Metro Weekly

The 2014 State Board of Education: Laura Wilson Phelan (Ward 1)

iVotedTealButtonMETRO WEEKLY: Do you support the proposed school boundary changes as they affect your ward?

Laura Wilson Phelan (Ward 1): As a parent, I empathize with families who feel the school boundary plan does not improve their educational options. I commit to working with those families to identify strong options for their children. At the same time, I believe that the predictive feeder patterns that the plan presents enables families to invest in their child’s school before they attend it. As a former teacher and current member of Bancroft’s advisory team, my experience has been that deeper community engagement in our schools plays a significant role in strengthening them. I believe this plan in the longer-term will help improve our schools in Ward 1 and across the city for the following reasons.

The plan allows for pre-school aged 3- and 4-year-old students to attend their in-boundary school by right (not lottery), if the school is Title I, which includes all schools except Oyster-Adams in Ward 1. The plan provides a predictive feeder pattern for all families and provides a dual-language option for families enrolled in dual-language schools. The plan calls for the opening of two new middle schools that will serve Ward 1 families — one at the Shaw Middle School site and one at the MacFarland site — and phases out grades 6-8 programming in elementary schools so that middle school programs focus on the learning needs of this age group.

The plan allows for continuation of some out-of-boundary placements, which provides families unsatisfied with their in-boundary option an opportunity to lottery into another school.

The plan enhances opportunities for “at-risk” students across our traditional and charter school system by designating 25 percent of available lottery seats to this population. When schools include students with diverse needs and strengths, the entire student body is enriched.

MW: The District has been criticized for relying heavily on high-stakes testing to determine proficiency in various subjects. Do you see this criticism as valid or legitimate?

Phelan: As a former teacher, I remember feeling frustrated by the amount of time I spent with my students on testing. I wanted to know how much my students were learning and in which areas, so that I could re-teach the elements they weren’t grasping. I also wanted a measure of whether I was teaching them well enough to enable them to compete with their peers beyond middle school. I believe we need balance between having enough assessments to measure student learning, while not distracting significantly from important teaching time. I also believe it is critical that the tests we employ provide useful, diagnostic information about what students are learning in order to provide teachers with data about what areas they need to re-teach with particular students.

MW: What do you think needs to be further done to reduce truancy and increase D.C.’s low high school graduation rate?

Phelan: As a former middle school teacher and parent of young girls, I understand that when children reach adolescence, their peer group becomes the greatest source of influence in their lives. Therefore, any approach to reducing truancy and improving high school graduation rates must include better ways of engaging students in school. Teenagers need to enjoy school and find activities that will engage their interest. For example, at Deal Middle School, students are offered dozens of after-school activities to attract all types of interest, and I believe we can learn from the successes at Deal.

In addition to better engagement, we need to do more to improve literacy. Research has shown that truancy and graduation rates, which are interconnected, can be predicted by a student’s literacy levels in elementary school, especially by third grade. We need to focus on literacy in the early grades.

Finally, engaging families in schools matters for truancy. In D.C., schools that have deeper engagement with students’ families are experiencing decreasing truancy rates and improved academic results. We need to learn from the programs that are succeeding and expand them across the District.

MW: What can the DC State Board of Education do, if anything, to enforce anti-bullying laws related to LGBT students and families and reduce truancy among that specific sub-group?

Phelan: While the State Board does not have direct authority over implementation of law, it has the power to shine a light on elements that are not working in our education system. The State Board can hold public hearings to understand the scope of challenges facing LGBT students and identify interventions that are working to address them. We must make classrooms LGBT Safe Spaces, which means that the teachers are trained in ensuring that all students, regardless of sexual orientation, feel welcome and safe within the classroom walls.

MW: Why should the LGBT community vote for you?

Phelan: As a former classroom teacher, parent of young children in our schools, and non-profit leader working in education across our schools, I have the experience and knowledge to ensure that Ward 1 schools meet the needs of all students. I know how to create Safe Spaces for all children to flourish. I understand first-hand the challenges facing our parents, teachers, school leaders and students and will not need to climb a steep learning curve to begin making progress on the issues facing Ward 1 schools.

For more information on Laura Wilson Phelan’s campaign, visit

Click here to read more reponses from D.C. candidates.

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