D.C. parents develop alternatives to chancellor’s school-closure plan


D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson speaks before the D.C. Council and the public about her reasons for proposing to close 20 schools at the Wilson Building Thursday, November 15, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
January 1, 2013

When D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson outlined a plan this fall to close 20 city schools, she did not call it a plan. Instead she said it was a proposal, a pliable draft meant to be refined with input from parents, teachers and community members.

But Henderson was clear: Heartfelt pleas and save-my-school rallies would not be enough. She was going to need concrete alternative proposals that would attract more families to the schools and help fill half-empty buildings.

“Don’t come to me with 500 people saying, ‘Don’t close my school,’ ” she said at a community meeting at Brightwood Elementary in early December. “Come to me with 500 enrollment forms.”

Parents and activists at several schools have tried to respond to that call in recent weeks, studying neighborhood census data and surveying current and prospective D.C. public school families to find out what they want in a school.

They’ve developed student recruitment plans, five-year enrollment projections and building-renovation timelines. They’ve put together PowerPoint presentations and talking points. And they’ve held their fair share of rallies.

Now there’s not much more to do but wait to find out whether their schools will be spared.

“We laid it on the table, and there’s not that much else we can do,” said Ann McLeod, Garrison Elementary’s PTA president, who called the campaign to save the school “a second full-time job.”

Garrison’s PTA used an online survey of parents to develop its alternative proposal, a 46-slide PowerPoint presentation accompanied by a four-page plan outlining investments they’d like to see from the school system and commitments they will make in return.

The school, located in Logan Circle, enrolls 228 students in a facility built for more than 350. Parents say they can boost enrollment to 344 by 2016, and they are committed to hosting open houses and one-on-one meetings to woo prospective parents.

The parents also say they’ll sign a contract holding them to that commitment and to others: fundraising to help pay for teacher training, sponsoring after-school activities and launching an anti-truancy effort to help students get to school on time.

But they want the school system to make some investments, too: modernize the building immediately, start a foreign-language immersion program and add another classroom for preschool children.

“If you don’t invest in Garrison now, you, DCPS, will miss out on this whole wave of baby-booming children that are settling in this area,” said Garrison parent Vanessa Bertelli, who added that parents’ efforts in recent weeks demonstrate an energy and commitment that will lift the school, if it’s allowed to stay open.

Less than two miles away at Francis-Stevens Education Campus in Foggy Bottom, parents have promised to develop a brochure to market the school and to set up booths at local grocery stores to recruit new students.

The school, which has classes through eighth grade, enrolls 225 children in a facility built for 410. It’s slated to close and become an expansion site for the selective and over-subscribed School Without Walls. Instead, the PTA suggests co-locating the two, allowing Walls to move into part of the building while Francis-Stevens continues to operate.

Co-locating would allow the schools to share teachers and could allow older Francis-
Stevens students to take high school classes, which could be a magnet for parents seeking advanced academic offerings for their children, said Erin Martin, co-president of the school’s PTA.

“If you have a really strong institution, people are going to want to come and they’re going to want to stay,” Martin said.

East of the Anacostia River in Ward 7, Kenilworth Elementary is slated for closure. But the school is in the middle of a neighborhood that just won a five-year, $25 million federal grant meant to help poor communities build networks of support, including early-childhood education, after-school tutoring and crime prevention.

Leaders of the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative, the organization that won the grant, have asked the chancellor to help Kenilworth Elementary become a community hub with office space for community groups, a K-8 school and a recreation center. The grant money may bolster their argument for keeping the school open.

Activists in Ward 4 have proposed that the school system renovate MacFarland Middle and keep it open instead of consolidating it into Roosevelt High. The ward’s fast-growing K-8 schools could become elementary schools, sending their older students to MacFarland to boost its enrollment.

That would avoid creating a sixth-through-12th-grade school that some MacFarland parents find unappealing.

“The weed smoking, the hanging out that they do” at the high school, said mother Maxine Harrison, “I just can’t see sending a sixth-grader into that kind of environment.”

Across the city, many other parents and activists have submitted proposals that have been posted online. It’s not clear how Henderson will weigh those ideas, particularly given that many ask the school system to invest more money for building modernizations, new academic programs or both.

The chancellor said in November that 20 schools must close in order for the school system to operate efficiently, but she has declined to say how much she anticipates saving through the closures.

Henderson wrote in an e-mail that she appreciates the “productive and informative” meetings she’s had with parents. But she offered no clues about how she intends to modify her own proposal before releasing a final closure list in mid-January.

Despite her call for input from the community, she has signaled her discomfort with listening only to those who fight the hardest and make the most noise.

Many mothers and fathers care deeply about their schools but don’t have time to demonstrate publicly or work up enrollment spreadsheets because they work multiple jobs or have other commitments, she said during a November D.C. Council hearing on the school closures.

“I want to make sure that this is not a case of the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Henderson said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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