On March 5, 2019, the DC Council unanimously confirmed Dr. Lewis Ferebee as the next Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). He was confirmed despite concern expressed by many of the council members over three hearings on his confirmation.
Since January, Dr. Lewis Ferebee has been travelling throughout the District, meeting with parents, staff and students –at formal committee meetings and the more casual “Ferebee Fridays.” His goal? To hear stories about DCPS from the school community. Ferebee said he has identified key areas where he will focus his work as Chancellor, but critics say they would like to hear more specifics on how he will do so.
‘Ready To Be That Champion’
Ferebee is coming from Indianapolis, where he was the Superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) since 2013. Beginning his career in Virginia, he moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was charged with turning around low-performing schools, and supervising the city’s middle schools. In Indianapolis, Ferebee examined a budget that showed that the system was operating under a deficit, only to find it had a surplus instead.
A tall, quiet presence with trademark tortoise shell frames, Ferebee has been called a reformer, a title he rejects. In Indianapolis, he closed the achievement gap between black and white students, and created the Innovation Network – a school model somewhere between public and charter, with decision-making autonomy but accountability to IPS for academic and student achievement.
Ferebee said that in his visits with students, staff and community members, key themes were brought up again and again: transparency and communication, stability in the school system, closing the achievement gap and ensuring equity, and improvements to school technology.
“Those themes were reflected in my testimony to the council,” he said during a half-hour interview with the Hill Rag.
“During my meetings with students, parents, teachers and community members, I’ve heard very clearly that DCPS needs a champion. DCPS has seen many challenges, but I truly believe this is a transformational moment for our students, schools and for the District,” he said.
“I am ready to be that champion.’
A Common Definition of Equity
While Ferebee understands that ‘equity’ is an important and much-discussed issue in DCPS, he also thinks there is little clarity about what it means. “There’s been, I think, different interpretations of equity,” he said, “I don’t think we have a common definition right now.”
Ferebee said discussions of equity include diverse topics, such as what is lacking at a community school or a perceived general insufficiency in resources for at-risk students, or in social-emotional learning and mental health support.
However, Ferebee emphasizes that while it is critical that DCPS work to address equity, much of the issue is the way that socio-economics plays out in the District. He points to the testimony of Ron Brown student Colby Powell at the Feb. 12th hearing.
“I think he did an eloquent job of talking about what he saw in terms of inequities at his school but also just in the neighborhood with affordable housing, healthcare, access to healthy food,” Ferebee said. “I mean there are many facets to equity that people are talking about that are related to DCPS, but I think we just have to have more common language around what does that mean for resources.”
A Collective Ownership Effort
Ferebee said that he also feels a lot of pressure from DCPS families to work to close the achievement gap, a task he said requires collaboration from everyone in the community.
“There’s a lot of work to do if we’re really seriously going to close the achievement gap, because students are coming to the table with opportunity gaps based on where they live and who their parents or guardians are,” he said. “I think it’s a priority as it should be, but DCPS is not going to close the achievement gap by itself. It will require us to take on a very collaborative collective responsibility, a collective ownership effort.”
He said he had heard some ‘staggering statistics’ on the socio-economic gaps between black and white residents in the District of Columbia, and acknowledges that one of the factors affecting equity is the wide disparity in fundraising by parent organizations to pay for field trips, technology or even additional staff, which creates a difference in opportunities for DCPS students.
Ferebee suggests the possible implementation of an approach used elsewhere, where parents who are able contribute to a single pot of resources in order to ensure a uniform set of what he calls ‘exposure experiences’ for students, such as visiting various District monuments and museums.
While Ferebee sees such a collaborative effort as beneficial for experiences, he thinks technology and costs should be funded exclusively by DCPS. Ferebee said one of his goals was to create a technology plan so that schools wouldn’t have to fundraise to replace technology, adding that every school he visited noted that a concern with the age, maintenance and replacement of their technological assets.
More Than One Strategy
Ferebee’s career in Indianapolis is often distilled to a single initiative created during his time as Chancellor: the Innovation School Network. Innovation schools have the autonomy to make academic and operational decisions. The network is designed to allow schools to adapt to the needs of their particular communities, while IPS holds them accountable for agreed upon student outcomes.
In the District, Ferebee is often asked about the relevance of the model and what he sees as the relationship between public and charter schools. He says that he is not a one-trick pony. “It’s interesting people talk about this so much, because they think that was my only strategy in my career in Indy, and it wasn’t,” he said. Rather, Ferebee said that his goal will be to support DCPS and improve outcome and support for students and families.
However, Ferebee notes that “District public charter schools do have an impact on public school systems. “Can I just completely ignore the fact that we have another sector in our city, where oftentimes what happened in that sector impacts what happens in the DCPS?” Ferebee asks. “I don’t think so,” adding that he has not yet determined the best way to negotiate that relationship as he seeks to bolster the public-school system. “But it will not be, and I repeat, it will not be a replication of strategy from Indianapolis.”
“The last thing I would say on this topic, to be clear is: Lewis Ferebee doesn’t have any authority over charter schools,” Ferebee said. “And I’m good with that. Because that gives me the space to be the champion that I’ve described for DCPS.”
‘Clearly He Listened to Us’
Ferebee has visited with parents and students across the District, including Stuart-Hobson and Eliot-Hine Middle Schools on Capitol Hill. On Jan. 30th, Ferebee visited with students at Eastern High School where he participated in a small group session and a tour of the neighborhood. Sophomore Christian Johnson led the tour and participated in the small group, together with Jadyn Turner.
Turner said Ferebee asked the group about their experience with DCPS, and what they would like to see changed. She said that there was a lot of discussion about the impact of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, with students expressing a desire to expand enrollment. Both Turner and Johnson asked Ferebee to maintain and expand opportunities such as the DCPS study abroad program, for future students such as their own younger siblings, currently rising through the system.
Both she and Johnson said they raised the issue of funding for school programs, including the lunch and band programs, as well as the acquisition and maintenance of technology.
The two said that they really felt like Ferebee heard what they were saying. “He would retain that information and relate it back, even to what we’re doing after school. He’s not just asking to get on our good side,” Johnson said.
“The fact that our new Chancellor is actively coming to schools and listening to us shows he cares,” said Turner. “I think every kid wants someone to listen to them in general, and clearly he listened to us.”
In the three hearings leading up the confirmation vote March 5, DC Councilmembers said they were appreciative of his engagement but said they wanted Ferebee to provide more specific plans before they voted. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen had pushed Ferebee on the issue at hearings, but ultimately supported his confirmation on March 5. Allen said that he told Ferebee he needs to be a champion for neighborhood public schools.
“He has committed to me – and to the public – that he will be that champion, and he has shown that he understands there’s a very real trust gap between DCPS and the community,” said Allen. “His willingness early on to meet with students, parents, and teachers has been an encouraging start, but I will be watching and pushing him to make systemic improvements.”
Ferebee said he sees engagement with the DCPS community as critical to building trust at this early stage.
“I think my understanding of the landscape has led me to the conclusion that if I were to give a very specific ten point ‘this is what DCPS is going to do next that Lewis Ferebee created [plan]’ we’d be down a path of distrust and gaps in engagement that reflects some of the concern that I’ve heard,” he said.
“Would you trust somebody who did that?”
Ferebee said that his focus is on guiding the District’s school system on a trajectory of excellence, a role he is both proud and eager to take on.
“I think that I’ve got the best job in America because I get to serve the families of the District of Columbia, one of the greatest cities in the nation and our nations’ capital,” Ferebee said. “It’s a challenging job. But I think it’s one of the best jobs in the world.”
Meet Dr. Lewis Ferebee at the Ward 6 Ferebee Friday on Mar. 22 from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Pretzel Bakery (257 15th St. SE). RSVP online at https://dcps.dc.gov/findferebee. Follow Ferebee on Twitter at @DCPSChancellor