Henderson aims to avoid mistakes of prior D.C. school closings

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - 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. The public hearing at the Wilson Building on Thursday, November 15, 2012 in Washington, D.C. was the first of several hearings. The second is Monday, November 19, 2012.

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D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson faces twin challenges as she prepares for the second public hearing Monday on her plan to close 20 of the city’s schools: Persuading skeptical parents and politicians that a smaller school system will be stronger, and that she will avoid mistakes her predecessor made during the most recent round of closures.

Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s closure of 23 schools in 2008 cost millions of dollars more than anticipated, according to the city auditor. And the decisions might have led to the exodus of thousands of students from the school system, according to three think tanks that studied the closures.

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Closing and merging schools in the District
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Closing and merging schools in the District

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The closings also left school buildings vacant without a clear plan for how they would be reused, and the school system failed to prevent violence when teenagers from different schools were consolidated into one building where neighborhood rivalries festered, city officials have acknowledged.

“The 2008 closure was atrocious,” said D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), one of many to criticize the action during the first public hearing on Henderson’s plan last week. “It was handled poorly from the very beginning.”

Henderson, who was Rhee’s deputy during those closures, has promised to learn from past missteps, and so far she has succeeded, rolling out her closure plan with far fewer fireworks than the last time around.

Rhee was forced to announce her closures when news leaked to the media. The abrupt move blindsided school employees and city officials and spurred backlash from thousands of parents angry about the loss of their neighborhood schools and the manner in which the plan was delivered.

“Chancellor Rhee was very confrontational — pretty much autocratic — so it looked like at that time this was being shoved down the throat of parents,” said Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Henderson, by contrast, has spent months laying the public relations groundwork for closures, speaking often about wanting to redirect resources away from underenrolled schools and toward improving academic programs elsewhere.

“Last time it was very ugly and very abrupt,” said Trayon White, Ward 8 representative to the D.C. State Board of Education. Nobody is happy about this round of closures, he said, but there does seem to be “more sensitivity to the community than there was back then.”

Council members and principals heard about this year’s proposed closures from school officials last week before they read it in the newspaper. And the chancellor repeatedly emphasized her desire to hear from and respond to concerns about the closure plan.

The school system has planned four community meetings to discuss the closures and established a Web site where people can submit comments.

“We recognize that there are a lot of creative ideas and solutions that we have not considered,” Henderson said at last week’s council hearing.

But many parents say that Henderson’s plan still appears likely to engender just as much bitterness and difficulty as Rhee’s.

Parents from Johnson Middle School, east of the Anacostia River, fear that the system has no plan to ensure that turf wars don’t break out when their students are dispersed to two rival middle schools.

The combination of two middle schools in 2008 resulted in a spate of violence in corridors and classrooms. “If the kids don’t feel safe, they’re not going to learn to their maximum capacity,” said White, the state school board member.

Parents from Kenilworth Elementary, also east of the Anacostia in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, are upset about plans to send their children to Houston Elementary, which is more than a mile away and across a busy highway.

The middle school those students attend, Ron Brown Middle, also is slated for closure. Neighborhood residents feel as if they’ve been targeted, said Donnita Bennett, president of the parent group at Kenilworth.

“This community has been hit hard,” Bennett said.

Some parents worry that the school closures will drive District families into the city’s fast-growing charter schools, which could lead to declining enrollment and further closures.

Henderson has said that closing schools — and freeing up resources — will allow her to create the strong academic programs parents want. But she says she doesn’t know how much money the closures will save, and she has provided few details about how the funds will be redistributed.

“We’re left in a vacuum with no information on how this is going to impact us,” said Joe Weedon, a parent of two students at Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill, which is expected to remain open.

Weedon said parents who want to keep their children in the school system and are inclined to support the chancellor are losing patience with the lack of information. “What’s her vision?” he said.

Many parents and activists, still smarting from the 2008 closures, remain skeptical that their voices will matter.

“People don’t believe that they are listening,” said Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer and longtime school budget watchdog. “It’s safe to say that there’s very little trust and very little confidence.”

Council member Barry voiced that distrust and doubt last week, when he addressed Henderson at the first public hearing on the closures.

“We’ve heard this before: ‘We’re going to have these meetings, we’re going to have this and have that,’ ” Barry said. “How can you assure this council and this community that you’re going to have genuine, in-depth, creative discussion about these 20 schools?”

Henderson replied: “Don’t listen to what I say. Watch what I do.”

 
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