After weeks of rallying against District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson's controversial proposal to shutter 20 under-enrolled and low-performing schools, parents and community leaders are joining ranks to develop their own strategies for keeping the schools open.
If done haphazardly, school closings will make the beleaguered DCPS system more susceptible to enrollment losses, primary efforts will focus on recruiting more students to help fill vacant school buildings. Other strategies call for transforming under-utilized buildings into community schools and placing tighter deadlines on buildings targeted for renovations.
"It's just awful that they're thinking about closing traditional public schools," said Kim Harrison, who helped to coordinate one of the last rallies of the year in December. "In many instances, in wards 7 and 8 where many of the schools targeted for closing are located, the children will no longer be able to walk to school."
Harrison, 49, a member of the Southeast-based Concerned Parents for Action Coalition that's comprised of parents from across the District, also serves as education chairperson for the PTA at Malcolm X Elementary School in the Anacostia community.
She said it's imperative for parents, teachers and PTAs across the District to be engaged in the fight to retain their neighborhood schools. In addition to Malcolm X, they include Francis-Stevens Educational Campus and Garrison Elementary School in Northwest; Spingarn High, Ron Brown Middle and Kenilworth Elementary schools in Northeast; and M.C. Terrell/McGogney Elementary School in Southeast.
If the chancellor prevails, her plan goes into full effect by the end of this year, and would merge many of the closed facilities with other DCPS buildings or high-performing charter schools. Combining under-performing DCPS buildings with chartered was one of several recommendations outlined in a study the city commissioned the Chicago-based Illinois Facilities Fund to conduct in late 2010.
Donna Stewart, 41, has been president of the Terrell/McGogney PTA for the past two years. She opposes shuttling displaced DCPS students to charter schools. She said that although the community is concerned about its school, they hope Henderson decides to keep Terrell/McGogney open. "I would like to see that she finally decided to use the school in its capacity, and if enrollment is going to be a factor, we can boost it," Stewart said. "We suggest that the smaller school merge with the larger school and utilize that space, instead of the other way around because that will require costly remodeling."
Meanwhile, for parents like Rita Jackson who are angling to keep Spingarn open in Ward 5 through public meetings that have been held at the Benning Road Library, Erika Landberg has been among those who have taken their opposition straight to Henderson.
Landberg said during testimony before the D.C. Council that as a member of the D.C. Board of Education in the 1990s, she voted on 18 proposed school closures.
"I am no stranger to school closings, or to the often negative consequences that result when closings are not conducted with care and consultation with the communities affected," Landberg said.
Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders, 48, added that while the District has a right to protect itself financially from buildings that are under-enrolled, his organization is taking the side of the students and community.
"We're going to work hard to make sure that the rights of students, and their families, are taken into consideration," said Saunders. "We expect some deep thoughts and modifications. This issue is directly linked not only to under-enrolled buildings, but to charter schools that are opening up all over the city and competing with DCPS in some ways, unfairly."
But Henderson, who is expected along with Mayor Vincent C. Gray, 70, to announce her decision next week, has also made it clear that any alternative plan must outweigh her proposal.
DCPS currently boasts an enrollment of about 43,000 students, and Henderson said that before a round of closings in 2008, the system was losing 3,000 students each year.
"We have learned some significant lessons from 2008 . . . that will actually assist with the [proposed] closings . . . we're not going to waste money on this round of closings," said Henderson. "I [have] told my team we have to figure out a way to do these consolidations and increase enrollments, and we've provided information on demographic trends and other information that has led to these decisions."