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Heated Debates Expected over School Closures

WI Online Editor | , Dorothy Rowley | 11/7/2012, 1:51 p.m.

A maelstrom of controversy is erupting over a list of District of Columbia Public School [DCPS] closings that made its way onto the Internet last week. As a result, pressure has been put on D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to come clean about which schools are marked for closure or consolidation.

But a spokesperson for Henderson said she has no explanation regarding how the list that cited 38 schools was published on Nov. 1, except to say it's inaccurate.

"We have no idea where this list came from, but it's not from DCPS," said Melissa Salmonowitz in an email to The Washington Informer. "We look forward to announcing our proposed consolidations soon."

The Chicago-based Illinois Facility Fund [IFF] which provided the recommendations earlier this year, deals in real estate acquisitions and providing loans and equipment for nonprofits such as charter schools - already has oversight over several such facilities in the Midwest. In the event IFF recommendations are approved, plans call for lower-performing city schools to be consolidated with high-performing charter schools.

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.

Many of the parents and community leaders who are lashing out are reminded of the iron-clad will of Michelle Rhee who ordered the closings of some two dozen schools shortly after she took over as chancellor in 2008. They are looking forward to speaking during two public hearings slated for Thursday, Nov. 15 and Monday, Nov. 19 at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest, where the testimonies are expected to be heated.

Dorothy Douglas who represents Ward 7 on the D.C. School Board, said she wasn't familiar with the bogus list, but she's known about talks to shutter schools.

"I know that the plans call for some of the schools like those in wards 7 and 8 to be closed due to low- enrollment, but I expressed [early on] to Mayor [Vincent] Gray and [Ward 7 Council member] Yvette Alexander that closing schools is not the solution without getting parents involved," Douglas said.

Annette Douglas, 43, who has a child enrolled at Howard Road Academy in Southeast, opposes combining District public schools with charter schools. "That's not going to work," she said, adding that "for one thing, you can't mix students from Southwest with students from Southeast without expecting issues like violence to occur."

Northeast resident Rita Jackson who has grandchildren enrolled in District public schools, said charter schools aren't necessarily better than DCPS facilities.

"Charter schools are basically run by corporations and they're doing these mergers, not to educate our children, but for the resources that they can get," said Jackson. "They're making sure that we don't create any more Malcolm Xs or President Obamas."

Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell, 61, said it makes good sense to close schools that are under-enrolled and to merge others. "This is something that's been decades in the making," said Pannell.

He said that in many instances, under-enrolled buildings negatively impact the ability to ensure key programs and services at other schools. "For example, the new Ballou Senior High School in Ward 8 lacks an ROTC program because the school can't afford it," Pannell said.

While Alexander, 51, has called for a moratorium on closures in her community, Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, 37, said in a statement that in anticipation of the two hearings, he's been in touch with Henderson's office to schedule a discussion on the matter.

"At this juncture, DCPS has not made the closure list available to the [D.C.] Council or to the public," McDuffie said. "Once DCPS officially releases school closure information, my office will make it available and work with the community to respond accordingly."