Dec 4, 2012

Deja Vu All over Again-DC Public School Closures

Written By Candi Peterson

Plans to consolidate twenty DC Public Schools were announced on November 13, 2012 followed by a rush of public hearings and neighborhood stakeholder discussions that gave precious little time for parents, teachers and administrators to respond. The edict sounded all too familiar to those of us who were around for the first round of closures in 2008.

In a nutshell, DC's Chancellor Kaya Henderson proposes to close twenty public schools because they are under enrolled and in DCPS’s opinion are too costly to operate. The list of school closures includes 8 elementary schools, 3 special education schools, 4 middle schools, 2 education campuses, the Choice program, 1 High School STAY program (School To Aid Youth) and 1 high school.

 Two days of City Council hearings that lasted until nearly midnight with over 50 witnesses followed the school closure announcement to allow for testimony from education stakeholders. Community stakeholder meetings were subsequently scheduled to get feedback at four ward-based meetings commencing November 27 at Savoy elementary school in Ward 8, a second meeting at Sousa middle school in Ward 7 on November 28 and a third meeting at McKinley senior high on November 29 in Ward 5. The last meeting will be held at Brightwood education campus on December 5. This meeting will represent multiple wards of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6.

 Unlike the meetings of 2008 when stakeholders were escorted off to individual classrooms for private discussion, this year's format for ward based meetings included small table group discussions in an open meeting space like the school gymnasium. The discussions were facilitated by a DCPS staffer leading the dialogue around three main questions: [1] What has DCPS not thought about; [2] What can be done to strengthen the proposal; and [3] What could make the transition smoother. Participants reported back to the larger audience sharing their tables' response.

We need a moratorium on public school closings and charter school openings was a common recommendation expressed at the Ward 5 and 8 stakeholder meetings. When I attended the community meeting at McKinley, I couldn't help but feel the participants frustration and distrust that DCPS has already made its mind made up about going forward with the school closures .

Robert Vinson Brannum, VP of Ward 5 Council on Education questioned the school districts intentions. "The root question is are we working on the premise that the proposal is going forward. If at the end of everything, we say don't do it (close schools), are you going to go forward anyway”, Brannum said. 

 Comments from the McKinley audience ended with an obtrusive presence- none other than Ward 5 ANC commissioner Bob King. King who lives in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood has been a long time commissioner for 30 plus years and a community advocate as well as supporter of Thurgood Marshall elementary school. Commissioner King left a memorable impression when he spoke directly to Chancellor Henderson about Marshall's rich history, community support and the corporate sponsorships he garnered from Costco on behalf of the school.

"I have a written contract for $10,000 yearly from Costco, backpacks for all the students in Ward 5 and I personally delivered 68 computers, 10 smart boards and 1 projector to Marshall. You might be gone and the mayor might be gone, so please right your proposal to keep Marshall open," King said.

The ward 7 meeting at Sousa was markedly different than either of those in Wards 5 or 8. The Ward 7 education council took ownership of their meeting, decided not to entertain DCPS’ questions and presented a proposal of their own to keep schools open. Daniel del Pielago, education organizer of Empower DC said of the plan, "it reflected the concerns of parents and community and ultimately the plan said let's work to save and make our schools better instead of let's close more schools and see what happens as DCPS is saying."

Through two weeks of excruciating meetings the majority of community voices clearly oppose the closures, with only a promise from Chancellor Kaya Henderson to take the community’s recommendations into consideration before she makes a final verdict in January of 2013. A visceral lack of trust in the process exists at the community level, as DCPS and local council representatives appear to be hell bent on closing 20 schools regardless of community input, while ignoring loud persistent cries from the community to stop the madness and consider a moratorium. 

© Candi Peterson 2013