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Parents, Concerned Residents Fight Back

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/27/2013, 11:52 a.m.

Barnes, 64, and del Pielago, 39, said marches, rallies, demands by parents and calls for a moratorium on school closings have yielded little or no response from Henderson, Mayor Vincent Gray or the D.C. Council. And as parents realize what's happening, they're mobilizing and forming instruments and groups of resistance to the proposed changes, the men said.

Henderson's moves are seen by many as part of a carefully measured reformation of the District's schools. Parents in affected communities are incensed that all 15 schools slated to be closed are located east of Rock Creek Park and predominantly east of the Anacostia River. Among the casualties: Spingarn Senior High School in Northeast.

In 2008, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools she deemed to be under-performing and during and after her tenure, the school system has been rocked by a series of changes she and her successor say will eventually produce stronger academic programs, reorganize resources and develop new efficiencies for schools across the city. Rhee did all this while alienating large swathes of the community with what people considered her brashness and arrogant behavior.

Henderson possesses a softer touch. But while she has been less autocratic and more willing to keep parents and administrators apprised of the process, the perception persists in the minds of parents, activists, and others that she will listen but then go ahead with her plans over their most strenuous objections.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the closings reflect school choice and a full-pitched battle for the soul of schools in the city. Currently, the push is for charter schools to replace traditional public schools, a struggle being waged in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and other municipalities, he said.

"The trend of putting public schools out of business and charters coming into business has been going strongly for a decade," said Saunders, 48. "The District is moving more toward charter schools. This will continue to be a problem until these and other issues are addressed."

In the late 1960s, D.C. Public Schools educated about 140,000 children. The 1990s witnessed a precipitous fall in the numbers and currently, the system educates about 45,000 children. The reduction in the overall number of students in traditional public schools has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of students attending charter schools. It's estimated that charter schools educate about 40 percent of District school children.

Saunders said District residents have a rich panoply of options and can enroll their children at a public, private, charter or independent school, but those choices should not come at the expense of traditional public schools. Gray and the D.C. Council, he asserts, lack the political will to support the continuation of traditional public schools.

While Saunders likened Washington D.C., to ground zero in the national struggle to replace traditional public schools with charter schools, del Pielago and Barnes said gentrification is a key driver of Henderson's efforts.

Del Pielago said what Henderson is doing will lead to privatization of District schools and is also linked to gentrification. He fears that both will push residents out of the city and that parents will soon not have the option of sending their children to schools within walking distance. He also said he believes that school closings and gentrification are destabilizing the community.

Saunders agreed.

"It's a concern as a national issue in urban areas for children of color. I saw this coming a while ago," he said. "... The community in D.C. is being gentrified which further enhanced the likelihood and probability of this happening."

Whatever the causes, Barnes said, parents and concerned citizens in the city won't give up without a fight.

"It's a growing movement, one I've sensed before such as apartheid [in South Africa], working to make Dr. King's birthday a holiday and gaining passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts. It's percolating here. It's a movement that has national implications and it's happening here," Barnes said.

WI Staff Writer Dorothy Rowley contributed to this report.