PoP Ed. – Underrated DCPS school: Powell Elementary

1350 Upshur Street, NW

The following PoP-Ed. was written by Jonathan O’Connell, a Petworth dad.

PoP-Ed. posts may be submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

Since it’s time for D.C. parents to make their school lottery and charter choices I wanted to point out that one of the most underrated DCPS elementary schools, particularly for preschoolers, is in Petworth — Powell Elementary.

Obviously I am biased because my three-year-old goes there, but having toured 10-15 DCPS, charter and private schools (and having used nanny shares and private day cares) I seriously believe believe Powell is one of the best preschool options around. The principal, Janeece Docal, is an absolute force of nature. The preschool and pre-K teaching team has been together a few years and was one of the earliest in the city to adopt the Tools of the Mind curriculum (sort of Montessori light) that is now spreading all over the place. They are incredibly responsive, thoughtful and thorough. I would be happy having my kids literally in any of the classrooms.

Here’s what preschool and pre-K students at Powell get: Instruction from two teachers, in English and Spanish. Recess every day. Separate art, music, library and gym classes. And field trips: In five months at the school my daughter’s class has made pizza at Pete’s Apizza, visited the Botanical Gardens and talked food and shopping at Yes Organic Market. They bring in a yoga instructor some days.

I think a lot of middle class parents are turned off by Powell for two reasons: 1) data and 2) the look of the building. I love data so have been through it and the test scores are bad compared to a lot of suburban schools. I understand. But Docal is a turnaround agent and the students that have had her the entire time aren’t even out of first grade yet. There’s a reason the private foundation Fight for Children made Powell its only DCPS awardee last year.

The building needs upgrades but is on the list for school modernization and expansion for which there is now a petition. Powell already has one of the most important things I wanted, which was a bathroom for each PS/PK room with its own toddler-sized toilet so the kids don’t have to go in the hallways with the big kids. It’s not dated open classroom format. Plus, it’s across the street from Upshur Park — tons of green space.

Why I am writing this? First, I just can’t believe the disconnect between what I’ve experienced at Powell and what people say about schools east of the park (and what is in the School Chooser). Annoying. Am I certain my kids will go all the way through Powell? No. There is a lot of improvement to be made in the upper grades. And Principal Docal could leave, which would be the worst. But I really couldn’t ask much more from my neighborhood preschool program.

13 Comment

  • This is a very nice read. I have a 3YO and a 4YO at a charter school. I am not sad to say we never even considered DCPS. It is great to hear the good stories.

  • binpetworth

    I’ve done some volunteer work at Powell and agree with your assessment–it’s highly underrated. Plus, in talking to the principal and staff, the school has very few disciplinary problems. My only reservation is that, as an urban school serving a largely poor surrounding community, they have several Teach for America teachers, and that revolving door may not be good for finding teachers to serve in a long-term capacity at the school.

  • Thank you for posting this. School leadership is an essential component to improving DCPS –for everyone– but so are involved, committed parents. We don’t have kids, but hope to someday and would prefer to use existing public schools. Nice to know our in-boundary middle school is working better than its numbers suggest.

  • KSB

    I love reading posts like these as I’m aimlessly adrift in the DCPS/charter school pool for my three-year-old at the moment…

  • Prediction: Your kid will be out of that school by 2nd grade. You could choose to be a frontiersman with your child’s education, but I doubt you’ll do that.

    As with grad/law school, undergrad, high school, and every other form of schooling, it is not who is teaching you that counts as much as who is sitting next to you. Bad scores and related problems among one’s peers can undermine an otherwise intelligent kid’s chances. I speak from experience.

    • As a very involved parent at Powell, I take issue with this. You seem to be saying that you KNOW that the majority of the student body is objectionable at a school like Powell. I think one chat with the students (and parents) at our school would change your mind. These kids are bright, motivated, innocent and wonderful.

  • Thank you for this. We have a 2 year old who attends an expensive daycare, and another on the way. Like many other parents, we spend a lot of time thinking about where we want to live in the next few years, in part due to our children’s educations. It’s comforting to hear that – at least for the preschool/pre k years – there are a few good options that won’t cost us an arm and a leg. I fall into the camp of parents who desperately wants to see DC schools improve so that myself and others don’t feel they need to leave the city, but who doesn’t want my kids to be the guinea pigs, either. And I realize how lucky we are that we have a choice in the first place.

  • Our daughter is a year and half and we live a few blocks from Powell. It would be so incredible if we’re able to send her there!

  • Our son is a year and a half and we are also just a few blocks away, although I believe our assigned school is Bruce Monroe. I’m just beginning to think about this. We hope to find a good charter/public school option as we’d like to stay in Petworth as long as possible. It’s good to hear raves about Powell.

    I also hope all the new parents around Petworth will give local schools a try – we plan to. I admit to getting frustrated when I look at the school stats…but then again every single child under 5 yrs old on my block and the close blocks around me has college-educated parents and there are a lot of young children newborn to 5 yrs old. It’s a drastic change from when I first moved here – most of my neighbors were quite elderly and there weren’t very many kids at all…

  • Fantastic post! this is what DCPS needs–involved parents! my Kindergartner is in a capitol hill DCPS that may not have been an option just a few short years ago. But thanks to a community of demanding parents who get involved, our school is now a winner! sure, test scores haven’t gone through the roof yet (that’s another story, involving early flights to MS charters before the kids can test!). The key is your principal! do whatever it takes to keep her and support her! And keep singing the praises! Congrats, man!

  • Having taught and employed products of the area’s supposedly better suburban districts, I think you have to interpret data like test scores in terms of how people get to a certain point. Many districts have long taught to the tests (I think this is particularly true in Fairfax and some other NoVA districts). Before I came to DC to live, I always was impressed at the chip that many graduates of suburban districts (including low perfermers like PG) carried on their shoulders. DCPS grads were less annoying.

    The endless parade of fads in education mostly have neglected the quality of the curriculum and the management of individual schools. Currixula go through mostly useless fads (phonics which are great for learning disabilities, boring for everyone else), new math, going back to basics, half-assed versions of progressive education) and charters often pick a fad (boot camp, arts, etc.). A school that provides developmentally appropriate teaching with materials and methods that have a proven track record, a strong principal and competent teachers who know how to manage a classroom will provide a better environment than some place that mostly trades on pretense.

  • I’m so happy to see this post from a parent who took a chance on DCPS– a chance that paid off. The district is working really hard– particularly in the early childhood years– to provide options that parents want to take advantage of. I hope we continue to see this progress at Powell and other DCPS schools alike. Thanks for sharing.

    • not sure what that means “a parent taking a chance on DCPS”, sounds very arrogant. the majority of children attend DCPS schools (mostly in Wards 7 & 8), most of whose students are not demonstrating basic proficiency in math or reading. those families are not “taking a chance”; they’re attending their neighborhood schools perhaps were unable (or unaware of how, unable to travel) to secure an OOB or high-performing slot. to avoid undereducating thousands of DC children we need better schools. attracting and replicating high performing charters and providing them former and current DCPS space is a start. so really, this is a “high-SES, highly-educated” parent “taking a chance” on a DCPS school (for preschool, glorified daycare). no props from here.

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