Remarks from Councilmember Allen at DCPS Chancellor Hearing

Full transcript of Councilmember Charles Allen's opening remarks at the third and final public hearing to consider the nominee to be the next Chancellor of DC Public Schools, delivered on Tuesday, February 12, 2019:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thanks to everyone here to testify today as well as everyone who came out at the two prior hearings.

As a DCPS parent, every morning my wife and I follow the same frantic routine as thousands of other parents to get our two kids out the door, and get Cora to school on time -- it’s a mad dash of getting up, getting dressed, getting fed, and getting ready.

When I drop her off, I want the same things for her that every parent does and that I trust the school to deliver. I want her to be safe at school. I want her to be challenged. I want her to be happy and make friends. I want her to eat a healthy lunch. I want her to learn new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Which is what every DCPS parent wants – so multiply those expectations by 48,000 students and we begin to understand how important a job this is.

And yet, we still ask more. Far too many of our DCPS students come to school each day bearing the suffocating weight of poverty, facing trauma, hunger, housing instability, abuse, addiction, and violence – these are not challenges caused in the classroom, but brought to it. And yet we ask teachers to ensure those students learn, make new friends, eat their lunch, be challenged, and learn new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. As Chancellor, it falls on their shoulders to ensure DCPS is meeting their needs, whether that’s breakfast in the classroom, a Community Schools Coordinator who can help with clean uniforms, a social worker who can help students process trauma outside the classroom, computer access for students who don’t have it at home, and so, so much more.

Over the past year, I have met with and heard from hundreds and hundreds of Ward 6 families and educators who have shared their concerns and priorities with me about the next DCPS Chancellor. What I heard then is pretty close to what we’ve heard so far in the confirmation process.

Transparency. We must have a Chancellor willing to rebuild trust with the community, someone with a commitment to showing the work behind their decisions and strong personal ethics. They want to know this person is willing to have honest conversations, even when we are going to disagree. They want someone who understands community engagement has to be deep, meaningful, and credible – much more than a box-checking exercise.

Vision. Residents want a Chancellor who can clearly articulate a long-term road map for DCPS’s future and will be a fierce advocate for our neighborhood public schools. We are all tired of leaders prioritizing public relations over progress. When I first met Dr. Ferebee, he told me he was in “he’s in listening mode.” To be sure, I want a Chancellor willing to listen to priorities and new ideas. But as the nominee to be our next Chancellor, it’s time today to hear concrete ideas for how Dr. Ferebee plans to lead our schools and improve the outcomes. For me to get to “yes”, I need to come away from today’s hearing with a clear understanding of what Dr. Ferebee values most as a school leader.

Equity. The next Chancellor must be committed to addressing equity with a strong sense of urgency to close the achievement gap in our public schools. Some of our DCPS schools are truly exceptional, with long waitlists to enroll, enthusiastic parent support, and a multitude of enriching community partnerships. But other continue to struggle, with declining enrollments, high rates of teacher and leadership turnover, inadequate resources, and failing facilities. I want to hear today how Dr. Ferebee will make equity a priority rather than a talking point.

Not every child has parents who are able to do the research and legwork to secure the best school placement for their child, or the means to fundraise thousands of dollars annually to pay for salaries or supplies. In fact, too many of our kids are effectively starting with one hand tied behind their back. This is why I push and emphasize great neighborhood schools above all. No matter what else, every child and every parent in DC should have a great neighborhood school to count on -- no matter where they live.

I have also heard from residents a deep interest in seeing DCPS continue focusing on social emotional learning, with a student-centered approach that engages the whole child with a well-rounded, rich curriculum. And when we say we want to ensure every child succeeds in our schools, that can’t mean leaving behind our special education students. We have a long way to go when it comes to making sure students with special needs in DCPS are embraced and supported.

Finally, we need a Chancellor who will end the culture of fear in our schools, where teachers dread a punitive, top-down evaluation system, and principals walk on eggshells with the sword of a one-year contract constantly hanging over them. We absolutely need high expectations for everyone in our schools, but our current system is too one-dimensional and drives turnover and instability. We need Central Office to truly partner with our educators, providing strong supports for principals and investments in teacher leadership. I do not want to see DCPS continue a “Central Office knows best” approach to our school system.

This is a tough job and I do not pretend otherwise. DCPS took a major hit when it was exposed that our graduation rate is far lower than reported. Community trust was badly wounded when the previous Chancellor skipped the line. But the long-term issues are the most concerning. Despite paying some of the highest teacher salaries in the nation, we still struggle with retention. Too many parents won’t give their neighborhood middle and high schools a serious look. DCPS competes with an entirely separate taxpayer-funded school system which resists anywhere near the oversight and accountability DCPS leadership will face.  

I am appreciative to Dr. Ferebee for how much he has made himself available to the students in every part of the city so far. But make no mistake – today is Dr. Ferebee’s opportunity to prove he is the right person for the job. 

The Chancellor of this school system is a tough job, but it’s also an incredibly special one. Creating great neighborhood and citywide public schools is the most important work this government can do. And whoever it is, they should not feel they are alone. The Council will always be a partner in fighting for students.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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