Metro Weekly

The 2014 State Board of Education: Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3)

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

Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3): Mainly, yes. The process by which the mayor’s office came up with these boundaries was, no other way to put it, bizarre. Before reaching the current boundaries proposal, D.C. residents were subjected to a proposal in which there would be no matter-of-right neighborhood schools, and a child’s school would be determined by lottery. This proposal caused enormous anxiety and frustration. Fortunately, those ideas were firmly defeated. The message from across the city was that people in every ward want high-quality neighborhood schools.

In Ward 3, the new boundaries will mean that, for the first time, Eaton students feed into Hardy Middle School. Some Eaton parents are very concerned about this. I was the chairperson of Deal’s Local School Restructuring Team during the first year in which Deal enrolled 6th-graders, a pivotal year in its transformation. I know what it takes to transform a middle school. I also know from my experience at Deal and from 30 years of education policy experience that when the right elements are placed the transformation can happen quite quickly. I think Hardy is at that point. It’s critical that Hardy get crucial support to strengthen its programs.

It’s also important for people to know: Hardy is already a school very much on the upswing. The energy at Hardy — from the principal to the PTO, the faculty, and students — is infectious, as is the desire to improve. They intend to become, and be regarded as, a school that is every bit as good as Deal. It’s vital that D.C. Public Schools, the mayor’s office, and the State Board of Education do everything possible to help it meet this goal.

No boundary proposal is perfect, and neither is this one. In fact, there are particulars that should be revisited — regarding grandfathering and a few places where the new boundary lines seem illogical. But, the overall proposal is good enough to move forward with. I certainly don’t think it would be productive to lose another year debating the overall proposal.

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?

Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3): It’s vital to have strong end-of-year tests that inform schools, parents, and the public about how students are progressing towards our city’s academic standards. These results should be used to hold schools accountable and to get them the help that they need. It’s also important to have ways to determine at various points midyear whether kids are falling behind or leaping ahead. This way they can be given the support or acceleration that they need. But, right now, the purposes of testing are being undermined. Raising test scores has in many cases become the goal, not just an indicator of whether schools or students are meeting the goal. The result is unhealthy distortions in kids’ education. Excessive time is spent on interim tests which disrupt classes. Worse, these tests are often unaligned to the standards and disconnected from the curriculum that teachers are teaching. In one of our schools last year, there were mandated, standardized tests on 20 different days! What an extraordinary loss of teaching and learning time! It’s time to revisit the proliferation of interim tests.

Especially at the elementary level, science, history-social studies, and the arts are being squeezed out. But these subjects are important in their own right and they engage students. Plus, to comprehend the higher-level reading material that students face in middle- and high-school, they must possess the background knowledge that is learned in the very courses that we’re squeezing out. Imagine, for example, trying to understand a 6th grade science textbook if you haven’t learned what photosynthesis is.

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

Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3): Low high school graduation rates begin with a failure to learn in elementary school. In the long run, the best antidote to low graduation rates is strong early and elementary education!

In the short run, though, there are important things that can be done. The first is to recognize the connection between absenteeism and dropping out. Schools must be primed to reach out to kids and their families as soon as absenteeism occurs. This needn’t be punitive. But any absence, certainly 2 or 3, deserves a phone call home. Parents may not know that their kids are absent, or, it may turn out that there is a logistical or emotional problem that is causing the absenteeism. If so, there needs to be someone at the school tasked with addressing the problem immediately. Schools need the resources to make sure that such issues are dealt with by someone with the responsibility, authority, and skills to work with the child and their family. We need good processes and good policies in matters of truancy. But no process will work unless there’s someone taking the time to make the intervention quickly, compassionately, and competently.

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?

Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3): Bullying is emotionally devastating to all who experience it. While we know that bullying is disproportionately aimed at LGBT youth, it’s also something that can affect any student. Apart from the emotional impact of bullying, there is also a terrible academic toll as bullied students become reluctant to attend school, become truant, and then get trapped in a vicious downward academic spiral. Thankfully, there is a nationwide and local effort to address it. The D.C. State Board of Education has authority over attendance and truancy policy. The board should insist that schools have the resources necessary to intervene early when students are absent — to find out what’s driving the absenteeism and to effectively and quickly address it. In bullying as with other issues, the best defense is a good offense. There are many good anti-bullying programs available — if schools don’t have such programs in place, they should. And the board should absolutely advocate for them.

MW: Why should the LGBT community vote for you?

Ruth Wattenberg (Ward 3): Because I can, and will, do the most to improve all of our schools for all of our kids. I am the only candidate running for Ward 3 school board who has both experience as a parent with our local schools and 30 years of experience in education policy. Members of the LGBT community can have confidence that the combination of this knowledge and experience, as well as my lifetime commitment to fair and decent treatment for all, means I’m the best choice to improve schools for all of our kids.

For more information on Ruth Wattenberg’s campaign, visit ruth4schools.com.

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

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