The Washington Post

DCPS closure proposal expected Tuesday

This post has been updated.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s long-awaited list of proposed school closures is expected to be made public Tuesday in an announcement that is sure to trigger intense debate in coming weeks.

Members of the D.C. Council have been briefed on the plan, as my colleague Mike DeBonis previously reported. Most have declined to share details but Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told dozens of residents at a public event Monday evening that he expects DCPS to propose closing 19 buildings. A DCPS spokeswoman declined to comment until after the list is released.

The anticipated announcement has already drawn opposition from community organizers and neighborhood activists who argue that the city needs to better articulate a vision for the public education system before closing any schools. Shuttering buildings could drive students out of the school system, they say, accelerating enrollment losses and leading to further closures in the years ahead.

Henderson has been saying for months that DCPS is operating too many underenrolled buildings and must downsize in order to run efficiently and provide a full range of academic programs at each school.

The school system enrolls about 45,000 students in 117 buildings; Fairfax County, meanwhile, has about four times as many students in 196 schools.

One key question is what will happen to the buildings that the school system vacates. Under city law, public charter schools — which are funded by tax dollars but operated independently — have first right to any surplus buildings.

Another question is how the proposed closures will be distributed around the city. A study commissioned earlier this year by Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright recommended dozens of low-performing schools for closure, many of them in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8.

Those wards were among the most affected in 2008, when then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee moved quickly to close 23 schools, igniting angry protests and long-lasting political backlash.

The closures directly affected about 5,000 students who were reassigned to other schools, according to a study of those closures by the 21st Century Schools Fund, the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

Students from closed schools were twice as likely to enroll in fast-growing public charter schools as students from other DCPS schools, the study found, leading to a loss of enrollment that cost the school system about $5 million in 2009. And a recent city audit found that the 2008 closures cost far more than previously thought.

Henderson has said she learned lessons from the Rhee-era closures and has promised to do more to seek public input this time. She’s banking on the idea that communities will be more willing to accept closures if they’ve had the chance to hear and respond to her proposals.

But there is limited time to take public comment. Henderson has said that she hopes to make final closure decisions by January, and some parents and activists wonder how sincerely officials will listen to their input.

The D.C. Council has scheduled two public hearings on the proposed closures for Nov. 15 and 19. No details have been released about DCPS community meetings on the closures, which are widely expected.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.


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