A Trip Inside D.C.’s Education System | Aidan Gossett

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“Urban education has many complex layers and systems, which on top of operating differently throughout the country, makes it difficult to apply broad problem solving strategies.”

As an undergraduate student at William & Mary, I have been able to take multiple courses within the School of Education as I explored different majors. I have stumbled into a lot of great opportunities through these courses and have met incredibly passionate professors who have helped guide me towards different areas of education. This past school year, I was an undergraduate researcher for Dr. Meredith Kier on the ongoing EAGER project, which studies the minority gap in STEM. Although I have enjoyed researching, my favorite education focused experience so far was taking a course titled “Urban Education: Policy, Practice, and Leadership” this past January through the W&M Washington Center. The course was taught by Drew Stelljes and it confirmed for me that when I had signed up for my first School of Education course that it was no accident; education is something I am deeply passionate about.

Aidan (back right) with other W&M students at a networking dinner with the Dream Project, a non-profit organization that supports immigrant students

My biggest take away from this course was that the education system in DC is incredibly complex and dominated by socio-economic status. PK-12 education in DC is split between 3 main types of schools: independent (commonly referred to as private), public, and charter. Each independent school in DC has a Board of Governors who oversee the school and together, and together these schools have a collaborative council that oversees their operations.  Public schools fall under both the Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS), which handles personnel, and The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which handles policies and curriculum for DCPS. Lastly, public charter schools are overseen by the DC Public Charter School Board, which grants new charters, monitors performance, and closes underperforming schools. Some charter schools are a part of a larger charter school network like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and these schools often have their own regional Board of Directors.  

Personally, I had no idea how perplexing the education system in DC was, even though I grew up only an hour away. To gain a better understanding we visited many different schools on site visits, like Sidwell Friends School (independent), KIPP DC (charter), and a Literacy Lab site within Raymond Education Campus. Each school visit gave us a glimpse into their world, which we used to create a deeper class understanding of how they are compare with one another. While the site visits were informative, each school focused mainly on their achievements and other positive aspects, which meant we did not always get a full picture. To provide a broader district view, we had meetings with prominent DC education figures like Hansuel Kang, the State Superintendent of Education and Sharona Robinson, the Community Action Team Coordinator for Clusters 1, 9, and 10 of DCPS, who herself is a DCPS graduate. Both leaders provided valuable insight on the positives and negatives of the current education system in DC and how they are working to improve it. Something echoed by both Sharona Robinson and Hansuel Kang was that there is limited understanding of the entire education system in DC by parents and even by some professionals within. 

This limited understanding became a common theme throughout the course no matter where we went. Sharona Robinson told us that every year she is flooded with calls from parents, who do not know how the DC public education system functions, to help them understand how they can give their children the best opportunities possible. To acquire a spot within a DC charter school or a public school outside of where a student is zoned, you have to get lucky in the DC school lottery. Sharona explained how the lottery plays heavily into what makes the education system in DC so confusing, along with how it reinforces socio-economic separation. To help combat this, Sharona works tirelessly to help parents win at the lottery system, advising parents to not put all their marbles on a school that only has a few open slots, compared to one with over a hundred. What I found so heartbreaking about this was that these parents are fighting for their kids and yet continuously hit roadblocks because of their family means. This limited understanding sometimes extends to teachers as well, some of whom do not understand intricacy of the leadership structures. During a networking dinner, a DCPS teacher said that if he could ask Superintendent Kang one question it would be, “why they are not hiring more teachers?” When we met with Superintendent Kang the next day, her response to the question was, that was not her office’s role, instead the role of the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, the office which handles DCPS staff. For me, this highlighted the complexity and if even those within the education system do not understand it fully, how can families understand it?

“The most important lesson I took away from this course was that transparency and simplicity increase community understanding and districtwide equity.”

Urban education has many complex layers and systems that simply do not exist in suburban or rural area and makes it difficult to apply broad problem solving strategies. I grew up in a suburban area without charter schools, three private schools in a 30 miles radius, and the vast majority of students attended public school. Like many districts, some schools had better reputations than others and there were conflicts over proposed rezoning, but nothing compared to the complexity of DC’s education system. The most important lesson I took away from this course was that transparency and simplicity increase community understanding and districtwide equity. I urge anyone and everyone to take the time to research their local education system, because one day you may be a parent fighting for the best possible education for your child. 


About the Author: Aidan Gossett is a sophomore at W&M studying government and global education concentration and is set to graduate in May 2022. He is currently involved in research within W&M School of Education’s Center for Innovation in Learning Design and as a student advisor in the Conduct and Honor Advisor Program.

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