Recommendations outlined in a study titled, "Quality Schools: Every Child, Every School, Every Neighborhood," and which call for the closing of more than three dozen District of Columbia Public Schools [DCPS], have received negative responses from parents, community and organization leaders who insist any proposed closings warrant special consideration.
The recommendations – which were offered by the Chicago-based Illinois Facility Fund [IFF] – suggest closing several low-performing schools located in the poorest wards in the District, and designating others as high-performing publicly-funded charter facilities.
"I don't have a problem with [officials] closing schools that just aren't up to par academically, but to relocate students for the sake of putting money into the pockets of corporations is wrong, especially when there's no real basis for some of the closings," said Southeast resident Shayla Winslow, 29. Her son attends Hart Middle School on Mississippi Avenue which is listed among buildings recommended for closing.
Winslow also wondered why the public hadn't heard more about the recommendations prior to an announcement made this summer by DeShawn Wright, deputy mayor for education. "It just doesn't sound right," Winslow said.
IFF, which touts itself as a proponent for strengthening school reform efforts, is a Community Development Financial Institution that uses public and private funding to invest in under-served communities. The organization, which already has oversight of several charter schools located in the Midwest, also focuses on loans and equipment for nonprofits such as charter schools.
"We have studies of cities from time to time, that focus on the performance of schools," said IFF spokesman Mark Brailop. He explained that the DCPS study is aimed at sparking community input by focusing on its most challenging points, all of which he said, "are backed with hard data."
Wright commissioned the IFF study in 2011. The research, which was funded by the Walmart Foundation along with several other interests heavily invested in charter schools, revealed that the majority of the city's under-performing and under-enrolled schools are in wards 5, 7 and 8. Listed among them are Anacostia and Ballou high schools in Ward 8, Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7 and Charles Young Elementary School in Ward 5.
About 20 schools were shuttered when Adrian Fenty was mayor and that caused a maelstrom of controversy. Meanwhile, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson have been tight-lipped surrounding additional closures, but they are expected to make an announcement by the end of this year. If more schools are closed, that would help achieve goals outlined in Henderson's five-year strategy to improve student outcomes – part of a newly-launched initiative that's slated for full implementation by 2017.
"We acknowledge the need to right-size the District so that we are able to provide the complement of school services we believe every child deserves across the city," said Melissa Salmonowitz, DCPS communications director. "We have yet to make any decisions about which schools will need to be closed to right-size the District. However, we know that no decision will be made without thorough community engagement and conversations. We look forward to talking with parents, community members and other stakeholders in the coming months as the plans develop and unfold."
Deboragh Bennett, 48 of Northeast, has two grandchildren who attend Spingarn Senior High School in Ward 5. She fears the school will be shuttered to make way for a new wave of students who may be moving to the community with their parents.
"They're doing all this [renovation] on H Street and it looks like a lot of new well-to-do [residents] are coming in. If they close Spingarn, Phelps [Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School], will obviously be attractive to these new students," Bennett said. "I'm concerned not just for my grandchildren, but for other kids growing up in the neighborhood who would look forward to going to Spingarn."
In a letter addressed to Wright, retired teacher Erich Martel questioned the validity of the IFF study, saying it's flawed and ignores the role of management policies aligned with DCPS initiatives.
In addition to the "absence of analyses of poor student performance, [the study] failed to require a full investigation into allegations of cheating and budget changes," Martel wrote.
Wright said in a statement that the report "does not call for the closure" of DCPS schools "or recommends transforming those schools into charter schools."
Rather, the report provides objective and very valuable information about neighborhoods in the city where we are not providing adequate high‐quality public education opportunities, Wright said.
Meanwhile, members of Empower DC, a grassroots community-based organization that has rallied against the IFF recommendations, maintained during Gray's One City Citizens' Summit earlier this year that if the community believes test scores are the only criteria for determining whether a school should remain open, is irrelevant.
Mary Filardo, executive director for the 21st Century School Fund in Northwest, said her organization has been engaged by DCPS to help with input from the community.
"Right now, we're in the research data analysis stage, and kind of planning the community engagement process and pulling together an advisory committee," Filardo said. "It's not just a problem that some of the schools have been losing enrollment, but it's also an issue for the District, which will also be looking at the schools that are crowded."