D.C. School Closing Hearing Update

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Thursday’s D.C. Council hearing was the first opportunity for public debate over D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 of the District’s schools. It lasted seven hours. Here are four takeaways:

Council members appear to agree that schools must close. Now the question is: Which schools?

Henderson argues that under-enrolled schools end up spending a disproportionate number of dollars on custodians, administrators and other non-instructional personnel. Council members seemed to buy her logic.

“Consolidation makes sense,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

But council members signalled their intent to oppose the closure of certain schools in their own wards. Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) mentioned Ferebee-Hope Elementary. Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) flagged Smothers Elementary. Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said he had many questions about plans for Marshall Elementary.

And Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) opposes closing the Ward 2 schools on Henderson’s list: Garrison Elementary and Francis-Stevens Education Campus. Parents are up in arms at both of those schools.

Henderson told reporters earlier this week that if one school comes off  the list, another must be added. “If it’s not this school, it’s that school,” she said.

There’s a general consensus that the last round of closures was a bust. So what will the chancellor do differently this time?

Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s closure of 23 schools in 2008 cost far more than anticipated and led to the exodus of thousands of kids from the school system.

“Why would we do this again?” asked Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer and longtime DCPS budget watchdog who warned of a vicious cycle of decreasing enrollments and more closures in the future.

Council members agreed that the 2008 closures hadn’t achieved their goals. (“Atrocious,” said Barry, who said the closures led to violence when kids were moved into schools with kids from rival neighborhoods. “They were handled poorly from the very beginning.)

The council members said the chancellor’s job is to avoid the mistakes of the past.

That means coming up with a strategy to retain students, council members said, and ensuring that whatever money is saved through closures is directed toward better academic programs for kids.

“Whether or not this succeeds depends I think upon its execution,” said David Catania (I-At Large). If we are going to go through this we have to learn from our mistakes. … We have to make sure that the money follows the kids and it actually results in substantive improvements to education.”

The school system needs to figure out why families are leaving — and then fix the root problems.

“We need a plan that’s forward looking and attempts to save our schools, not wait until things are on a downward spiral and then say we have to close some,” said Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Parents and activists also called for a comprehensive plan — a vision for how the school system will attract families and coexist with charter schools.

Some said the school system needs to be more sensitive to what parents want and provide them with the academic programs — such as foreign-language instruction in elementary schools — that they’re seeking.

Others said DCPS could attract parents by simply treating them with more respect.

Many said Henderson’s plan doesn’t appear to have been crafted carefully enough to keep families in the system.

Cathy Reilly, director of SHAPPE, questioned whether the plan to create two 6th-12th grade campuses at Cardozo and Roosevelt would drive middle-school students into charter schools.

And parents at Garrison Elementary, who have mounted a social media campaign and are circulating an online petition to save their school, warned that they will take their kids out of the system if the school is closed.

Ann McLeod, president of the Garrison PTA, said she would either consider a charter school “or I might have to become the biggest hypocrite and move to Maryland.”

Mendelson said city leaders have to pay attention to the role of school closures in creating an instability that repels parents. He asked the chancellor to come to Monday’s hearing prepared to address the call for a comprehensive vision for D.C. schools.

“There is a certain amount of trauma around proposing to close schools … and I’ve often felt that DCPS is insensitive to the fact that those traumas really make the commitment of parents more fragile,” Mendelson said.

“When a parent places their child in a school, they’ve invested in that school, and we don’t want that investment to be fragile.”

Parents, activists and some council members are concerned that Henderson’s plan will accelerate a divide between communities west and east of Rock Creek Park.

The chancellor didn’t propose any closures in Ward 3, where schools are overcrowded. Instead, the closures are concentrated in Wards 5, 7 and 8 — areas of the city where many families are already choosing public charter schools.

Activists see the possibility of a strong neighborhood school system in more affluent parts of the city and a dominant network of charter schools in less affluent parts.

“What we are rapidly approaching is a DCPS system concentrated west of Rock Creek Park and perhaps around Capitol Hill,” Levy said, “and a separate charter school system filled by lottery in most of the rest of the city.”

Is that a problem? Ken Archer of Greater Greater Washingtonarticulates why he thinks it is.

At Thursday’s hearing, Ward 7 parent Alicia Rucker said she feels that the city has been more willing to come to the aid of schools in wealthier neighborhoods, and more willing to let schools in poor areas flounder and be out-competed by charters.

“The schools in the most affluent neighborhoods are the better resourced,” Rucker said, “and the ice is colder too.”

Henderson, for her part, has said she is trying to build a strong system of neighborhood schools across the city.

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