Testimony of Bonnie O’Keefe, DCPS Performance Oversight Hearing, FY 2012-2013

Testimony of Bonnie O’Keefe, Public Policy Analyst
DC Action for Children

Agency Performance Oversight Hearing
Fiscal Year 2012-2013
District of Columbia Public Schools

Before the Committee on Education
Council of the District of Columbia

February 22, 2013

Good afternoon, Councilmember Catania and members of the Committee on Education. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it reviews the performance of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My name is Bonnie O’Keefe, I am a resident of Ward 5 and a public policy analyst at DC Action for Children.

DC Action for Children (“DC Action”) provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on critical issues facing DC children and youth. Our vision is of a District where children and youth who are most in need of health, education, safety and financial well-being are receiving competent and equitable services.

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to become the home of DC KIDS COUNT, DC Action is the primary source of data on conditions and outcomes for all children and youth in DC. We work closely with city agencies, the school system and providers to get the most accurate and timely data to present clear and accessible analysis. Our public policy agenda is based on this critical data.

In the past year, DC Action has concentrated on providing data analysis at the neighborhood level, where children live, play and learn. Too often the resources and assets available to children and families do not match their needs. DC Action brings a “neighborhood assets” perspective to our recent analysis of DCPS’ performance in early care and education, third grade proficiency and closing achievement gaps. Through the DC KIDS COUNT data tools, we have presented graduation rate and proficiency data for all DC public schools in the context of their neighborhoods’ assets.

DCPS plays a central role in DC’s early care and education system, which includes programs such as Pre-School/Pre-K, Head Start/Early Head Start, childcare centers, home visitation for new parents, and early intervention. High-quality early care and education is an important neighborhood asset, which forms the foundation of healthy cognitive development and skills acquisition throughout childhood. We can measure the success of early care and education in part through third grade proficiency levels. If children are not on track in reading and math by the end of third grade, they are less likely to succeed in the years ahead.   

My testimony today focuses on two areas of concern for young children, which we hope DCPS leaders will address in the upcoming oversight and budget hearings: population and planning for early care and education, and its connection to third grade proficiency.

We would like to know more about DCPS’s student population projections, how accurate they have been in the past and how DCPS plans to meet the challenge of providing high-quality Pre-School and Pre-Kindergarten to DC’s growing population of children under five. 

DC KIDS COUNT’s analysis of U.S. Census population estimates reveals that while DC’s population of children under age 18 has decreased overall, the population of children under age five has begun to increase. Higher birth rates and rising overall population suggest the growth in the number of young children will continue.

While population growth of children under five is greatest in the center of the city, we also found that half of DC’s young children, approximately 18,000, live in Wards 4, 7 and 8. This geographic divergence presents dual challenges for DCPS: serving the areas with the greatest need for high-quality early care and education programs and addressing the implications of new patterns of growth.

We suggest that this committee ask DCPS leaders how they have analyzed population data and what their plans are to focus early care and education resources, including federal Head Start and Early Head Start funds, towards the neighborhoods with the greatest need for high-quality programs.

As outlined in the Pre-Kindergarten Enhancement and Expansion Act of 2008, all Pre-K programs in the District must meet high-quality standards by 2014, and work towards universal access. The recent Pre-K capacity audit, however, found that the number of children on waitlists for DCPS Pre-School and Pre-K seats in 2012 exceeded total capacity.  During our analysis, we found that some Pre-School programs are over-enrolled with wait lists hundreds long, while other programs remain under-enrolled. Uneven utilization suggests quality disparities or unmet neighborhood demand.

One important measure of the success of DC’s early care and education programs is third grade proficiency. Research shows that third grade reading and math proficiency is a crucial performance measure for elementary and early education programs, and a predictor of later academic success, including graduation rates.  If a child from a low-income background cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade, he or she is six times more likely to leave school without a diploma.

In 2011, less than 40 percent of third grade students in DCPS scored “proficient” or higher on the DC-CAS,  and 2012 saw no significant improvement.  Third grade scores have been at this low level for years: DC Action’s recent analysis showed no evidence of significant progress on third grade scores since 2007, and no evidence of significant changes in the achievement gap for students of color and students from low-income families. 

High-quality early care and education is the foundation of third grade success. Emphasis on grade level reading and math skills should begin when students first enter Pre-School, or even earlier. With this in mind, we hope this committee will ask DCPS leaders how they plan to reach the laudable goal in their five year strategic plan – 70 percent proficiency and twice as many “advanced” students by 2017 – for third grade students. 

We encourage this Committee to ask DCPS how the next five years will be different for our youngest students, who represent a growing share of the under-18 population? What are the year-to-year benchmarks DCPS will use to ensure that schools in every neighborhood are on track? How will DCPS ensure that improvements are not only concentrated in the schools that are already performing well?        

DC Action welcomes the opportunity to work in partnership with you, Councilmember Catania, with all of the members of this committee and your staff, as well as DCPS and school leaders, to ensure that all children enrolled in DCPS reach their full potential.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.



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