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Washington DC Archive

How can cities assess their residents’ foreign language needs?

Author: Hamutal Bernstein and Devlin Hanson and Julia Gelatt

| Posted: May 5th, 2014

Serving limited-English-proficient (LEP) populations is a critical policy issue in a country where one in seven households is an immigrant household. As immigrants settle in a growing number of regions and communities, more and more local service providers and municipal governments must support diverse language needs. But how?

Some municipalities and counties are attempting to meet these needs by passing legislation or developing language access programs to formalize language access services. Washington, DC, passed its landmark Language Access Act in 2004, which required all government agencies with major public contact to assess the language needs of their clients, provide translation and interpretation services, and consistently report on and expand these services to respond to need. DC’s Office of Human Rights asked the Urban Institute to examine the first 10 years of implementation of the city’s language access policy and provide a demographic profile of the current LEP population.

Our report finds that District agencies have made strides toward providing language access services to the 1-in-20 DC residents who are LEP, despite challenges like resource constraints and a range of language needs.

DC’s LEP population represents an enormous diversity of languages. While 61 percent speak Spanish and about 10 percent speak Amharic or another East African language, other languages spoken by LEP residents span from German, French, and Italian to Vietnamese, Chinese, and Tagalog to the West African languages Kru, Ibo, and Yoruba.



Rates of limited English proficiency vary widely by neighborhood. About 10.5 percent of Ward 4 residents are LEP, compared with 2 percent or less in Wards 7 and 8.

But there is still a lot we don’t know about the LEP population, leaving some residents underserved and municipal agencies facing hurdles. How can agencies keep track of the language needs of their current clients? And how can they know the unmet language needs of difficult-to-reach populations? How can an agency know about potential clients’ language needs if those individuals are not approaching health providers to get treatment, are afraid to call the local police station, or don’t register their children for summer camp out of fear of being rejected, misunderstood, frustrated, or worse?

These are serious data problems, and solving them requires a multi-pronged information-gathering effort on the part of public-serving agencies about the language needs of their specific target group (children, the elderly, business owners, etc.). By itself, analysis of the best demographic data is not sufficient to assess the nuances of local needs.

It is critical that agencies combine demographic data with careful tracking of their client population’s language needs and how they evolve over time. Reaching out to local experts and stakeholders about who in the community is not currently accessing available services is another crucial step. To provide meaningful access to city services for all DC residents, strategic use of scarce translation and interpretation resources must be informed by evidence about the needs of the community as the population of DC continues to grow and evolve.

Filed under: Children, families, and communities, Demographics and trends, Immigrants and Immigration, Integration, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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How DC’s continued growth is affecting its schools

Author: Lionel Foster

| Posted: May 1st, 2014


Last December, the Urban Institute launched “Our Changing City,” an interactive series designed to help anyone with an interest in DC explore 10 years of dynamic growth, 2000 through 2010.

Chapter One covered demographics. We used data, narrative, and maps—lots of maps—to provide a bird’s eye view of how the city transformed after gaining nearly 30,000 new residents—its first population increase in 50 years.

Today, we turn our attention and tools to the educational landscape. New families are changing DC’s schools, driving the first increase in public school enrollment since the 1960s.

In this chapter, we highlight the choices tens of thousands of families are making—traditional public schools versus charters, staying within a school catchment area or traveling beyond it—as the student population grows and demand for K-12 education increases.

Interested in learning more about how education in DC has evolved? Explore the schools chapter of Our Changing City, an interactive web feature that uses data to tell the story of change in the District of Columbia.

Filed under: Children, Education and Training, Elementary/secondary schools, Head Start and elementary education, Secondary education, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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A portrait of universal pre-kindergarten in DC

Author: Graham MacDonald and Simone Zhang

| Posted: May 1st, 2014

DC’s universal pre-K program—the only one in the region—sets the city apart for its investment in equal access to early childhood education. By offering pre-K to all three- and four-year-olds, regardless of family income, the District may have given parents another reason to stay in the city, rather than move to the suburbs, when their kids reach school age. Are families taking advantage of expanded pre-K? And if so, who’s enrolling and where are the open pre-K slots? Let’s take a closer look at the data to answer those questions.

Are children enrolling in pre-K?

Rigorous studies confirm that high-quality early childhood education can have long-term benefits for children and society. However, high-quality private programs can often cost more than $10,000 a year, putting them out of reach for many families. Without public pre-K programs, some children start kindergarten less prepared than their peers—and that early setback can have long-term effects.

DC began offering universal pre-K in 2008. Enrollment numbers show that many families, irrespective of income, are indeed taking the city up on this offer. Even as the number of pre-K-age children living in DC remained relatively stable over the past decade, three- and four-year-olds attending pre-K substantially increased.


Charter schools captured most of the growth, with enrollment of three-year-old pre-K students increasing from just 51 in 2001 to almost 3,000 in 2013. Enrollment of four-year-old students increased almost tenfold. In DC Public Schools (DCPS), the number of three-year-old pre-K students doubled from 1,074 to 2,197, while the number of four-year-old students went up from 3,023 to 3,368, an 11 percent increase.

Who is enrolling?


In DC, expanded pre-K significantly improved access to early childhood education for black students. Pre-K enrollment of black students more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, jumping from 3,300 to more than 7,800. White and Hispanic student enrollment increased only modestly.

Where are open pre-K slots in DC?

Despite better access to pre-K, openings are unevenly distributed throughout the city. Fewer slots opened up in the more affluent neighborhoods of Northwest DC than in other areas. The city guarantees access to pre-K for four-year-olds, but not necessarily in the child’s neighborhood, meaning that slots aren’t always available nearby.


DC government has prioritized expanding access to high-quality pre-K. Enrollment trends over the past decade suggest that these programs are in increasingly high demand. But will universal pre-K actually boost educational outcomes? Will it influence the school and housing choices of families with young children? These questions remain unanswered. For now, however, DC is making steady progress helping more kids build a strong foundation for their education.

Interested in learning more about how education in DC has evolved? Explore the schools chapter of Our Changing City, an interactive web feature that uses data to tell the story of change in the District of Columbia.

Filed under: Early childhood education, Education and Training, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, Racial and ethnic disparities, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
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From ward to ward, where do DC kids go to school?

Author: Brianna Losoya

| Posted: April 25th, 2014

From charter schools to private academies, the District of Columbia offers parents a large degree of flexibility in terms of school choice. But despite the many options across the city, data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education indicates that children attending school in DC prefer to attend District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and charter schools close to home.

In the map above, we see that there is a strong geographic component to where children attend schools. The closer a ward is to where a student lives, the higher the percentage of students who attend school in that ward. Not surprisingly, as the charts show, this is especially true of DCPS institutions which have stricter attendance requirements for students residing outside of the school boundary.

This trend has remained relatively consistent over time, but throwing charter schools into the mix has led to some observable changes.

Compared with nationwide averages, DC has a significantly higher percentage of children attending charter schools. But from ward to ward, as one charter school opens, another one (or two) may close its doors. For example, in 2006, there were only two charter school options for students in the upper Northwest’s Ward 3. Both were closed by 2012, hence the sharp decrease in Ward 3’s charter “in-ward capture rate”—the rate at which Ward 3 students attending charter schools attend charter schools in Ward 3.

In the 2012-13 school year, Ward 3’s DCPS capture rate was an astounding 97 percent, which is logical, given that the ward is among DC’s more affluent, and home to numerous high-quality public schools.

This difference in in-ward capture rates between DCPS and charter schools may indicate that, while DCPS schools are more often neighborhood-based, parents are willing to travel further to have their children attend a specific charter school. This appears to be the case in Ward 4, which straddles the city’s northwest and northeast quadrants. Despite increasing from 7 charter schools in 2006 to 18 charter schools in 2012, the charter in-ward capture rate decreased from 50 percent to 29 percent.

One notable exception to this trend is Southeast DC’s Ward 8, which saw its charter in-ward capture rate increase from 17 percent to 60 percent between 2006 and 2012. This was likely due to the addition of 17 charter schools during this time period and the improved quality of some of these schools—in 2012, four of them were ranked “Tier 1” by the DC Public Charter School Board.

The proximity of a school to a student’s home is a key factor in whether that child enrolls in that school. In DC, this is the case for most DCPS institutions. However, enrollment data indicates that students attending charter schools are willing to travel further from home to attend a specific charter school. Over time, these patterns have remained relatively constant for DCPS institutions, while there has been substantial variation in the charter school migration trends.

How else has the DC education system evolved over the years? Learn more on May 1 when we unveil the next chapter of Our Changing City, an interactive web feature that uses data to reveal how shifts in population are reshaping the nation’s capital.

Filed under: Education and Training, Education reform/No Child Left Behind, Elementary/secondary schools, Secondary education, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Private school enrollment is on the decline in DC

Author: Graham MacDonald and Austin Nichols

| Posted: April 22nd, 2014

Over the past decade, private school enrollment among DC students has declined by over 65 percent, according to our analysis. Given that the number of high-income households in the District is increasing, tuition costs may not be a major factor in the change. Instead, the drop in private school enrollment could mean that more parents see public schools—both charter and traditional schools—as viable options for their children.

In 2001, approximately 7,600 DC residents ages 5 to 13 attended DC private schools; by 2012, that number had fallen to fewer than 2,600 students. (Our analysis of school enrollment figures and Census population estimates includes all students attending schools other than public schools, so it may include some homeschooled students or early dropouts.)

We see this trend at all grade levels. Private school enrollment among elementary school–age children (ages 5 to 10) fell by over 78 percent (about 2,900 students) from 2001 to 2012, with most of this decrease occurring earlier in the decade.

Elementary Enrollment Graph

Enrollment in private school among middle school–age children (ages 11 to 13) fell by over 50 percent (about 2,100 students) over this same period, though most of this decline occurred fairly recently.

Middle Enrollment Graph

Private school estimates are difficult to measure for high school students because many students are held back in 9th grade and a number of students drop out at age 16. However, the data indicate that private school enrollment may be dropping rapidly among this population as well.

The preference for public schools is particularly strong among parents of elementary school children. Approximately 98 percent of elementary school children attend public schools in DC, compared with just 88 percent of middle school children.

Location matters

We also found that private school enrollment varies significantly by location, and as you may guess, is highly related to income. As of 2012, children in relatively affluent neighborhoods in Northwest and Capitol Hill have the highest rates of private school enrollment, while almost every child attends public school in other, less affluent areas of the city.

Elementary Enrollment MapMiddle Enrollment Map

DC parents are more likely to opt for public schools than they were just a decade ago, which could be connected to the city’s major investments in schools. The last two mayors have invested in new facilities, new programming, and higher pay for teachers to attract and retain a strong workforce, and have also supported the thriving public charter schools. The new mayor can easily continue this level of investment in education, but may need to work harder to ensure these promising trends in public education continue.

Interested in learning more about how education in DC has evolved? Explore the schools chapter of Our Changing City, an interactive web feature that uses data to tell the story of change in the District of Columbia.

Filed under: Education and Training, Elementary/secondary schools, Financial capability, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , ,

Many DC children are struggling to breathe. Is bad communication to blame?

Author: Marla McDaniel

| Posted: April 18th, 2014

AC_header-01Could simply fixing gaps in communication between doctors and schools be a key to reducing the impact of asthma on poor kids?

A lot of research shows that not getting the right—or consistent—care causes conspicuous health disparities that fall neatly along racial, ethnic, and economic lines. For many kids with asthma, their condition is managed not by routine care, but by regular emergency trips to the hospital while struggling to breathe.  Unfortunately, if you’re a low-income African American or Latino child with asthma in DC, your asthma experiences are more likely to include one of those terrifying trips.

Access, quality of care, and poverty are part of the story, which my colleagues and I highlight in a series of blog posts and our new report. But our report also highlights the problems created by miscommunication—or worse, no communication—between the professionals and caregivers children need most to manage this chronic and life-threatening illness. Could focusing on communication make things much better for kids?

It takes a team to manage children’s asthma. It takes medical professionals, parents, schools, and the patients themselves.  But our report finds several places where communication lapses routinely occur.AC_dots-03Doctors need the time to educate parents and patients about the different kinds of medications and make sure they understand that some need to be taken every day indefinitely, no matter how the child is feeling. IMPACT DC , the Children’s National Health System program that sees patients who come to the emergency department for asthma-related issues tries to tackle this problem.AC_dots-04But to keep children well, IMPACT DC needs to be able to hand off the care to community providers who can take the time to follow up with parents and patients to make sure that they are following these instructions. And parents need to understand and help their kids stick with the medications and care plan—and to speak up when they are confused.AC_dots-05Finally, doctors and parents need to make sure that the adults at school—where kids spend most of their daytime hours—know about each child’s asthma diagnosis and individual plan. School nurses can help kids remember to take their daily medications and use their emergency inhalers before exercise—and when they feel symptoms coming on.

We know how to manage children’s asthma, and we know everyone we need on the team. Now we need to make sure the team works together. AC_footer-02

Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute. 

Filed under: Children's health and development, Health and Health Policy, Health care delivery and payment, Health care spending, access, and utilization of care, Public health, Racial and ethnic disparities, Social determinants of health, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , ,
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How being poor in DC makes kids’ asthma worse

Author: Nicole Levins

| Posted: April 16th, 2014




In the United States, more than 7 million children suffer from asthma. But in spite of the chronic and sometimes life-threatening nature of the disease, most of these kids lead active, healthy lives.

That’s not the case for some low-income families in Washington, DC. Asthma’s a big problem for the relatively small city, where the proportion of children suffering from the condition is one of the greatest in the nation.

Fortunately, DC is also home to IMPACT DC, an emergency department-based intervention that has helped reduce the number of emergency room visits from low-income children with asthma. But despite the program’s effectiveness, lots of DC kids and caregivers are still struggling to manage the disease.

So, how can we help everyone breathe a little easier? Urban Institute researchers, led by Marla McDaniel, teamed up with IMPACT DC to interview 33 players involved in asthma treatment—from parents to primary care physicians to IMPACT DC’s educators—to figure out why it’s so hard to treat asthma among DC’s poorest kids. In their own words, here are five potential factors.

Limited time

Low-income caregivers are often forced to balance parenting duties with inflexible jobs and non-standard working hours. Though children’s medical needs come first, it’s sometimes at the expense of the job that helps pay for the treatment.

“…I had to quit jobs before because she had an asthma attack three days in a row… They won’t let me take time off, so I quit.” - Caregiver

For educators and health care professionals, limited time with patients and caregivers makes it difficult to address all concerns and answer all questions.

“…Time is a huge factor... In most primary care visits, you have 15 minutes to cover the entire health of the child… the amount of time physicians have for health education is almost none...” - Asthma educator

Lack of management

Who’s in charge of managing a child’s asthma treatment? For children with multiple caregivers, there’s often no one person ensuring that the child sticks to the treatment plan.

“[Having] multiple caregivers is a strong indicator of poor adherence, for obvious reasons. Usually only one caregiver comes [to] the visit, and frequently it’s the caregiver with the most time on their hands...  But it’s not necessarily the one with the most power in the family dynamic...” - Asthma educator

Sometimes, the responsibility is left up to the child.

“When I am at work then she call[s] me. 'Mommy, it’s time for medicine,’ and I say, ‘OK, go do your thing.’ She turns it on and uses it… She knows what she[‘s] doing… But my son, I can’t trust him with nothing! He’s only four.” - Caregiver

Difficulty accessing care

In DC, the best doctors and specialists are often out of reach for those with low-incomes—located in the less transit-oriented suburbs and Northwest.

“[For low-income families in poor neighborhoods,] getting to the doctor is harder. Once you get to the doctor, you wait longer, so you’re less likely to go… And you lose an entire day of work.  And these are the families who also tend to have the least flexible work schedules.” - Asthma educator

“Unhealthy” housing

Cheaper, older apartments—where many low-income DC families live—can host a number of asthma triggers.

“We don’t have a thermostat to control the heat in the basement apartment.  It gets so hot in there and we have to keep the windows open all the time.” - Caregiver

“We had to move because there was something in the carpets [that was triggering asthma attacks]…” - Caregiver

Lack of adequate health coverage

Most doctors agree that Medicaid and other insurers could do a better job covering routine care for low-income patients, which could go a long way in preventing attacks and hospital visits.

“…Not all of the payers are allowing kids to have two inhalers at the same time. We have one for home, one for at school, and they don’t pay for both…” - Primary care physician

“One of the things [Medicaid] could do better is managing claims and hiring educators to look at claims to see who is filling what prescriptions and when and how often. They could then work with those families when they see prescriptions are not being filled.” - Primary care physician

“It’s much more cost-effective for insurance to keep [a] child out of the ER. There’s a lot of benefit for the insurance.” - Primary care physician

Photo from Shutterstock.

Filed under: Children, Children's health and development, Health and Health Policy, Public health, Social determinants of health, Vulnerable populations, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , ,
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What can we learn from the demographics of DC’s unique voting precincts?

Author: Rob Pitingolo and Peter Tatian

| Posted: March 31st, 2014

Tomorrow, District of Columbia residents will go to the polls to vote in this year’s primary election. Voters will decide which candidates will represent their party for Mayor, at-large Councilmember and, in some places, Ward Councilmember, among others, in November’s general election.

As results begin to roll in on Tuesday evening, many will wonder how candidates fared in different neighborhoods. What do the places that preferred incumbent Mayor Gray look like? How are they different from the neighborhoods where Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Tommy Wells, and other challengers won the most votes?


Until now, this was a difficult question to answer. Washington, DC’s voting precincts are unique areas used for tabulating and reporting election results. They don’t map cleanly to Census Tracts, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or other neighborhood-level geographies. The reference map provided by NeighborhoodInfo DC shows how these geographies, including voting precincts, fit together (or don’t).

The DC Board of Elections will publish vote counts by precinct in the days following the primary. While the election winners are based on total votes cast across the city, looking at the results by precinct can help us understand better where different candidates received the most support.

To help with this, NeighborhoodInfo DC has released data for voting precincts in time for the primary election. Anyone can download these data to look at the demographic makeup (including metrics like race, age, and income) for each of the District’s 143 voting precincts. These data allow analysts to understand the population of each voting precinct, though they don’t shed light on the demographics of actual voters themselves.

Our hope is these voting precinct data will help those who want to analyze and understand tomorrow’s election outcomes, as well look ahead toward future votes.

Filed under: Washington DC |Tags: , , , , ,
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How good are DC's schools?

Author: Austin Nichols

| Posted: March 11th, 2014

Public schools in DC have gained ground on national tests over the past 15 years, but much of that gain is due to the changing demographic composition of DC’s student body. Parents’ income and education are primary determinants of student performance, and as the income and education of DC residents has improved, so have incoming students’ scores. Comparing NAEP scores over time without accounting for incoming class scores is mere jackaNAEPery, and comparing proficiency levels is no better.

The best measure of school quality is how much students learn: their improvement from incoming to outgoing scores, not how well they test at just one point in time. Measuring how much students learn over time is difficult, and measures of teacher impact and school-specific test score growth compare only how well DC public school students do relative to other DC public schools students. This leads to relative rankings only, not measures of how DC public schools as a whole are improving, as do most other measures of value added by schools.

So how can we gauge how much a given school improves students’ scores relative to other schools? Using the median growth percentile (MGP) may be the best bet. Each student’s growth percentile score is equal to the percentage of comparable students districtwide who performed worse on a later math and reading exam. The school’s score is then the typical student’s score.

For example, imagine Nicole earns a 45 on a math exam at the end of 4th grade. Nicole’s comparison group is students who also scored around 45 on that exam. Now imagine that at the end of 5th grade Nicole scores a 52. If that 52 is better than the scores of 70 percent of her comparison-group peers, then Nicole’s growth percentile is 70, which is a measurement of her relative growth. From there we can figure out each school’s MGP, the middle growth percentile of all of that school’s students.

A typical school will have a median growth percentile of 50, while 70 means a school is doing substantially better than a typical school and 30 means a school is doing substantially worse. So we can say one school is better than another if its MGP is higher, meaning that at least the typical growth level is higher at one school than the other (it could still be the case that the lower-ranked school serves a specific subgroup much better than the higher-ranked school).

The main problem is that these scores are fraught with measurement error, so rarely can we say with confidence that one school is better than another school. For example, Bancroft was in the top third on math MGP for 2011-12 and H.D. Cooke was in the bottom third, but the two math MGP scores are statistically indistinguishable (their scores’ margins of error overlap).

The graph below shows each school’s math versus reading MGP scores for 2011 and 2012. A box around each dot indicates the range of statistically indistinguishable values for both math and reading in that year (2013 data were not released with the ranges). This way, we can compare the score both to other schools and to the typical school with a score of 50 (whose dot would be at the intersection of the math and reading lines at 50). Each school’s box overlaps with the boxes of many other schools, and any two schools whose boxes touch are statistically indistinguishable. In many cases, many dots representing best guesses for other schools will be included in the range for a given school, for example Barnard ES (Lincoln Hill) in the graphic below. Whenever we compare schools, we should remain appropriately skeptical about the relative strengths of signal and noise in these data.

So what can we say? Charter schools (in blue) tend to have higher growth scores, but traditional public schools (in dark gray) are overrepresented at both the highest and lowest ranks. The main difference between the sectors is that charters tend not to be observed among the lowest-performing schools, suggesting that the worst charters are better than the worst traditional public schools.

But there are surprises in both sectors. For example, what is the best high school in town? Ranked by the MGP for math, it is Thurgood Marshall Academy (a charter), east of the Anacostia, with McKinley Technology High School (DCPS) in Eckington running a close second. Only a handful of other high schools are statistically better than average on math in both years, but the sought-after high schools Wilson and School Without Walls are not on that list.

Among elementary schools, the top performers are scattered around the city, for example Ross in Dupont, Stanton in far Southeast DC, Tubman in Columbia Heights, Watkins on Capitol Hill, and Stoddert in Glover Park. The top middle schools are the KIPP DC AIM and KEY academies, with Cesar Chavez Prep and DC Prep’s Edgewood Middle charters not far behind. The highly regarded Deal Middle School in Ward 3 barely squeaks out a statistical advantage over the typical school.

Interested in learning more about how education in DC has evolved? Explore the schools chapter of Our Changing City, an interactive web feature that uses data to tell the story of change in the District of Columbia.

Filed under: Education and Training, Elementary/secondary schools, Performance evaluations, Secondary education, Washington DC |Tags: , , , , , , , ,