Public Hearing before the Committee on Education on the Performance of the DC Public Schools

Written Testimony of Eduardo R. Ferrer
Legal & Policy Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Committee on Education Performance Oversight Hearing for
     the DC Public Schools

Dear Chairman Grosso,

My name is Eduardo Ferrer and I am the Legal and Policy Director at DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service action tank that seeks to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.  Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony as I was unable to personally attend the oversight hearing. 

As advocates for youth, we want our all of our kids to be engaged and successful in school, to be on the path to being productive adults. We know that many young people in the District of Columbia come into schools with prior trauma, which if unaddressed, can stand in the way of their education. [1]  We too often see this trauma contributing to suspensions, expulsions, truancy, or even arrests.

We are hopeful about the recognition that DCPS has made about student trauma, evidenced by their restorative justice pilot programs and commitment to reducing the overuse of school discipline. To stay consistent in prioritizing our students’ socio-emotional needs, DCPS needs to invest in school staff who can be a consistent and supportive presence in our kids’ lives, helping our kids manage everything they carry into the classroom with them each day.

My testimony focuses on three main issues: 1) the level of investment in social work and counseling services in DCPS; 2) the continued challenge of truancy in our schools; and 3) the continued overuse of school exclusion.   

Our Approach to School Climate Continues to Focus on Enforcement over Intervention

During the 2015-2016 school year, the ratio of security staff in schools was 1:114 while the ratio of social workers was 1:283 students.[2]  What message does it send our kids when it is more likely for them to come across a police officer or security guard in a school than a social worker? This disparity shows a relative lack of investment in the socio-emotional needs of our students that is very concerning and must be remedied as soon as possible.  

The National Association of School Social Workers recommends that schools follow a social worker to student ratio of 1:250.[3]  However, “[w]hen a school social worker is providing services to students with intensive needs, a lower ratio, such as 1:50, is suggested.”[4]  DCPS not only falls short of the standard for social workers working with student populations of average need, but also falls significantly short of meeting the recommendation for students with intensive needs – a ratio that is more likely to apply to the majority, if not, most DC public schools.[5]  

Indeed, when you look at some of our highest need schools, the reality of the disparity between investing in our youth versus policing our youth becomes even more stark.  For instance, Moten Elementary School, located in Ward 8 enrolls 423 students, 100 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced school lunch. There is one school social worker at Moten and two security guards. This scenario is similar at Leckie Elementary School, also in Ward 8. The 519 students at Leckie have one school social worker as well and two security guards. Randle Highlands Elementary School in Ward 7, has a half-time social worker for the 339 students that attend, and at Brookland Middle School in Ward 5, there are 4 security guards and just 1 social worker for the 315 students enrolled. 

Among individual DCPS schools, 67 schools exceed a 1:250 social worker per student ratio, and 28 schools exceed a 1:400 ratio of social worker per student. Combining social workers and DBH workers, 52 schools exceed a 1:250 social workers per student ratio and 24 schools exceed a 1:400 student ratio. Of these 24 schools, 13 have two or more security guards. None of these ratios include SROs, but 103 officers are in DCPS schools this year.[6]

Table 1: Schools with a 1:400 or higher ratio of students to social workers with 2 or more security guards in the 2016-2017 school year[7]

 

Enrollment

Free and Reduced Lunch

Social Workers

Security Guards

DBH

Ballou STAY

477

99%

1

3

0

Barnard ES

637

100%

1

2

0

Benjamin Banneker HS

454

25%

0

2

0

Burroughs ES

285

100%

0.5

2

0

Ellington School of the Arts

525

33%

1

6

0

Leckie ES

519

100%

1

2

0

Moten ES

427

88%

1

2

0

Murch ES

625

7%

1

2

0

Powell ES

512

100%

1

2

0

Raymond EC

572

100%

1

3

0

Roosevelt STAY

776

33%

1

4

0

School Without Walls HS

589

15%

1

2

0

Table 2: Schools that have a higher than 1:250 ratio of social workers, DBH and counselors (combined) to students in the 2016-2017 school year [8]

 

 

Enrollment

Free and Reduced Lunch

Social Workers

DBH

Counselors

Security Guards

Barnard ES

637

100%

1

0

1

2

Brent ES

384

9%

1

0

0

1

Bunker Hill ES

156

100%

0.5

0

0

1

Burroughs ES

285

100%

0.5

0

0

2

Burrville ES

326

100%

1

0

0

1

Cleveland ES

319

100%

1

0

0

1

Drew ES

247

100%

0.5

0

0

1

Eaton ES

478

14%

1

0

0

1

Hardy MS

374

41%

1

0

0

2

Hearst ES

316

16%

1

0

0

2

Houston ES

275

100%

1

0

0

1

Hyde-Addison ES

316

17%

1

0

0

2

J.O. Wilson ES

505

100%

1.5

0

0

1

Janney ES

731

2%

1

0

0

1

Key ES

386

3%

0.5

0

0

1

Lafayette ES

700

4%

0

0

2

1

Leckie ES

519

100%

1

0

0

2

Ludlow-Taylor ES

370

100%

1

0

0

1

Mann ES

360

3%

1

0

0

1

Maury ES

383

23%

1

0

0

1

Moten ES

427

88%

1

0

0

2

Murch ES

625

7%

1

0

1

2

Orr ES

421

100%

1

0

0

1

Plummer ES

409

100%

1

0

0

1

Randle Highlands ES

339

63%

0.5

0

0

1

Roosevelt STAY

776

33%

1

0

1

4

Savoy ES

349

82%

1

0

0

2

Stanton ES

526

100%

1

1

0

2

Thomas ES

411

100%

1

0

0

1

Tyler ES

520

100%

1

1

0

1

 

School social workers are an important lifeline for students and families. In the 2015-2016 school year, 20 DCPS schools did not have a full-time social worker and in the 2016-2017 school year 15 DCPS schools remain without a full time social worker. DCPS describes the primary responsibility of a social worker as “preventive work with students, staff, and families that promotes positive school climate and social/emotional well-being.”[9] The preventative work to address student need and trauma early and attend to their mental health and socio-emotional needs provides the foundation for our kids to learn while they are in the classroom. In their role as a home-school-community liaison, social workers are crucial to leveraging the resources that may already exist in a student’s life and helping to coordinate these services. Full time school social workers have the ability to be additional consistent, safe, and helpful adults in the lives of our students. 

As DCPS invests in restorative justice practices and truancy reduction initiatives, emphasizes trauma-informed school climates, and further learns about the individual obstacles impeding a student’s ability to learn, the need for additional social workers, who can intervene and connect youth with services to mitigate the obstacles, will become ever more apparent. Even with some recent progress at improving overall school attendance, suspensions, expulsions, and truancy continue to result in far too many learning days lost. We know that the underlying root causes for many of our kids struggling in the classroom, or not attending school, are obstacles they are facing in their homes or communities. These issues cannot be addressed in the school through teachers alone, whose time, energy, and focus is already heavily taxed.  Schools need personnel whose dedicated role is to support and invest in the health and welfare of our students.

Recommendation: DCPS must remedy this disparity immediately.  For the FY2018 budget, we recommend that DCPS spend at least as much on social workers for schools as they spend on security guards, with the goal of shifting a significant amount spent on security to social work over time.  In the DCPS budget submitted for FY2016, there was $16,421,560 total spent on school social workers.[10] According to the oversight answers, DCPS has been able to get approximately 55% of its mental health personnel reimbursed by Medicaid.[11] The DCPS school security contract with MPD for personnel is projected at $21 million for FY 2016/2017.[12]  For FY2018, we recommend that the DC Council specifically allocate at least $21 million for school social workers.  We also recommend that any additional funding allocated to hiring more social workers be prioritized for schools who employ only half-time social workers and schools with much higher student to social worker ratios.

Our Approach To Truancy Continues to Prioritize Enforcement Over Intervention

In the 2015-2016 school year, 23% of all DCPS students had more than 10 unexcused absences, and 13% had more than 20 unexcused absences.[13]  This number was even higher for students in special education: 27% of students in special education had more than 10 unexcused absences.[14] Looking specifically at 6th through 8th grade students in DCPS schools, in the 2015-2016 school year 39% had 10 or more unexcused absences, and this number has increased by 2% from the previous year.[15]

Despite these high levels of unexcused absences, DCPS continues to fall very short in meaningfully intervening with students who are struggling to attend school.  For instance, schools are required to hold school-based support teams (SSTs) after a student accrues five unexcused absences.   SSTs were established in an effort to help reduce truancy by identifying root causes early and developing individualized action plans.  During the 2015-2016 school year there were 19,050 students referred to school-based support teams (SSTs) for attendance but only 12,944 (68%) attendance SSTs were held.[16] Moreover, DCPS did not state how many (or what percentage) of the SSTs resulted in actually identifying barriers to attendance as they had in years past[17] or how many resulted in action plans that were implemented.  Based on our experience working with youth in the District, even when attendance SSTs are being “held,” they are pro forma ineffective meetings or phone calls merely meant to check the box of the requirement that the meeting be held rather than actually intervene in the truant behavior. 

Importantly, while DCPS only provided a narrative regarding the root causes as opposed to data, DCPS identified the root causes of attendance issues in their performance oversight response in the following manner: “In general, students listed academic concerns, health, family issues, clothing, day care, ‘parentified’ minors and executive life management issues, and transportation as the most persistent barriers to their regular school attendance.” These barriers that students face are not barriers to be solved in court. Not only are these are barriers that should be resolved through SST meetings and action plans, but also they are barriers that are likely to be compounded, not alleviated, through court involvement.  Nevertheless, at the same time that the schools are failing to meaningfully intervene directly in truancy on a broad scale, they are still referring youth to CFSA and to court on a broad scale. 

This is not to say that DCPS is not doing some good work to improve attendance.  In its Performance Oversight Answers, DCPS states that two of its main strategies for reducing truancy are improving school climate and reducing out-of-school suspensions.  We are there are fully supportive of both of these approaches.  We are also optimistic regarding a number of the specific initiatives and programming in place in many of the schools, including Access Youth, PASS, and Show Up, Stand Out.  Indeed, DCPS needs to continue to scale up what is working and suspend what is not working.

Recommendations: We recommend that schools suspend referrals by schools to Court Social Services until schools start conducting meaningful SSTs.  Shift resources, time, and energy from compliance with referral process to SSTs process and effective interventions. For SSTs to serve their purpose, DCPS needs to have the funding for staff time required to robustly intervene with students and families before there is court of CFSA referral.

We also recommend that DCPS continue to scale up current effective truancy interventions. The programs that already exist in partnership with DCPS of Access Youth, PASS, and Show Up, Stand Out should be expanded. Access Youth in particular is at risk of not having the funding to continue work in DCPS.[18] In addition to ensuring these truancy programs are funded, DCPS should ensure all truancy programs are directly in the schools rather than requiring schools to refer to court for a youth to be eligible for the program (relates mainly to ACE).

Our Approach to School Exclusion Must Continue to Shift from Exclusive to Restorative

Without repeating our testimony from the recent Public Roundtable on the State of School Discipline,[19] I would like to reiterate a number of recommendations

First, schools need to scale up what is working and ensure it is implemented with fidelity. In order to sustain and build efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions, the District should direct additional money to restorative justice programs and to other trauma-informed practices and staff. As DCPS works on the 2017-2018 budget allocation in the coming months, these programs should be at the forefront of planning. Schools like Ballou, which garnered media attention for its restorative justice approach that preceded a drastic reduction in suspensions, should no longer be an exceptional case.

OSSE positively highlighted restorative justice practices in the Discipline Report, citing a reduction in suspensions by schools in its pilot program, and also reporting that schools implementing restorative justice practices “observed a shift in school culture marked by a greater sense of safety, belonging, and community.” This suggests that a greater investment in restorative justice will yield multiple benefits to help our kids. Along with keeping kids in school, improvements to school culture are also shown to help kids engage and succeed in school.[20]

Second, another necessary change consistent with continuing to reduce and avoid suspensions is updating the DCPS Disciplinary Code (5-B DCMR § 2502), which outlines student discipline policies for DCPS students, in light of what we have learned about the harm that school exclusion causes and the successes we have had with using alternatives to exclusion. Despite investments by DC schools to reduce student exclusion, the code still permits a wide range of responses to the broadly defined Tier 3 offenses: schools have the discretion to respond with anything from a verbal redirection to a nine-day suspension. Chapter 25 should also clearly incorporate restorative justice philosophy and practices, instead of merely giving it a passing mention. Additionally, the Chapter 25 should be revised to narrow the behaviors that can serve as grounds for suspensions, limiting this to situations where a student poses danger to the safety of the school.

Third, as the OSSE Report states, the District should continue to improve its data reporting, collection, and analysis.  We have provided a number of examples in our testimony with regard to failures reporting data completely, accurately, and with sufficient detail.  Such incomplete or non-standardized data collection from our schools severely limits the ability to analyze data in a meaningful way, and to identify, learn from, and improve upon best practices. In its report, OSSE commits to providing ongoing training for LEAs to improve at data collection and analysis practices.  This is a good start, but more is necessary.  Schools must be held accountable if they underreport or poorly report their school discipline data.  Additionally, in order to make sure the data that is reported is useful, OSSE, DCPS, and PCSB should consider working together to create a common definition of at least in school suspension, out of school suspension, and expulsion, as well as to create a common list of reasons justifying the suspensions (or at least a way to cross walk the data to a common, useful list).  

Conclusion:

The recommendations for DCPS to increase the presence of social workers in schools, to invest in truancy reduction through increasing SST capacity and using school-based programming, and decreasing school exclusion by increasing its investment in restorative justice are ways that DCPS can show its commitment to improving school climate and student engagement. Setting up all of our kids to be engaged and successful in DCPS schools is an investment in their futures, and in the future of our city.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.

 

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                   

                                                                                    Eduardo R. Ferrer

                                                                                    Legal & Policy Director

 

cc:

Honorable Trayon White, Sr.

Honorable Charles Allen

Honorable Anita Bonds

Honorable Robert C. White, Jr.



[1] See Addressing Childhood Trauma a report by Children’s Law Center available at https://traumasensitiveschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/CLC-Addressing-Childhood-Trauma-DC-Schools-June-2015.pdf

[2] The Performance Oversight responses from DCPS state that in 2015-2016 SY there were 171 school social workers in DCPS schools. See attachment Q11 referenced on page 17 of the online document: http://dccouncil.us/files/user_uploads/budget_responses/DCPS_FY16_Performance_Oversight_Responses_FINAL_Submission_to_Council_02_08_17.pdf.  The responses report in Q7 on page 7 that for the 2015-2016 SY there were 103 MPD officers, 28 special police officers and 292 contracted security guards in DCPS schools. The enrollment number used is 48,439 provided at https://dcps.dc.gov/node/966292.  Even if you include the 39.5 DBH staff now located in schools, the ratio of social worker to student is 1:230. In other words, there are still twice as many security officers as social workers in the schools.

[4] Id

[5] Consider that in terms of the percent of students nationally who qualify for subsudized school lunch is 48.1% while 73% of DCPS students qualify for subsidized lunch. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_046.asp.

[6] See Q7 on page 7 of DCPS Performance Oversight responses, supra 2

[7] All enrollment figures and free and reduced lunch percentages were taken from individual DCPS school profiles accessed here: http://profiles.dcps.dc.gov/. The social worker allocations were compiled using the Q11 Attachment for 2016 DCPS Oversight responses and the security guard allocations were compiled using the MPD report School Safety and Security in the District of Columbia for SY16-17 accessed at https://mpdc.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/mpdc/publication/attachments/MPD%20School%20Safety%20Annual%20Report_School%20Year%202016-17_FINAL.pdf

[8] All figures in Table 2 come from the same sources referenced in Table 1, and the DBH and counselor allocations were also compiled using the Q11 attachment of 2016 DCPS Performance Oversight responses, supra 7.

[10] The DCPS Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Allocations were found at http://www.dcpsdatacenter.com/fy16_allocations.html.

[11] This estimate was provided for Q11 on the 2016 DCPS Performance Oversight responses, on page 17, supra 2

[12] Id. at Q8 on page 8.

[13] See Q53_Attachment submitted by DCPS with the 2016 Performance Oversight responses, supra 2. There were 11,348 students who were in the 11-20 unexcused absences or 21+ unexcused absences range out of the 49,550 students enrolled.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] See Q 55 page 69 of the 2016 DCPS Performance Oversight responses, supra 2.

[17] For an example of a more informative account of SSTs, see Q 87 on page 70 of the 2013 DCPS Oversight. responses accessed at: http://dccouncil.us/files/performance_oversight/DCPS_2013_Performance_Oversight_Responses_020714_FINAL.pdf.

[18] See Q56 on page 70 of the 2016 DCPS Performance Oversight responses, supra 2.

[19] DCLY testimony for the 2017 Public Roundtable on the State of School Discipline for the Committee on Education can be found here: http://www.dcly.org/state_of_discipline_roundtable2017

[20] One example is a 2012 study where researchers found a correlation between school climate and academic achievement and engagement.  Alicia Doyle Lynch, et. al. Adolescent Academic Achievement and School Engagement: An Examination of the Role of School-Wide Peer Culture, Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2012), available at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10964-012-9833-0


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