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Accelerate Series: A Conversation with Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee, Chancellor of DC Public Schools

NTC CEO Desmond Blackburn sat down with Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee, Chancellor of DC Public Schools as part of our Accelerate series. Dr. Ferebee was selected to lead DC Public Schools in 2018, when he was appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser. He brings with him 20 years of experience to his position as Chancellor, and is focused heavily on ensuring that there is a great school for every child in every community. He strives to keep equity and transparency at the very heart of the district’s work, and he strives to set every student up for post-secondary success.

What made you want to lead a large urban school district? 

I love to tell people that I have a unique journey because I got to start in leadership relatively early in my career. I had a radical Superintendent, Dr. Terry Grier, who reached out to me when I was an Assistant Principal, and he gave me the opportunity to lead the lowest performing school in his district. Dr. Grier is retired now, but he was a lightning rod and he focused on identifying young talent in a way that I hadn’t seen before. He gave me the unique opportunity to lead the school. He said, “Lewis, you’re going to take on my most challenging school, but I want to give you a different level of autonomy, because I don’t want anything to get in your way, I want all the barriers to be removed.” And he was serious about that. It really made me think differently about how I support leaders that are going to be challenged with a heavy lift. And it was also an opportunity for me to see a Superintendent in a large urban school district that was at the top of his game. I wanted to have that same impact on education. And I wanted to exude that same level of bold leadership. And so that’s why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. And Dr. Grier is still a mentor today.

Let’s spend some time talking about student achievement in DC public schools. You’ve seen some incredible academic gains in your district. Can you tell us what shifts have happened to drive these amazing results?

First, I want to be really clear that the gains in DCPS were in motion before my arrival in the district. For me, it’s important to continue the great work that a district is doing. We’re the fastest improving urban school district in the nation, as measured by national assessments in math and reading, and we continue to make steady progress on our local formative assessments. I think where we see the most, progress is where we have been investing in talent. We have very competitive compensation and a robust performance incentive model.We’ve also invested a lot in the professional learning experiences made available to teachers. The other side of it has been investment in early childhood education and early literacy. We are one of the few districts that has put a stake in the ground around universal opportunities for three- and four-year olds (we have 6000 students in this group). We’ve been expanding that number each year, and I just can’t say enough about the skills students are entering kindergarten with as a result of these experiences. A strong early literacy foundation has allowed us to advance literacy skills in the upper grades, and in the transition into secondary.

Let’s talk about the role that educators have played in the shifts that you just described.

We’ve been able to retain over 90% of our most effective teachers. If we look at our effective and highly effective teaching evaluation model, a majority of them come back year after year. The compensation structure we have helps, and teachers knowing that we value their development also is instrumental. We have really clear career ladders that I haven’t seen before here at DCPS. There are various phases in teacher leadership in the organization that are very formal structures, and we as teachers know that they can advance in their scope of work and leadership, and also earn more Avonlea that keeps teachers wanting to grow, stretching themselves and as they get better – instruction in the classroom gets better. It’s so fascinating because we do have a struggle around hiring school administrators, because the perks and compensation associated with being a teacher leader is often more competitive. Overall, that’s allowed us to keep the best and brightest in our classrooms.

What support was needed to help them be successful?

There is a wide range of support that we have in place. When we survey our teachers, and ask them what’s the most valuable, they point to a video library that we’ve established that provides examples of exemplary instruction in the classroom. Oftentimes, what we hear teachers say to us is, “I want to be great, but I want to know what great looks like, can you show me where this is happening in the district?” We’ve relied on our expert teachers to create these videos, and we then open up their classrooms and allow people to come in and record their practice. There is a very wide range of lessons that teachers want to see whether it’s AP chemistry to third grade literacy. This is a tool that we use for coaching and also our evaluation model. We also have what we call teacher clinics, which are opportunities where teachers serve students in a small group setting while also learning with and from their peers. In these clinics, teachers actually get to watch other teachers teach a literacy lesson and they give each other feedback afterwards. This mirrors the same practice surgeons employ in the healthcare field.

What do you think other district leaders can learn from the work happening in DCPS?

The interesting thing about our curriculum work is that DCPS has established what we call Cornerstones as a part of the curriculum at each grade level. They are activities that students have in the city that are connected to either math, literacy, or arts construction. For example,  every first grader runs the bases at NATS park where the Washington Nationals play, every second grader knows how to ride a bike, and there’s a grade level where every student goes to the museums in the District of Columbia. I think the way that we structure our curriculum to include rich experiences to expand students’ worldview of their community, is extremely powerful. And I think those authentic learning experiences have been a part of the great success that DCPS is experiencing. I think that’s something that other urban cities can learn from, something I didn’t see in other urban cities that I’ve served in. And I’ve just seen firsthand that too many students only get a chance to see what’s on their block or what’s in their neighborhood. I’ve seen their excitement when they get to see new things in their community.

What is one action all district leaders can take in order to accelerate educational equity in their districts?

How you allocate your resources says a lot about your beliefs towards equity. There has to be a lot of transparency in how you are allocating dollars to schools and how dollars flow to students. Those students who need more should receive more. The other thing I encourage people to write a weekly note that outlines what you’ve done to advance equity in your community. I think if you ever have a difficult time making a long list of what you’ve done, then you have to look yourself in the mirror and to question whether or not you’re really giving it your best effort.

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