Henderson's Plan to Shutter Schools Ignites Fury

Dorothy Rowley | 11/20/2012, 12:07 a.m.

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.