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The Quiet Revolution in D.C. Schools

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Is it possible that Washington, D.C. is becoming a leading national laboratory for our collective efforts to reimagine public education for a changing world?

Three years ago - when I spent the entire school year embedded in two area schools, and followed two parents as they struggled to make sense of a chaotic educational marketplace that felt like the Wild, Wild West - I'd have said, "no way!"

Yet here we are, just three years later, and just a few weeks after the first unified lottery - one in which the school-choice chaos of three years ago was replaced by an ordered, collaborative, citywide sorting - and the landscape looks very different. Indeed, although problems still abound, I see increasing evidence that D.C. may be able to model a way forward for other cities - from cross-sector cooperation, to courageous conversations about race and class, to multimillion dollar renovations of long-neglected neighborhood high schools, to new investments in new efforts to create more high-quality learning environments.

The sense of energy and optimism was on display recently at the offices of the Citybridge Foundation - a private foundation that focuses exclusively on improving public education in Washington, DC - when representatives of six city schools (two neighborhood schools, one existing charter, and three completely new schools) arrived to discover that not only were they receiving $100,000 to support their efforts to make learning more personalized for children; they were being feted with cupcakes, champagne, and Kool & The Gang.

Breakthrough Schools: CityBridge Announcement from Stone Soup Films on Vimeo.

Suffice it to say that most educators are never feted, except in the generally saccharine and empty way people tend to do when they praise folks who choose a profession that the larger society doesn't value. And while it's true that greater respect for the profession doesn't require red carpets, champagne flutes, and the Potomac River sparkling in the background under a late afternoon sun, greater levels of investment - smart, targeted investment - do make people sit up and take notice, something Citybridge's president, Katherine Bradley, understands. "We spend all of our time trying to figure out how to bring more transformational schools to the city," she explained to the educators in her office. "I think you are part of something that's starting in our city that will be transformational for kids."

What Bradley and others are betting on is that the clearest path to a model urban school system comes from investing in every sort of public school - traditional neighborhood schools, and both new and existing charters - and their capacity to meet the myriad needs of kids. And the six they have invested in as part of the Breakthrough Schools initiative represent the range of what's possible:

• A public Montessori program, trying to leverage new technology in ways that honor Maria Montessori's century-old, decidedly low-tech philosophy of child development;
• A brand-new, residential charter school that aspires to create a challenging, supportive family atmosphere for some of DC's most vulnerable youngsters - its foster children;
• A traditional public school, housed in a neighborhood that just a few years ago had police check points, setting out to remake itself from top to bottom;
• A highly celebrated public charter high school, intent on reimagining its entry and exit points in order to better serve children and keep them not just in school, but engaged and motivated throughout their high school careers.
• A brand-new charter school, the latest in an emerging national network, that intends to revitalize the civic mission of schools - and do so in ways only a school in the nation's capital can.
• A neighborhood school that plans to completely redesign its schedule, school year duration, and staffing model, in order to create personalized learning plans for every one of its 1,300 students.

Will efforts like these ultimately prove to be smart investments that result in strengthened, sustainable schools? Time will tell, but one thing is certain: in a city of just 600,000 people, and with a rising tax base, universal preschool, and good working relationships between the leaders of the city's charter and district schools, the potential to imagine something new may be within grasp. Indeed, between 2013 and 2017, Citybridge expects to distribute $6 million in total to support the opening or redesign of 18 public schools, with each round of the competition providing a pool of up to $2 million for winning teams to access.

In a city with less than 250 schools overall, that sort of math might eventually add up.

Follow Sam on Twitter.

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