Wells to Ward 5: Don’t ‘demagogue by demographics’

Tensions surrounding the D.C. middle school debate were in full view at Wednesday’s D.C. Council roundtable. At the center were Ward 5 residents, frustrated that their community has been without a standalone public middle school since Backus and Browne were folded by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as part of the citywide closures in 2008.

Compounding that unhappiness is that Ward 6 — the gentrified locus of a parent-driven elementary school revival — successfully negotiated a plan with Rhee to strengthen programs at the ward’s existing three middle schools (Stuart-Hobson, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson).

Maria Jones, an African American Ward 5 parent, told the council that her community was stampeded by Rhee into accepting the closures — and the creation of several consolidated Pre-K-8 campuses that don’t adequately meet the needs of middle school students — while Ward 6 was accommodated.

Jones said it was not a matter of middle- and working-class parents in Ward 5 failing to speak out, “contrary to what Jonetta Rose Barras wrote in her City Paper article.” Barras wrote last month that school reform in Wards 5, 7 and 8 has not taken hold in part because the black middle class abandoned neighborhood schools to send children outside the ward.

“The wealthy and well-organized Ward 6 parents casually networked over bubbly wine and cheese and presented a school plan to Chancellor Rhee that she lauded and immediately implemented,” said Jones, parent of a former John Burroughs Education Campus student. “Hats off to Ward 6 parents for using your money, power and influence to create an ideal school community.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D- Ward 6) cautioned Jones about reducing the complicated Ward 6 process to stereotypes.

“I don’t think it’s helpful when we demagogue by demographics each other’s wards,” said Wells, pointing to his community’s large segment of public housing and homeless families.

“What I don’t want to do in any way is diminish the contribution of the lower-income families that have helped everyone else turn the [elementary] schools around,” he said.

Wells added that Ward 5 deserves exactly what Ward 6 has, but said that the community didn’t lose much in Backus and Browne, calling them “failed schools.”

“They were not educating our children ... and something radical was done,” he said. “So I don’t think having a middle school is necessarily a silver bullet, because the middle schools we had in Ward 5 failed the students that attended them, I believe.”

Jones was not cowed by Wells’s lecture.

“The bottom line is we need to have options in Ward 5, and we want a standalone middle school. ... You have three.”

Wells ultimately agreed that middle school kids on the Pre-K-8 campuses are underserved because their numbers are not large enough to generate adequate per-pupil funding. But he added: “You need a middle school that actually works and educates children well. You don’t need a bad middle school.”

Outside the council chambers later, Jones scoffed at the idea that she’d demagogued the issue. She said it was highly unlikely that much of the more than $2 million Ward 6 families raised to upgrade elementary school libraries came from the pockets of the homeless or public housing residents.

“He’s ignoring the fact that the wealthy people in Ward 6 made that happen,” Jones said. “I’m not trying to demagogue. I’m just pointing out the history.”

This post has been updated since it was first published.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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