Exclusive Interview: DCPS Chancellor Ferebee Confident at Start of School Year
By August 21, 2023 0 855•
DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee is in charge of more than 112 public elementary and secondary schools in the District, serving 50,000 students with more than 4,300 full-time teachers, and manages a constantly changing budget-in-progress process that includes cuts in pandemic programs and additions for new priorities.
Top among those priorities are math and reading achievement scores that have stubbornly hung below grade level for most of Washington, D.C.’s public school children. Those scores are accompanied by a widening gap between achievements of students with different economic backgrounds. Underlying it all is the most publicized challenge of all: violence in and around the city schools as well as inside school campuses.
Still, Ferebee, who has been chancellor since 2018, remains confident the challenges can be met and overcome.
“We lived through the pandemic when young people were and still are so challenged,” Ferebee told the Georgetowner during an online exclusive interview last week. “They got through so much, and I am so grateful at how they have adapted to so much change. But it’s going to take time… a good year or two for this generation to learn relationship skills and for the budget to catch up to our needs in new instructional and school and student safety areas. But we will get through it.”
Perhaps one proof of that is that D.C. schools have not experienced the decline in student enrollment and teacher retention that many public school districts are experiencing throughout the nation. DC Public schools are full, and DCPS experienced a 90-percent retention of teachers identified as “effective” in teacher evaluations last year. The DCPS budgets continue to support some of the highest teacher salaries in the nation. Starting teachers can expect to begin with annual salaries of around $60,000; top salaries for experienced teachers in the District can exceed $110,000. (It is important to note the alternative public school sector in D.C. not under Ferebee’s control. The District of Columbia Public Charter School Board regulates charter schools with an enrollment of 45,000 students.)
DCPS stability is reflected in and around Georgetown. Hyde Addison Elementary School on O Street continues to attract one of the most diverse student bodies in the city with children who speak dozens of different languages and whose parents come from dozens of different nations. Hardy Middle School on 35th Street maintained a 62-percent, in-boundary student body last year — students who live in the immediate area of the school — and whose expectations to attend a local public high school led to the relatively speedy establishment of a general high school just for Georgetown area students.
The new MacArthur High School at 4530 MacArthur Blvd. NW will open its doors for the first time next week to a freshman class of mainly Hardy Middle School direct-feed students.
Ferebee said that it looks like the so-called temporary name, “MacArthur High School,” may be retained as a permanent name. Everyone has easily identified the school with that name, as students adopted their school mascot: the mammoth.
One of the most significant changes to come, Ferebee noted, is the support of city leaders for instructional changes in mathematics and literacy based on exciting and proven “brain research.” New discoveries in brain function and how people learn — the often cited black box that educators have been working to understand for decades — have the potential to help teachers and instruction coaches sculpt essential learning procedures to individual student learning development indicators.
Ferebee came to his career in education naturally — from birth, one might say. Both his parents were teachers. “While they did not push me to become a teacher myself, that’s where I found myself after college, an elementary school teacher,” Ferebee said with a chuckle.
Still, his interest in learning research and management led him quickly into administrative posts. Before coming to D.C. as chancellor, Ferebee was superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools from 2013 to 2018. Prior to that he was the Chief of Staff for Durham Public Schools for three years.
But the most publicly dramatic challenge Ferebee and the DCPS face this year, as do many school systems across the country, is to address the public perception, if not the reality of violence in and around the District’s schools as well as inside. Safety concerns expressed by parents and community groups include fears of rising violence between youth gangs with guns that have resulted in a rising death rate of young people caught in the cross fire of a gang fight. Another dramatic area of concern is the possibility of an armed assault on a school by an intentional intruder.
Ferebee shared with The Georgetowner that DCPS has been working all summer with various city social and law enforcement agencies and investigators to establish various new levels of safety procedures and protocols in city schools.
They include new, upgraded and expanded technology, including cameras throughout school properties and alarm systems. They also incorporate new school safety personnel who are often retired law enforcement officers to be trained in the latest technology and techniques of de-escalation, conflict resolution and mediation. Protocols also include mandatory drills and response training for all stakeholders.
“In all cases we are incorporating best practices that work and are being shared by school districts across the country to deal with more aggressive behavior,” Ferebee said. The concerns extend to examining micro-transit data to discover where safety gaps for students of all ages on their way to school and back home are occurring.
There have been no complaints as far as Ferebee knows about D.C. curriculum dealing with American history and diversity.
“We welcome students with all values,” he said. “D.C. school librarians, teachers and even students are involved in new projects to develop internal age-appropriate readers and learning materials. This connects to the recent discoveries in the science of reading [writing and literacy comprehension], based on brain development research. It includes options for high achieving students that include dual degree [high school and an associate of arts two-year college degrees] and college credit partnerships with the University of the District of Columbia and some public high school students to earn college credits.”
Despite the many challenges of the past few years, Ferebee pointed out that “D.C. schools last year graduated more students on time and prepared for careers and college work – many with already earned college credits – than ever before.”