Hundreds Attend Forum at Sousa Middle School
Despite District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor (DCPS) Kaya Henderson's intent to move forward on a proposal to shutter and consolidate some 20 schools, residents with a vested interest in both their communities and neighborhood schools are determined to keep buildings open.
Some have also expressed belief that rather than Henderson, it's the former chancellor who continues to lead the embattled school system. To that end, a cadre of parents whose children attended neighborhood elementary schools turned out in droves to protest the impending closures.
"It's very important that schools like Adelaide Davis Elementary remain open, otherwise our children would have too far to go to another school,"said Constance Woody, 77, a member of the Benning Road Civic Association. "It seems we have been targeted for too many school closings in Southeast. It's not fair," added Woody, who has lived in the Kenilworth neighborhood much of her life. She made her opinion known during a Ward 7 community meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at John M. Sousa Middle School on Ely Place, where a large contingent of parents, teachers and others perplexed over the path of the school system, gathered to voice their concerns.
Benjamin Thomas, 89, agreed with Woody, saying it's imperative that none of the schools be closed – in his neighborhood or in other parts of the city.
"... All we've gotten is a bunch of lies," he said. "When I first moved to this neighborhood [in Ward 7] over 50 years ago, Davis was so crowded they held classes in the parking lot. If they close Davis, the kids will have to cross Benning Road – which is one of the most dangerous [thoroughfares] in the city. Besides, Davis is located next to a public housing project, where the need for an elementary school is greater than any other location in D.C."
The standing-room only forum counted among the last of several convened over the past few days in wards across the city to address the proposed closings. Many of the schools were added to the list due to issues surrounding low-student achievement and under-enrollment. Henderson's staff will use the remainder of December to consider the public's feedback. Afterward, Mayor Vincent C. Gray, 70, and Henderson are expected to make their decision.
Most of the schools targeted for either closing or consolidation are in wards 5, 7 and 8. Currently, about 41 percent of District students attend charter schools – and, half of the students who live in Ward 7 are enrolled in a charter facility.
There's been a recommendation by the Chicago-based firm, Illinois Facilities Fund, that invests in charter schools, and which was commissioned last year to study the DCPS system, to merge the District's lower-performing schools with high-performing charters.
But another resident, Mary Jackson, 72, a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner, had biting words about Henderson's leadership.
"With these school closings, she's got too many white folks telling her what to do," Jackson said. "[Former Chancellor] Michelle Rhee is still here, you might as well say that Rhee is running the schools, and that all of these white people who showed up [at the meeting], are here to make sure Rhee's will is carried out."
Meanwhile, Henderson, 42, said she knew assuming the chancellor's post meant she would have to "make some tough decisions," and that she signed on, unafraid to withstand the heat of her mandates.
Henderson said however, that the purpose of the public meetings were to determine whether changes were needed in order to strengthen the proposal; how to make the closings and consolidations go as smoothly as possible; and how to best utilize schools targeted for shuttering.
Henderson also admitted that money spent four years ago to close schools wasn't that effective. During that process, she said DCPS lost 3,000 students, but went on to stabilize enrollment the following year.
"We spent $40 million dollars the last time we closed schools and we didn't save any money . . . that really didn't go anywhere," Henderson said. "[According to] the auditor' report, half of that money [was] attributed to the reduction of the value of the schools [that were closed]. But "these are aggregate estimates, not real dollars that actually went out the door."
Eboni-Rose Thompson spoke on behalf of residents from wards 5, 7 and 8, who attended the meetings. Although she noted that the chancellor's plan would create conflict among neighborhood schools, Thompson said that the real issue boils down to ensuring quality schools in all quadrants of the city.
She said communities like Ward 7 want to fully utilize their school buildings – including making Ron Brown Middle School a more competitive facility by turning it into a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics facility – in order to attract more in-bound families.
"Henderson's proposal doesn't speak on what will make the schools slated for closing, better," Thompson said. "We want a moratorium on the closings," she said to a resounding round of applause.
"Just because DCPS closes schools doesn't mean more schools will open and that problems with under-enrollment won't continue."