School Closings Lawsuit Garners Support

James Wright | 3/6/2013, 11:43 a.m.

One of the District's leading civil rights attorneys and a local advocacy agency have teamed up to file a lawsuit against District of Columbia Public Schools.

Johnny Barnes, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for the National Capital Area, and Empower DC, a grassroots community organization in Northwest, are challenging Chancellor Kaya Henderson's plan to close 15 schools - most of which are nestled in underserved communities east of the Anacostia River.

Both parties are attempting to get the D.C. Superior Court to delay the plan, which is scheduled to go into effect in August.

"They are messing with our children," said Barnes, 64. "Black and brown children are treated differently than others in this plan. Local and federal laws do not permit this."

In November, Henderson released a list of 20 proposed school closures that triggered a backlash from parents, education advocates and community organizations. Parents quickly mobilized, mounting campaigns, and organizing rallies in hopes of persuading the chancellor not to close their respective neighborhood schools. Last month Henderson announced her final decision on which schools would be shuttered.

The majority of the schools slated for closure are located in Wards 6, 7 and 8, and Henderson said they were targeted because of under-enrollment and poor student performance. But Barnes and other education advocates believe that the sudden growth of charter schools, which enroll about 43 percent of all D.C. students, is another catalyst for Henderson's plan. He said however, that her plan hurts minority students.

"They say they are closing under-enrolled schools but they did not want to close Lafayette Elementary, Janey Elementary, Deal Middle School and Wilson High School when they were under-enrolled," Barnes said. "They did not close schools on Capitol Hill when they were under-enrolled. These school closings treat children differently and it is not right that 'Little Johnny' has to cross I-395 to go to school while others do not have to do that."

Mary Levy, a District schools budget analyst who co-authored a report on the school closings last month with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in Northeast, found that "virtually all students in schools to be closed are minorities and over 80 percent are low income."

"These schools enroll a grand total of two white students out of the 2,642 that will be displaced," Levy wrote in the "Background Information on DCPS School Closings: Final 2013" report.

Tammie Garvin has two daughters who attend Mary Church Terrell-McGogney Elementary School in Southeast. She's not pleased about her neighborhood school being closed.

"I don't appreciate it," said Garvin, 45. "I have sent my girls to this school since kindergarten and I like it because it is a local school. My girls are getting a good education because the teachers [at the school] are good."

Parisi B. Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, said her organization will not be hoodwinked by Henderson.

"During the 2008 school closings, in which 23 were shut down, many people in Empower DC thought that the process was about educational outcomes and community interest," Norouzi said. "We were wrong and we were lied to. It is about real estate, profits and destabilizing communities, and we are going to stop this."

Barnes and Empower DC will hold a "Save Our Schools Summit" from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 at the Temple of Praise in Southeast. He said the summit will include speakers who will discuss topics that include trauma to students who have to travel long distances to attend school and alternatives to the school closings.

Barnes said he will file the lawsuit on Monday, March 18. And, when he does, he will have Garvin's support.

"It is wrong to take children out of their area and so far away to go to school," Garvin said. "The other schools will be crowded and things will be a mess."