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Summit Builds Case for Public Education

Dorothy Rowley | 9/18/2013, 3 p.m.
District residents and community leaders from neighborhoods adversely impacted by controversial school closings recently joined ranks to ensure no more ...
Teachers and parents work on school issues during break out sessions at the "State of the Schools Community Summit" at First Rock Baptist Church in Southeast on Saturday, Sept. 14. Photo by Roy Lewis

District residents and community leaders from neighborhoods adversely impacted by the controversial school closings, recently joined ranks to ensure no more buildings are shuttered and to call for the ouster of “an out-of-control, short-sighted and corrupt” D.C Council and school officials touting the proliferation of charter schools under the guise of reformation.

“These school closures and charter takeovers are a huge issue, and our parents are being put in a trap,” Ward 7 resident, Emily Washington, said during an education summit Saturday, Sept. 14 at First Rock Baptist Church in Southeast.

“They’ve been told that there’s choice, but what choice is it when students have to attend a bad charter school after having to leave a good public school in the first place,” Washington, a retired District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) teacher, asked.

The forum, which was sponsored by the Northwest-based community advocacy group, Empower DC, attracted more than 100 people whose participation in the two-hour event provided an invigorating and thought-provoking opportunity to offer plans aligned with saving neighborhood schools.

“We haven’t stopped fighting,” said Parrisa Norouzi, Empower DC executive director, referencing the lawsuit the grassroots organization filed earlier this year against DCPS to halt the closings of schools in wards 5, 7 and 8.

“Unfortunately, the judge came out slinging against us,” Norouzi, 36, said. “We’re not even sure that we can get a fair trial in that sense, but we’re going to continue to go through the process.”

While the meeting hinged on fighting bad school legislation and the DCPS system from being overtaken by a growing number of charter schools, light was shed on strengthening community involvement and including the voices of students at D.C. Council meetings.

Attendees also expressed belief of an orchestrated attempt by the big businesses that operate charter schools to push out DCPS’s low-income families to nearby Prince George’s County in order to accommodate families moving into previously poverty-ridden areas in Northeast and Southeast.

“Fighting bad legislation is a No. 1 priority, and in order to fight it we need workers,” said Washington. “We need a valid referendum to do away with mayoral control of our schools,” the retired DCPS teacher said to resounding applause.

Washington who taught for 40 years, said residents might consider an independent school board.

“We did, at one time have an elected Anacostia-area School Board and it was convened because of a neglected eastern part of the city,” Washington recalled. “Those people came together and created their own community school board, and we had many folks who exercised great control over Anacostia schools. We need that kind of spirit brought back.”

Sheronda Robinson, who lives in Ward 7, has children who attend schools in wards 6, 7 and 8. One is in elementary school, another attends middle school and the oldest is in high school.

“So I’m experiencing all realms of education at the same time,” said Robinson, who spoke on behalf of a group of parents.

“Initially, it was hard for us to figure out what was going on. We just couldn’t understand the school closings,” Robinson said before rattling off a list of parental concerns.

“We talked about who was responsible for the closings, the DCPS budget and boosting enrollment, [lack of adequate] bus transportation to and from school, and whether we should [support] public or charter schools.”

Robinson said her group ultimately decided to “push for more or better community engagement and to fight bad council legislation.”

Also among summit speakers and guests was Johnny Barnes, the attorney who filed the lawsuit for Empower DC.

Barnes said that both the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent Gray need to wake up to what they’re doing to students with the increased number of charters opening each year and subsequent closing of public schools.

“They’ve never closed any public schools in Ward 3,” Barnes said. “At one point those schools were down to 50 in-boundary students in six schools, yet they found a way to keep them open,” he said. “If that’s not intentional discrimination, if that’s not unconstitutional, I don’t know what is.” However, “I think that because we filed that lawsuit and told the truth, they will be loath to close schools in the future.”