The move is another benchmark in the fundamental remaking of public education in the District, where the school system has lost more than 100,000 students since its peak enrollment in the 1960s.
City leaders have been faced with underenrollment for years, but the situation has become more pronounced with the rapid growth of charter schools since the mid-1990s. Funded with taxpayer dollars but operated independently of the school system, charters now enroll more than 40 percent of the city’s students, putting Washington at the leading edge of a national movement toward charters.
“We can’t ignore the fact that we as a city have embraced school choice,” Henderson told D.C. Council members during a briefing Thursday. “If we proliferate charter schools, we have to know that is going to have an impact.”
Five years ago, then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee accelerated the downsizing of the D.C. school system when she moved quickly to close 23 schools, igniting angry protest and long-lasting political backlash while spurring an exodus of students to the city’s charters.
Henderson’s proposed closures also triggered opposition, but she is widely seen to have handled community relations more deftly than her predecessor, sponsoring a series of public meetings throughout the city and inviting parents and activists to help refine the closure plan.
That feedback persuaded the chancellor to remove five schools from her original closure list, including Garrison Elementary and Francis-Stevens Education Campus, two Northwest Washington schools in relatively affluent neighborhoods. Parents at both schools mounted vigorous campaigns against closure.
Henderson cited parents’ willingness to help recruit new students and demographic data showing that Northwest neighborhoods, particularly around Garrison, are growing faster than officials previously understood. Francis-Stevens will fill its extra space by serving as a second campus for the School Without Walls, a selective high school nearby.
Faced with criticism that she hadn’t given equal consideration to parental concerns and ideas emerging from less-privileged parts of the city, Henderson said that many of the proposals she received included requests for extra investments of millions of dollars.
“Lots of folks came up with plans. Some we were able to move with, others we were not able to,” Henderson said. “Leadership is about making hard decisions.”
Smothers Elementary in Northeast also will stay open, as will Malcolm X Elementary in Southeast, which will be operated in partnership with a “high-performing charter school” that Henderson declined to identify. Southeast’s Johnson Middle School will stay open because school officials say they think that moving the students to other schools filled with teenagers from rival neighborhoods could cause safety concerns.
All 15 schools marked for closure are east of Rock Creek Park, many of them east of the Anacostia River in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and all had below-average test scores. They include the first high school to close in recent memory — Spingarn Senior High in Northeast — and Kenilworth Elementary, in the middle of a neighborhood that last month won a $25 million grant to strengthen local education and other services.
Thirteen of the schools will close at the end of this academic year, with the remaining two — Sharpe Health and Mamie D. Lee, schools for students with disabilities — to close in 2014.
On Thursday, Henderson for the first time offered an estimate of money to be saved through the closures: $19.5 million in staffing costs. Approximately $11 million will be needed for transition costs, Henderson said, resulting in a net savings of $8.5 million.
The last round of closures, in 2008, cost millions more than initially reported, according to an audit released in August. Henderson said the school system is more confident in its savings estimates now.
The savings will be plowed back into schools to improve programming, including into libraries and arts and foreign language offerings, Henderson said, adding that the public will get a detailed view when school-by-school budgets are released in the coming months.
About 140 staff positions will be lost, but given normal attrition through resignations and retirements, Henderson said, “we actually feel like the loss will be minimal.” She said she does not expect any teacher evaluated “effective” to be out of a job.
The chancellor said she does not anticipate releasing any buildings from the D.C. Public Schools inventory. She said she needs to keep control of the facilities so they can be reopened as enrollment rebounds.
That news was maddening for charter school advocates, who often struggle to find suitable and affordable D.C. real estate. City law requires that surplus public school buildings be made available to charter schools.
“The mayor is making a mistake,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. “What we have here, it’s about defending DCPS from the popularity of the charter schools, and it has nothing to do with getting more kids into quality schools. Nothing.”
Henderson said her staff has plans for reusing some buildings, such as Spingarn, which will become a vocational education campus focused on transportation careers. But officials are still working on plans for many of the buildings.
The prospect of closures triggered intense debate in recent months about the future of the city school system, including at community meetings and two D.C. Council hearings that together lasted more than 14 hours.
Some parents, activists and politicians worry that shutting the schools will drive families into the city’s charter schools, which could lead to declining enrollment and further closures in the traditional school system. After the 2008 closures, thousands of children left the system for charter schools, according to a study by three think tanks.
The school system now enrolls about 46,000 students in 123 schools.
“We cannot repeat what happened with the last closures,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “DCPS has got to be much more aggressive than it was three years ago in retaining students and recruiting students.”
D.C. Council members will have a chance to quiz Henderson about her school closure plan Wednesday at the first hearing of the newly constituted education committee, which is led by David A. Catania (I-At Large).
Across the city Thursday afternoon, schools that had been slated to close cleaved into two groups: those that were spared, and those were not.
“My kids like this school, and I don’t want to see them start over,” said Raheem Bates, 24, the father of two Kenilworth students.
A few miles away, Shannon Smith prepared for a protest at the chancellor’s home. Her two grandchildren attend Ferebee-Hope Elementary, which will close over the objections of parents and staff. “I don’t know why they would want to close this school,” said Smith, who called the move “ridiculous.”
But across town at Garrison, relieved parents hugged each other and high-fived their kids. Kierra McPherson, 23 wiped away tears as she picked up her preschool son. McPherson graduated from Garrison, as did her mother and cousin.
“It’s a tradition,” McPherson said. “This is my school. We got our school back.”
James Arkin and Alex Kane Rudansky contributed to this report.