A standing-room only crowd of parents, teachers and activists gathered Tuesday evening at Savoy Elementary School in Southeast Washington to critique and challenge Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 under-enrolled schools.
Activists who came expecting to rally to save schools at a town-hall style forum were instead asked to offer feedback in small groups, each of which had a facilitator taking notes. (Some of the notes are posted online.)
A representative from each table then reported out to the whole group at the end of the evening.
Empower DC organizer Daniel del Pielago called it a “divide and conquer” strategy meant to dilute public protest. School system spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said the setup was designed to encourage constructive input from all participants.
“The purpose of these meetings is to have active and productive conversations, and this is the best way to get that,” she said.
Three City Council members attended the meeting: David Catania (I-At-Large), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), the only member to speak publicly.
Barry more or less endorsed the chancellor’s closure plan, saying Ferebee-Hope Elementary should stay open, but other schools must be shuttered. Malcolm X Elementary, he said, should be developed as housing, retail or office space.
Echoing statements he made last week during a council hearing on the school closures, Barry offered effusive praise for Henderson.
“A breath of fresh air," he said of the chancellor. (“Whatever,” a skeptic in the audience said loudly.)
Henderson walked around the room listening in on — and sometimes joining — the conversations. Many parents and teachers raised concerns about how DCPS plans to ensure safe and smooth transitions for students moving from one school to another.
Some sought details about how money saved through closures would be reinvested in schools, and others wanted assurance that consolidating schools would not result in larger class sizes.
Parents and teachers from Ferebee-Hope argued that their school, with its swimming pool and host of before- and after-school activities, should be allowed to remain open. Perhaps its extra space — the school is using 54 percent of its capacity — could be used for adult education, suggested Pho Palmer, who was elected in November as an advisory neighborhood commissioner.
Several teachers from Malcolm X Elementary pointed out that the school’s staff was just reconstituted in June. Already there have been improvements, they said, and with more time they’d show more progress.
If the school must be closed, said preschool teacher Jennifer Snodgrass, then perhaps its staff could move with the students to Turner Elementary and operate as a distinct school-within-a-school. That would minimize transitions for students who already lack stability in their lives, she said.
At the very least, “we ask that DCPS not turn our school over to a charter school,” Snodgrass said to applause. “We have plenty of charter schools in Ward 8, and we don’t need any more.”
The community meeting was the first of four scheduled over the next week. The chancellor said she would try to respond to the questions and suggestions that arise out of the meetings.