An irate D.C. School Board member echoed the sentiments of many parents, educational and community leaders when she implored District officials to halt D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's controversial proposal to shutter 20 schools across the city by the end of 2013.
During the sometimes testy, standing-room only hearing on Thursday, Nov. 15, that attracted more than 300 people to the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest, Dorothy Douglas made it clear to Henderson and the 13-member D.C. Council that enough is enough.
"Our kids are not cattle, so stop moving them from school to school," said the visibly upset Douglas, who referred to the two dozen closings that took place in 2008 under the strong-arm regime of former chancellor, Michelle. Rhee. "There's no need to move our kids from one established community to another. DCPS has enough seats for [its] students," said Douglas, 73, of the plan to merge under-enrolled buildings with charter schools. "It's not fair to blame these 20 schools for all the troubles in the system. . . I don't believe this is the legacy of Mayor Gray and the [D.C.] Council," the Ward 7 School Board member said.
Most of the schools slated for closure and consolidation have been designated as low-performing – and are located in wards 5, 7 and 8 where many students are already enrolled in charter schools. To that end, in accordance with the recommendations submitted earlier this year to District officials by the Chicago-based Illinois Facility Fund, under-utilized and low-performing District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) facilities would be better suited merging with high-performing charter schools.
Under Henderson's plan, which would affect 3,000 students and have to be signed-off by Mayor Vincent C. Gray, schools like Garrison Elementary School in Ward 1 – which enrolls only 94 students, and Spingarn High School in Ward 5 could be re-opened with anticipated population growth, or restructured for other educational purposes. Henderson, 42, also noted that in some instances, empty school buildings could be leased to outside interests or organizations.
"With the resources that I have, I'm trying to reorganize so I can spend money on those programs that are right," said Henderson, who like most of the council members, believes too many DCPS buildings have been left languishing for years with enrollments that have steadily decreased.
"I've looked at enrollment and [other] options surrounding school buildings, and there's an opportunity for us to come together to create the right conditions," Henderson said, adding that in order to improve the situation, it's imperative the system downsizes where necessary to ensure quality academics and related resources for all 45,000 DCPS students. "We have to think about where our investment is going," Henderson said, "when DCPS continues to support schools with fading enrollments."
One such school is Francis-Stevens Education Center in Northwest. With just 55 percent of the building in use, Henderson said it's being subsidized more than any other DCPS facility.
But while Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham said Henderson's proposal sends the message that DCPS students are being subtly led to enroll at charter schools, Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry insisted that her administration needs to step up its pace and increase "quality seats" for all the city's public school students.
"Many parents in D.C. can't find quality seats in the schools, unless they go out of boundaries," said Barry, 76. On the other hand, "as long as students are allowed to attend quality schools outside of their [neighborhoods] there will be no quality schools in Ward 8," the veteran council member said.
Retired District Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell, 68, attended the hearing. She said that she was concerned about how DCPS resources are distributed. She also stressed the importance of parents advocating on behalf of their children's schools.
"A lot of our schools are very hostile to parents and consequently, they don't [confront] issues on their children's behalf," Terrell said. "As one who has been a judge and a prosecutor, educator and was the founder of the Dix Street Academy for dropout kids, I have seen the whole spectrum of what we face. . . We have to advocate for strong schools and for accessible education. If we abandon public schools, that will doom us."
Ryan Williams and Walid Bouachi, both 17-year-old seniors who attend Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest, said although they won't be impacted by the chancellor's proposal, they have friends who will.
"They're upset and don't want to get uprooted because some of the schools have gangs, and they don't want to have to deal with any violence," said Ryan.
Walid said he was concerned about closing Garrison which he once attended.
"They're supposed to be feeding the school into Francis-Stevens, but I don't think it's going to work out," Walid said. "They don't need to close Garrison because it's a completely turned around school that needs to remain open for kids living close to it."
Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) shed light on the vast amount of growth and development in her community. "We want to have schools in the community to accommodate that growth," said Alexander, 51.
Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, 37, said that with several schools in his ward having already been closed, it's become even more critical for parents to maintain trust in DCPS.
"This is tough medicine for a sick patient," McDuffie said of Henderson's proposal. "There were many promises made in 2008 that did not come to fruition. Once parents lose trust, it's very hard to restore."
Joseph Mathews, 38, was among a strong contingent of parents from Ward 5 that stood by, cheering McDuffie on.
"My concern is that I've seen a pattern of an attack on public schools where they've denied students resources and then punished them because they don't have the resources," Mathews said. "For example, last year at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School [in Northeast] – which is on the [closure] list – we had 130 students and now we have 160. There's currently a lot of economic development going on around our area, so if you look at the numbers, you have to ask why close the school now," said Mathews.
"Is there a social demographic that they don't want in the community," he asked. "I think they've already promised the new population that's moving in that there's going to be a school for their children. I think those parents already know – and are just waiting for our poor black kids to be pushed out of their neighborhood schools."