“We’re standing in front of you and saying, ‘What do you want for your children?’ And we’re listening,” said Marie Woodward-Graves, an earnest, soft-spoken staffer from the DCPS Office of Family and Public Engagement.
The Ward 5 parents and community leaders who gathered at Luke C. Moore High School Thursday evening didn’t necessarily feel that Graves or anyone else was truly listening. DCPS officials had come to unveil some initial options for overhauling their schools, and got a reception that ranged from underwhelming to hostile.
Chancellor Kaya Henderson did not attend, but she sent an airport shuttle’s worth brass to signal the importance she attaches to what’s been dubbed the “Ward 5 Great Schools Initiative.” The meeting also drew Council member Harry Thomas, Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D).
Its formation is a response to unhappiness over the 2008 closures and consolidations that left Ward 5 without a traditional, freestanding middle school. It has instead six PS-8 “campuses” that combine elementary and middle school kids under one roof.
While some parents like the continuity that comes with not having to move for middle school, many of the campuses are underenrolled at the middle grades, making it difficult to generate per-pupil funding for the requisite academic and extracurricular programs. Parents and local leaders say many of the PS-8s were never properly renovated for older kids, and lack basics such as decent labs and libraries.
Sentiment runs high for a big middle school along the lines of Alice Deal in Ward 3, with an IB program that would draw between 600 to 800 students. Ward 5 leaders said they are convinced that many residents who now take their kids to schools in other parts of the city would come back for a top-drawer middle school.
Officials included the big middle school scenario as one option, but there was pushback when they mentioned two other possibilities. One was to collapse the ward’s six existing PS-8s into two or three big ones; the other would keep one PS-8 and expand McKinley Technology HS into a 6 -12 model, the same as Columbia Heights Education Campus.
Some at the meeting said they felt that DCPS was going over ground already covered at a town hall last year, and wondered whether they were being steered, for some reason, away from a big middle school. There was also grumbling when Interim Family and Public Engagement Chief Kelly Young explained that it would be a two-year process to decide on the grade configurations, identify which schools to close, renovate the sites of the new school or schools and hire principals and teachers.
DCPS also lost ground when it came to the meeting with nothing in mind for improving the current condition of the PS-8s. A report in The Northwest Current that the newly renovated Deal is already planning an expansion into the historic Reno School building on its site by 2013 only added to the discontent.
“We’ve moved, we’ve merged, and it’s not working. There are things that we need to fix now as well as in the future,” said Aurelia Williams, head of the PTA at Brookland Education Campus@Bunker Hill, one of the PS-8s.
Young said that there was no attempt to steer, and that they would reconvene in November meeting with ideas on how to make the PS-8s more habitable. But she said it was important to bring all the options--not just the middle school-- to the wider Ward 5 community.
“There are many options to get the same quality of education,” Young said.