What’s Happening to Our Public Schools?

School Closings

While 20 schools citywide are slated fro closure, none of the schools on Capitol Hill will be affected such as Maury Elementary pictured here, one of the several most popular schools in the District. Photo: Ellen Boomer

For the second time in her life, Eboni Rose-Thompson, Chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, felt compelled to speak out against proposed school closings. It was 20 years ago when she first testified before the DC Council against the closure of her own elementary school. Unfortunately, school closings are nothing new in DC. With a declining population of school-age children and a growing presence of public charter schools in DC, many neighborhood schools will have to fight to remain a viable option for local families.

DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s announcement of the proposed consolidation of 20 public schools is causing frustration and outrage across DC, particularly in Wards 5, 7 and 8, where nearly 75 percent of the affected schools are located and 3,800 students will be directly impacted. “We are heading toward two separate school systems,” stated Mary Levy, DCPS budget consultant for the Lawyers Committee and former DCPS parent. In fact, 38 of the 57 operating charter schools in DC are in the three wards most significantly impacted by the proposed school closures, and there are no schools slated for closure in Wards 1 or 3 where schools are at-capacity or over-enrolled.

During a press briefing and subsequent hearings, Henderson outlined the reasons for reducing the number of schools that DCPS operates, including “complementing our portfolio of schools” with more charter schools; however, she failed to provide specifics about the fate of affected schools’ leadership and staff, and the number of new charter schools that will be approved.

DCPS – Then and Now

DCPS started as a segregated school system that had a surplus of buildings once the schools were integrated in the mid-1950s. Since that time, DC’s school-age population has decreased overall and an increasing number of schools have been operating well below capacity. As a result, “DCPS spends disproportionately high sums on non-instructional staff and functions,” according to information provided by the Office of the Chancellor. By consolidating schools, redirected funds will ostensibly “help low-performing students, increase opportunities for advanced learners, and develop specialized programs to better engage students.”

While the proposed school closings make financial sense, they “hit almost exclusively minority students who are low-income,” according to Ms. Levy. Approximately 39 percent of school-age children live in Wards 7 and 8, which also contain 42 percent of operating public charter schools in DC. Of the nearly 30,000 students who live in these wards, only 40 percent attend public schools in those two wards, based on information provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). A common question among concerned residents is why should so many of the children in these wards have to choose between attending a charter school or commuting to another ward to attend school?

Why Close Public Schools?

Chancellor Henderson provided well-documented reasons for proposing to close 20 schools across six wards, including the need to modernize nearly half of DC’s school buildings and the desire to sufficiently support staff. Roughly 20,000 students attend schools which lack modern facilities. By closing 20 schools, DCPS will be able to use funds to provide professional development for teachers, to support students with special needs, and to ensure each school has a full complement of art, music, physical education teachers, and librarians.

One of the most controversial aspects of the proposed consolidations is the plan to create three campuses in Wards 1, 4 and 5, which will encompass grades 6 through 12. To create these campuses, DCPS will close two middle schools, MacFarland in Ward 4 and Shaw at Garnett-Patterson in Ward 6. Each of these schools is currently using approximately 25 percent of their building space. Given the vast differences in maturity between twelve-year-old children and eighteen-year-old young adults, putting them on the same campus is risky, even in the most modernized setting.

Closed Schools = Money Saved?

Affected communities are still assessing the long-term impact of the last round of school closings, which Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry called “atrocious.” “2008 was very difficult for us…once you lose [parents’] trust, it’s very difficult to restore it,” noted Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. DCPS and the Deputy Mayor’s Office have not shared the anticipated cost or the potential financial benefits of the current proposed school closings.

The previous round of school closures cost the city 40 million dollars rather than the anticipated 9.7 million dollars, according to the DC Auditor. In reaction to the proposed school closings, Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander reiterated that she has asked for a moratorium on school closures in Ward 7, “pending a detailed public report analyzing the outcomes of the 2008 school closures [and] the opportunity for public commentary sessions on both school assessment and proposed future closings.”

There are no guarantees that closing schools will save money or that funds will be redirected to the schools that need the most help. DCPS “central administration is much larger than when we had twice as many students,” according to Ms. Levy. Henderson noted she’s “committed to looking at the central budget.”

The Effects of Closing Schools

In addition to the lack of information surrounding potential financial benefits, DCPS has not provided specifics on the anticipated effects on school staff. Although some teachers will move to consolidated schools, Chancellor Henderson did not specify how many teachers and principals will lose their jobs due to school closings. In addition to proposed school closings, DC already faces a serious teacher retention problem. “The teacher turnover rate is three times the national average,” which is indicative of an “unhealthy professional culture,” according to education policy analyst and DCPS parent, Mark Simon.

DCPS is in a “crisis of instability,” according to Mr. Simon, who noted, “When schools are closed, it harms the academic achievement of students…and accelerates departure from DCPS.” According to Mary Melchior, member of the Ward 5 Council on Education, “consolidated schools have lower test scores.” Unfortunately, 40 percent of the students who will be impacted in this round of closings were also affected in the 2008 consolidation when DCPS “lost 3000 students,” to charter schools and private schools, according to Ms. Levy.

Chancellor Henderson noted that DCPS plans to lease the proposed closed school buildings to non-profits and charter schools and will “monitor population expansion and demand for public school options in individual neighborhoods. When there is critical mass, DCPS will reopen some schools,” according to the Office of the Chancellor. However, by potentially paving the way for more charter schools to open in DC, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham asked Chancellor Henderson, “Doesn’t it send a message that you really don’t want students to stay in DCPS, that you want them to go to charter schools?”

In the meantime, however, many neighborhoods may lose the use of their schools as a critical resource. “Schools in our neighborhood serve as a community hub,” Pho Palmer, Ward 8 resident and DCPS parent, pointed out, by offering various services for seniors and adult education classes. “This is not a time to close our schools; this is a time to innovate,” noted Ms. Palmer. Schools in Ward 6, such as Tyler Elementary, have seen “a remarkable renaissance,” according to Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. He noted that, citywide, “we need to be very careful not to lose the option of neighborhood schools.” With yet another round of school closures and the associated impacts, it appears that many neighborhoods and children will be the ones who ultimately pay the price.

Ellen Boomer is an Eastern Market resident, former teacher, current tutor and freelance writer.  She enjoys traveling, cooking, and playing a competitive game of bocce in Yards Park with her friends.  She can be reached at emboomer@gmail.com.


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