Myeisha Ms. Shalonda Davis Mysha and ShaMya dcps2

Shalonda Davis with Myeshia, Ka’Mysha and Sha’Mya on the first day of school at John Carroll Nalle Elementary School.

Book bags packed. Lunches planned. Outfits laid out. It is that time of year again, and D.C. students returned to schools across the city, beginning Aug. 25.

According to a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) press release, this year’s enrollment of more than 47,000 students is higher than the District has seen in the past five years. While some may attribute this increase to overall improvements in the city’s school system, others see it as an issue for its already struggling education centers.

D.C. parent and advisory neighborhood commissioner for the Garfield Heights and Woodland Terrace neighborhoods in Southeast D.C., Darrell Gaston, does not attribute the student population growth to improvement. “Enrollment is up primarily because more modern middle class families can’t afford to pay for private school anymore,” he told the {AFRO} in an interview on Sept.2.

To evaluate educational outcomes and the quality of D.C. public schools, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) classifies D.C. public schools each year from “reward” to “priority,” or “highest-performing to lowest-performing.” Criteria making up the “priority” category include District of Columbia comprehensive assessment system (DC CAS) accountability scores of 25 or less (including growth measure) and graduation rates less than 60 percent. It’s no surprise that many “priority,” or “low-performing schools,” are located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. More specifically, these schools can be found in Wards 4, 7 and 8.

In April 2012, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced a five-year strategic plan, which among other initiatives, aimed at improving failing schools. Two years into a capital commitment plan, school officials continue to implement the program.

The school system is also placing a renewed focus on literacy, according to a press release, supporting middle schools in innovative ways, and hiring new faculty to support the larger student population. Three hundred new teachers, 24 new librarians, and 29 new guidance counselors are among those starting in 2014. “We are going big this year at DCPS – with more students in our schools, longer school days across the city and a continued focus on engaging and supporting our students to strive for their absolute best, I am so excited for what’s to come,” said Chancellor Henderson.

Akela Stanfield, assistant principal at Nalle Elementary School, in Southeast D.C., Ward 7, is one of the new hires. Focusing on literacy, Stanfield has taken several steps to implement Chancellor Henderson’s strategic plan at the school. “Nalle has implemented an extended school day and academic program that provides literacy instruction across all content areas,” Stanfield said. “Our students not only benefit from the 120-minute literacy block, but they also engage in rigorous instruction within art, Spanish, music, and technology classes. Our students show steady academic gains in math as a benefit from a stellar curriculum and highly effective teachers.”

Stanfield agrees with the plan’s efficacy for students, especially those of color, and continues to describe changes seen in students since the full initiative was implemented. “Our students are more confident in their academic abilities and truly feel like scholars,” she said. “Our in-seat attendance is better than ever, and students generally like being in school.”

As expected, since its implementation, Chancellor Henderson’s strategic plan has received criticism. “It’s a very bold plan of action, one that doesn’t do justice when improving education as a whole,” Gaston said. “I think DCPS needs to understand that a one size fits all approach is not how we educate our kids. It’s a great start in the sense of creating a conversation, but when I see certain schools differ in achievement, this plan is failing.”

To that end, school leaders do not solely focus on the five-year plan when educating students. “Our biggest goal is for our scholars to fulfill all of their academic potential, to dream big and always have an eye toward a college education and successful future, and for them to grow up and continue to be irreplaceable assets to their communities,” Stanfield said.