to continue to take in students whether they be public or charter.

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: c. Another approach. Ensuring that District families have access to high-quality middle schools is vitally important to me.  This is because middle school education is a crucial bridge between the foundations learned in primary school and the advanced skills learned in high school.  Additionally, middle school success is also critical to high school graduation. The District is unique in that it has two educational sectors that are growing exponentially—DCPS and public charter schools—and these sectors have a keen opportunity to provide the District’s children with access to quality education during the middle school grades.  Because of this, I believe that the challenge to ensuring that District students have access to quality middle schools is addressed by empowering both sectors so that they are able to continue to grow.  This means investing in ways that allow for robust curriculum and ensure that vital funds are consistently dedicated to both sectors.


Question 4. Are you satisfied with the transparency, planning mechanisms, and adequacy of the DCPS and charter school budgets? Are you satisfied with the mechanisms for community input and the time allowed for planning to inform those budgets? If not, how would you like to see the transparency and planning processes improved for each sector? 

LEON ANDREWS: I think we’ve seen in the past that often times the public is informed only after some decisions are made that have a big impact on our communities and that is still of concern.  We now have capital plans projecting forward over the next decade of work and that allows time and space for public input, but we need more concrete ways of making sure public input, whether that be through the DCPS School Planning Team, which has been bringing in members of the community to have a wider array of strategic input on demand, or curriculum planning on issues of inclusivity and building planning. 

We need to make sure the tentacles of this planning reach more broadly into the community whether that be through our ANC’s, neighborhood blogs, parent listservs, etc. DCPS has done great work establishing better relationships with parents through the Flamboyan Foundation and I hope that kind of work can extend into getting input from parents that has an effect on school planning and not just the critical educator to family connections. It has to be easier to access this information and it should be available in a centralized location, probably through OSSE.  

Another key is involving school staff and teachers in this planning in a deeper way.  Obviously they have a critical perspective to inform the planning process and too often don’t know what’s in the budgets that are supposed to be reserved for them (leading to unused money and money shifted around without the knowledge of those who have a right to employ it) and sometimes school staff can do a better job reaching out and bringing in the community than school administration and may be more likely to disseminate the information within their circles.  

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: In general, I am satisfied with the transparency, planning mechanisms, and adequacy of the DCPS and charter school budgets; however, I believe that there are areas where we can improve.  First, I understand that concerns have been raised over the transparency of at-risk funds and how they are spent in individual schools.  This is an issue that I have been following closely and I intend on working with DCPS on how we can ensure that at-risk funds are allocated solely for at-risk students and spent in a clear and transparent manner.  Additionally, I believe that we need to evaluate how we can increase funding to the Charter Facilities Allotment.  Investments in the Charter Facilities Allotment has remained flat in recent years and increasing this funding would ensure that the District’s public charter schools are able to obtain and renovate buildings for instruction.

Question 5. Many call for reforms of how we spend our capital dollars on public schools (which accounts for one-third of the city's capital budget). The recent 21st Century School Fund/Code for DC report shows the level of work yet to be done, and disparities, in addressing decades of neglect in our public buildings. The DC Council Education Committee last year outlined a new data-driven approach to the modernization queue, and this year, DCPS and the DME introduced a different set of criteria to determine the order in which schools are modernized. Meanwhile charter schools receive a per pupil allocation for capital spending, which they are not required to spend on capital expenses per se, and which some spend leasing privately owned space. What do you see are the biggest challenges of capital spending on our schools? Would you suggest new policies or approaches?

LEON ANDREWS: As the report indicates "Even with these unprecedented levels of funding there are still DCPS children attending schools that are not modernized and the communities with least facilities investment by student and square footage, generally have the most at risk students.” Part of the equation has to be serving the students in parts of the city that have been left behind and students with higher needs.

Charter schools were designed to allow for broader curricular and instructional innovation.  Charter schools are funded with public dollars and should still be subject to public accountability with regard to facilities.  That doesn’t mean they should be required to use public space, but we should at least have oversight. 

The biggest challenges are ensuring that our dollars go where they are most needed not just now, but 5, 10, 20 years down the line. First, we need to make sure we have a sizable fund to address more urgent concerns that can come up in a building, so that when the AC goes down at the start of the school year and we have 90 degree days, we can get to those places immediately.  

Second, we need a cross-sector view that thinks about equitable distribution, demand, and school trends.

Third, the process has to be both dedicated and dynamic.  When the city has made a commitment to a community that a school will be addressed, we have to do a better job of delivering on time and making sure there aren’t surprises in funding required or delivered.  But the process must also be dynamic enough to meet the changing needs of our city, where population trends and commitment to our neighborhood schools isn’t always ending up where we predict.  

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: I believe that one of the biggest challenges facing the District is devising a method that ensures fairness and does not pit one school against another when determining capital spending on schools.  I believe that whatever model the District develops for ranking schools, it should fully incorporate suggestions between the Council, the Deputy Mayor for Education, and DCPS.  This is because both the Executive and DCPS have a day-to-day understanding of the challenges facing our schools.  Just this year, both the Executive and DCPS recommended funding for the final modernization of Shepherd Elementary School in Ward 4.  The Council, however, disagreed with this decision and shifted the funds to other schools throughout the city.  This decision served to reject the recommendations of two important entities—DME and DCPS—and ultimately encourages school communities with underfunded projects to lobby the Council to shift funding from other schools.  Although choosing when and which schools to modernize is difficult, I believe that the District must look at models that incorporate the suggestions and views of the implementing agencies, the schools, the community, and the Council.


Question 6. The National Research Council’s PERRA Report identified real challenges in getting basic comparative data from the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) about student results, teacher workforce characteristics, school learning climate, and the success of teaching and learning strategies being employed. The report recommended creating an independent research entity that could look at what’s working and what isn’t across the whole city and both sectors.  Would you support greater transparency, independent research, and the creation of an independent research entity akin to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research?

LEON ANDREWS: As DCPS continues to innovate with schools specializing in the arts, technology, global studies and more, some schools are now expanding into extended year and extended school day programs with innovative staffing and instructional approaches. It makes less sense for the public and charter to have completely different regulatory regimes. We can maintain the valued independence of our charters while still ensuring we have the data we need on a coordinated city-wide basis - likely under the office of the Deputy Mayor of Education, OSSE or others. 

You simply should not have to consult a dozen different sources to compile and compare information from the public and charter sectors.  Better coordination between DCPS, the Public Charter School Board, OSSE and the city's education offices is essential to more effective long term planning and providing parents with quality data to make informed decisions.  An independent research entity could help facilitate that process.  

We have to provide quality career pathways and technical education in our schools, like partnerships DCPS has established with government agencies and big employers at Cardozo, focused on aerospace jobs and new culinary to make job training part of the high school experience.

In addition to re-making our high schools, if we want to ensure every Washingtonian has a quality job, and reduce crime and recidivism, one of our most urgent tasks is to address both disconnected youth and adults who need continuing education. We have too few schools focused on both technical education and adult basic education like the GED and ESL for adults - this has to be a larger part of our equation.

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: Yes, I support greater transparency; however, I believe that that can be achieved through the DC Council Committee on Education’s oversight responsibilities. In 2012, the DC Council created its first standalone Committee on Education in six years.  Currently, I serve as a member on that Committee, and while I believe that the Committee has done significant work, there is still more to be done.  I believe that the Committee should be given the time it needs to ensure that entities like OSSE and the Deputy Mayor for Education are providing access to key information including information related to student results, teacher workforce characteristics, school learning climate, and the success of teaching and learning strategies being employed.



Question 7. We’ve fully transitioned to the Common Core Standards and the PARRC test (in place of DC CAS), but we still have legacy testing in place (e.g., ANET, Dibbles, TRC, SRI, iReady). Have we gotten the amount of and approach to standardized testing right? Are the stakes attached to standardized tests right? (For teachers and principals, test scores are part of their evaluation with pay and employment consequences. For schools, scores are public and can affect enrollment and decisions on closure.) 

LEON ANDREWS: When students are taking three, four, five weeks out of the school year for testing alone- we still have not achieved the right balance.  We need standardized tests because we depend on having data to show us where schools are improving proficiency rates and which investments are paying off. I believe no particular test, whether it be PARRC or SRI testing necessitates the amount of time often put into them, but logistical planning has to be improved to ensure that both students and teachers are not taking valuable time away from learning to focus more narrowly on test preparation and the tests themselves are less disruptive to the school environment.  For example, some schools haven’t had the computers necessary to carry out PARRC testing in a smaller window, so we see it dragging out over the course of many weeks and disrupting the flow of learning. 

We can work with the testing consortia to ensure that if we can get a result that’s just as accurate with fewer questions, we should do that.  At the same time, we know that everyone working in their individual silos, whether that be ESL, SPED, Reading Proficiency, Science Standards, they are all going to want a test (or two) to measure that progress.  That’s why we need someone, whether that be at DCPS and PCSB or OSSE, looking at the overall picture and ensuring that when we put all those puzzle pieces together, testing is not taking up a disproportionate amount of our student’s time and, students feel that schools are focusing on teaching and learning first and foremost.  

In terms of using standardized tests, for the purpose of teacher and school evaluations, I believe we need to be careful not to too heavily weight one particular test.  While teachers are evaluated using a value-added standard, we should be looking at the same for our schools when making decisions to determine a school has been ineffective or propose a school closing.

School closings can be incredibly disruptive for communities, so we can’t make those decisions lightly.  And while I am adamant that schools have to improve proficiency, we also need to make sure that our standardized tests are only one small slice of the pie in how we determine overall proficiency and the value of both our teachers and our schools.  If test scores are a big slice of principal evaluations, that adds an incentive for principals to shift their school’s focus to test preparation and put pressure on teachers to do the same.  I don’t think that’s the atmosphere we want in our schools.  That being said, if schools are consistently not adding value and increasing proficiency rates despite an array of investments, we need to take a hard look at how to better serve those students. 

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: Standardized testing is an important tool that evaluates how well our students are learning and progressing.  And, standardized testing not only helps District families make key decisions about choosing schools, it also seeks to inform school districts about where they need to be focusing their instruction.  For example, last year’s PARCC scores emphasized the need for the District to better prepare its students for life after post-secondary education. Nevertheless, I believe that we are still trying to figure out both the right amount of and approach to standardized testing in the District.  As President Obama noted late last year, there are legitimate concerns with how often we are testing our students.  I believe that his call to reduce standardized tests to no more than 2-percent of a student's instructional time in the classroom will help to ensure that classroom discussion meets the right balance between core instruction and test preparation.  

I believe that there should be some level of accountability in terms of test scores.  This means that I believe that test scores should be used as some form of measurement for both teachers and schools.  Nevertheless, I don’t think that instruction should be solely focused on test preparedness; and do not believe that the measurement of a teacher’s success should be tied solely to a class’ performance on a standardize test.  Ultimately, our students should be receiving instruction that expands their curiosity and gives them the tools they need to be successful.

Question 8. Which is a better indicator of the quality of a school? 

a.    The percentage of children achieving proficiency
b.    The average amount of growth achieved by children at the school

If you believe the b (growth) is a better indicator, are we focusing adequately on it, and if not, what steps should be taken to do so? 

LEON ANDREWS: A combination of both indicators.  Ultimately we have to get our students to proficiency.  It’s unacceptable to have so few students across the District achieving “college ready” proficiency on the PARCC tests. On the other hand, these are new tests and standards and schools and teachers have only had a few years to begin rolling this out.  I’m hopeful we will see more results in the coming years, as DCPS has done an impressive job recruiting and retaining great teachers including at some of our 40/40 schools - the 40 schools with the lowest performance in the District. 

In the meantime, we need good data to know which investments are paying off and we need to take a close look at value-added or growth to know which school leaders are turning the ship around at their school and need to be retained and, where changes might be necessary to turn around schools still struggling with school culture, academic expectations, etc.

We will never settle in terms of overall proficiency, but if we can see that teachers, principals and staff at certain schools have moved from 5-10 % college-ready to 20-25%, they are obviously making a difference and we need to figure out how to keep going in that direction and make sure other schools are adopting the practices that are working.  I’m confident that the positive trends we have seen in recent years will continue, but not without a sustained effort by all stakeholders, which includes the most important overall factor in a student’s achievement, their parent’s involvement in their education.  We have to make sure that schools are finding the best ways to keep parents involved and parent’s have all the support they need to be an active part of their child’s education. 

RON AUSTIN: no response
CALVIN GURLEY: no response

BRANDON TODD: a. The percentage of children achieving proficiency 

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