Five takeaways from the DCPS school closings

November 13, 2012

Eight elementary schools are among the 20 slated for closure. (Katherine Frey — The Washington Post)

Twenty schools in 19 buildings would close over the next two years under a plan publicly floated Tuesday by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Most are severely underenrolled schools in wards 5, 7 and 8 — the latest signal of a public education system in flux, as in-boundary parents continue to be lured away by out-of-boundary schools, charter schools, and private school vouchers. A closer look at the proposed closure plan tells a story about how the system is changing and how DCPS is managing it, and what to expect as the process plays out.

1. High-profile schools would close, but their buildings could quickly reopen as DCPS facilities. Two of the bigger names on the list are Spingarn High School in Ward 5 and the Francis-Stevens Education Center in Ward 2. Spingarn is the alma mater of hoops legends Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing and stands to become the first DCPS high school closed in a generation, while Francis-Stevens is currently undergoing a $24 million renovation. Henderson is proposing specific reuses for both buildings: Spingarn, currently set for a $65 million modernization to be completed in 2017, would then become a high school focused on career and technical education, she said, with a particular focus on transportation. (Remember that DDOT is proposing to locate a streetcar barn next door.) Francis-Stevens, meanwhile, would become a satellite campus for the School Without Walls, the Foggy Bottom high school that has been bursting at the seams even after a meticulous 2010 renovation. Expect to see neighbors and elected officials push for guarantees here, particularly on Spingarn.

2. Despite parent concerns, number of middle schools could dwindle. In many parts of the city, parent activism has turned to improving middle school options — particularly in wards 3 and 5. But Henderson looks to have decided that in other parts of the city, there are better options for the middle school population than leaving underenrolled schools open. Middle-schoolers at Francis-Stevens, for instance, would be sent to Hardy Middle School in Georgetown. MacFarland Middle School in Ward 4 would be closed, and its students combined in the same building with Roosevelt High School next door, which is set for a $127 million modernization to be completed in 2015. Two small middle schools east of the Anacostia River — Johnson and Ron Brown  — would have their students sent to more modern facilities nearby (Hart and Kramer, and Kelly Miller, respectively). Perhaps most surprising are plans to close Shaw at Garnet-Patterson, which serves wards 1 and 2. Shaw’s Rhode Island Avenue campus has been set for a $54.8 million modernization to be completed in 2018; Henderson said Tuesday those plans would proceed once a “critical mass” of in-boundary students materialize. In the meantime, its students will attend Cardozo High, now under renovation. Expect to hear concerns about combining middle- and high-school students in the same building, though Henderson says it’s been working in Columbia Heights, with Bell Multicultural High and Lincoln Middle.

3. The spin is about educational, not financial, economies of scale. Henderson’s pitch to reporters Tuesday steered clear of discussions about money. For instance, she did not discuss specifics about potential staff reductions, savings or costs. Rather, she focused on individual school resources, that schools that are underenrolled do not offer students the best education possible. They spend more per pupil on administrators, custodial and clerical staff. That means they cannot afford to hire full-time librarians or art teachers or music teachers. She offered rough thresholds beyond which the economies of scale begin to make sense: 350 students for a elementary school, 450 students for a middle school and 600 students for a high school. The schools being closed fall well under those targets. Expect to see Henderson pressed for more specifics at upcoming D.C. Council hearings, even if the politics demand that this be solely “about the kids.” 

4. It’s not (completely) about real estate. In the 2008 round of closings, the opposition found much grist to mill in the uncertain disposition of the closed campuses. It was prelude, they said, to mass giveaways to developers, the privatization of public assets. While that mostly turned out to be overstated (only the old Stevens School is only the Stevens and Hine schools being privately developed of the 23 closed), what’s notable about the latest round is that Henderson proposes keeping the bulk of the schools as educational facilities. Three of the schools slated for closure — Sharpe Health in Ward 4, Hamilton in Ward 5, and Malcolm X in Ward 8 — have been eyed for “strategic partnerships” with high-performing charter schools. Uses for five schools are deemed “to be determined,” while Henderson is looking to keep 11 of the 19 buildings in the DCPS inventory. Some, like Spingarn and Francis-Stevens, have specific uses in mind, but others, like Davis or Ferebee-Hope Elementarys, are simply to be kept in case demand increases. One wild card is Garnet-Patterson, which is being eyed for an alternative secondary school, but also appears on the “to be determined” list. Located in the booming U Street Corridor, it would be a fat target for developers. That also goes for Garrison Elementary, a few blocks to the southwest, though Henderson is floating a neighborhood arts center for that space. Expect to see Henderson to be pressed on how she can justify holding on to empty school buildings indefinitely.

5. No relief for the western wards. There was some scuttlebutt that the Duke Ellington School for the Arts might be involved in the school closings shuffle, moving from its Reservoir Road campus in Ward 2 to make way for the re-establishment of Western High School. But Ellington is not in play, not today, so pressure will continue to mount on Wilson High. Meanwhile, with the proposed closing of Francis-Stevens, Shaw @ Garnet-Patterson and MacFarland, fewer middle school options means more pressure on Hardy Middle School, focus of recent years of serious tension between in-boundary parents and out-of-boundary parents who appreciated its arts program. Expect this discussion to be rekindled early next year, as Henderson starts adjusting school boundaries and feeder patterns to reflect stronger demands on neighborhood schools in Ward 3.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · November 13, 2012