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Posted at 05:44 PM ET, 11/19/2012

D.C. Council holds 2nd hearing on school closures

Update 9:37 p.m:

Mendelson adjourned the hearing after nearly eight hours of testimony. The chancellor left around 5 p.m. but her staff stayed until the bitter end, as did about a dozen parents and activists.

Update 9:25 p.m:

We’re on the last panel of witnesses, and we’ve heard impassioned pleas from parents to keep certain schools open — notably Garrison, Francis-Stevens, MC Terrell and Marshall. But the two council members remaining on the dais — Mendelson and Catania — seem more interested in dealing with systemic issues driving low enrollment across the city.

Mendelson read from written testimony from a parent who said she had received tons of postcards from charter schools seeking her family’s business. But she’d never been wooed that way by DCPS. “If we are going to compete with charters for students, we have to make our schools more attractive to parents,” the parent wrote.

“I’m struck by that,” said Mendelson, adding that one problem with the chancellor’s plan is that it doesn’t do enough to persuade parents that their kids will be better off once the consolidations are complete.

DCPS principals and teachers should all feel as if they have a stake in attracting kids to their schools, Mendelson said.

Catania agreed: “It’s not beyond the pale to ask principals to have enrollment plans, to do their part to make the schools as attractive as possible,” he said.

Update 8:42 p.m:

Residents of Ward 5, where many schools were closed in 2008, are skeptical that this round of closures is going to go any differently than the last.

Nakisha Winston, PTA president at Langdon Education Campus, said the school system failed to provide enough resources four years ago to help elementary schools successfully transform into K-8 schools.

The new K-8 schools didn’t offer algebra, foreign language or gym locker rooms for middle-school kids, she said. They didn’t have toilets sized for teenagers.

“Given our previous experience in Ward 5, I am not confident that DCPS will provide the additional resources” necessary to make transitions smooth, she said.

Shirley Rivens Smith, another Ward 5 resident, challenged the notion that Kaya Henderson is more open to community input than her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.

“She may not be as bad as the othe chancellor — she smiles better,” Rivens Smith said. “But I don’t see anything different.”

Update 8:01 p.m:

Six hours into this hearing, we’re on Speaker #28 out of 51.

Many have called for a moratorium on school closures until the city develops a comprehensive vision for public education. That’s not realistic, said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

“I don’t know how we improve the system if we don’t deal with the fact that there are facilities that are severely — I’d say grossly — under-enrolled,” Mendelson said.

“To simply have a moratorium while we get a better picture of the big picture, I don’t see how that helps,” he added. “I don’t know how we turn the corner without coming to grips” with schools like Ron Brown Middle, which is operating at about one-fifth of its total capacity of more than 1,000 students.

Update 7:38 p.m: Three experienced charter-school operators have applied for fast-track approval to operate 10 campuses serving thousands of students in the District, D.C. Public Charter School Board officials said Monday.

The news — one more sign that charter schools could continue expanding quickly in Washington — comes more than five hours into the D.C. Council’s hearing on plans to close 20 of the city’s traditional public schools.

More details here.

Update 5:44 p.m.: DCPS is shaped in part by churn. Major churn. More than one in five teachers leave the system each year, and turnover among principals is even higher.

Since 2008, 146 principals have turned over, said Aona Jefferson, president of the Council of School Officers, the principals’ union.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, wants DCPS to bolster stability by guaranteeing that teachers displaced by school closures, and who are rated “effective” and “highly effective,” will be able to follow their students to new schools.

DCPS isn’t guaranteeing anything.

“One of our bedrock principles is that our school principals need to have the authority to decide who teaches in their buildings. That said, we will continue to do everything we can to facilitate the placements of our strongest teachers,” DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz wrote in an e-mail last week.

“If they aren’t able to find placements, these teachers will have options, as is outlined in the WTU contract, such as staying on for one additional year to secure a placement or taking a buyout.”

Update 4:44 p.m.: Nearly three hours into this hearing, council members are still quizzing Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Members of the public, who signed up to speak but have yet to weigh in, are growing restless.

Same thing happened at last week’s hearing, when the back-and-forth between the chancellor and the council ate up more than two hours, and parents began leaving before they were called to speak.

Folks are already frustrated by the timing of these hearings. The deadline to sign up to testify was last Tuesday — just one hour after the school-closure list was made public.

“The feeling I get is that they’re checking a box, more or less, to get parental input,” Kevin Sampson, a parent at Garrison who tried to sign up to speak and was turned away.

Update 4:23 p.m.: One of the huge undercurrents of the debate over school closures is what they will mean for the District’s balance of charter schools versus traditional public schools.

Among the signs that charter-school enrollment will continue to grow quickly: Chancellor Kaya Henderson “absolutely” wants to put charter schools in some of the buildings left vacant when DCPS schools are closed, she said in response to a question from council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Henderson has repeatedly said that she will push the D.C. Council in January to grant her the authority to authorize new charter schools. If she gets it, she said, she’d support neighborhood admissions preference for those schools.

Currently, charter schools enroll students from across the city, conducting a lottery when there is more demand for seats than seats available. That gives every kid in the city an equal shot at excellent charter schools, but also means that families can be rejected from schools across the street from their homes.

Update 3:38 p.m.: Parents at Garrison Elementary and Francis-Stevens Education Campus have rallied loudly in support of their schools, both of which are in Ward 2 and are slated to be closed.

Council members were clearly sympathetic to those parents at last week’s hearing, leading to a question that has cropped up several times at this second hearing: Should schools be saved based on the size of their outcry?

No, said D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, pointing out that many parents care deeply about their schools but don’t have time to demonstrate publicly because they work multiple jobs or have other commitments.

“I want to make sure that this is not a case of the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said.

Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who represent less-affluent areas of the city that include nine of the 20 schools slated to be closed, agreed.

“If there’s going to be consideration for Garrison staying open, there has to be consideration for our Ward 7 schools to stay open,” Alexander said to applause from members of the public in the hearing room.

Update 3:15 p.m.: D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson opened her remarks by acknowledging the fear of what has come to be called the “downward spiral” — the idea that school closures will drive enrollment losses in DCPS, leading to further closures.

Henderson said she believes the school system can increase enrollment if it carries out the closures intelligently, reinvesting money saved into strengthening academic programs that attract parents. Without the closures, she said, all schools will suffer as costs rise and the system is forced to to make cuts.

“If we do nothing, we can guarantee that downward spiral,” she said.

D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large) pressed Henderson to offer more specifics about how much money will be saved and how those savings will be spent.

Henderson declined to offer a total dollar figure but said the savings would generally be enough to provide a librarian and five additional teachers at each DCPS school.

Original post: D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson will be the first to testify about her school-closure plan during today’s D.C. Council hearing, the second public forum on her proposal to shutter 20 city schools.

Henderson faces twin challenges as she tries to sell her plan, as I described in this article: persuading skeptical parents and politicians that a smaller school system will be stronger, and that she will avoid mistakes her predecessor made during the most recent round of closures.

She will answer questions posed by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) at the end of last Thursday’s marathon hearing. Among the questions:

Henderson says DCPS must close under-enrolled schools to operate efficiently. But many charter schools successfully operate small schools. Why can’t DCPS also operate small schools?

How will DCPS avoid enrollment losses that followed the 2008 closures?

Some parents have called on DCPS to cut its central office staff before shuttering schools. How does Henderson respond?

Many activists and council members have called for a comprehensive plan for public education in the city — particularly for how DCPS and charter schools should work together. What is Henderson’s response?

I’ll be updating regularly as the hearing proceeds.

Live video of the hearing:

This post has been updated since it was first published.

By  |  05:44 PM ET, 11/19/2012

Tags:  dc public schools

 
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