Friday, August 29, 2008

Rhee's "Welcome Back" letter to parents

August 25, 2008

Dear Parents,

Welcome to a new school year! I have two young daughters in DCPS, and in my house this is the time when I begin to lose sight of my tabletops and doorways to the signs of learning. Books, art and science projects, bookbags that hold permission slips hostage... I am glad to see all of it as the year begins with new teachers, schedules and expectations. My daughters, like all of our students, form their impressions in the first week of school. As a parent I want them to be excited about the possibilities a new school year can bring. As Chancellor of DC Public Schools, I want all of our students to be ready for learning and engaged in their classrooms.

As we send our children to their new teachers, and for many to new schools, I hope that you will join me in setting high expectations from day one: high expectations for challenging and engaging instruction, for strong and regular communication from teachers and the school, for performance from me and the entire central office, and most importantly high expectations for what your child can achieve this year.

Last Year’s Results Show Promise
Last year saw many changes that built a foundation for this year’s reforms. Among other accomplishments, we were able to bring more librarians, psychologists, PE teachers, art and music teachers to schools by closing under-enrolled schools. Also last year, our students showed us just how much they can do when we challenge them to meet higher expectations. Due to the hard work of our teachers and school communities, overall elementary schools increased their reading scores by 8 percentage points and their math scores by 11 percentage points. Secondary schools made 9% gains in both reading and math. The DC CAS test results the year before last showed that 52 schools had raised their scores in both reading and math. When we set our goals for this year, we projected that 57 schools could raise both scores this year. Instead, 99 schools raised their reading and math scores.

I am often told that urban districts cannot be held to high expectations, that suburban districts are always going to be held to a higher standard because of our higher poverty rates and greater percentages of minority students. This is simply not true. Our African-American students outpaced our Caucasian students this year by 30% in reading and 50% in math. Wards 7 and 8 outpaced ward 3. One school, Lafayette Elementary School, decreased the achievement gap between black and white students by 19 percentage points.

This year, you will see more.
Our school system still has a long way to go before I can say we are serving all children well. Our students’ levels of proficiency do not yet match their tremendous potential. The hard work continues, and over the course of next year you will see us move into deeper reforms to impact instruction and increase our capacity to serve your children. We are working on a new teachers’ union contract that can significantly reward our successful teachers and show them the respect that their work deserves. We are adding new and stronger professional development options for all of our teachers to support them to further advance student achievement. We will implement better data systems to keep more reliable and accessible records than you have seen in the past. This is especially important for our high school students, many who were repeating courses they had actually already passed. We have conducted a massive master scheduling effort this summer that will help us to do this, and we are combining this with graduation plans for every high school student.

The quality of afterschool programming is correlated with higher achievement levels, increased student safety, less likelihood to engage in criminal activity, and greater college acceptance rates. This year you will see stronger, expanded afterschool programs across the District, especially in our high schools, which previously had very little afterschool extracurricular support. For the first time in DCPS, we evaluated the providers who work with our children in afterschool hours, and we have more evenly redistributed their skills throughout the District so that all of our students can receive afterschool support. We have made the afterschool coordinator role a full- time position. With a higher level of accountability than before, they will engage with all of the strong organizations that work with our children.

With the work of the Office of Public Education Facilities Management (OPEFM), we have made enormous strides in improving our facilities this year and this past summer. You will see
everything from fresh coats of paint to newly working air conditioners and building renovations to promote learning. Finally, we have worked with school communities in closing schools to transition to a new school environment. One community, led by the ANC commissioners and community partners, held a ‘unity day’ for students in consolidating Bowen and Amidon. The students met, sang and marched from Bowen to Amidon on the walking route they would take to school.

As your tables and doorways fill with books and school supplies over the next few weeks, I hope you feel the same excitement that I do at the onset of a new school year for DCPS. I hope you will join us this coming year to move your child’s and school’s achievement levels even further ahead for next year. Meet with your child’s teachers at the beginning of the year and throughout the year. Hold us to high expectations for achieving results for your children. I look forward to a second year of hard work to meet these expectations.

Michelle Rhee

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