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.