Henderson outlines plan to retain D.C. students after closing 15 schools

Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST - Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools Kaya Henderson

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Ever since D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced plans to close 15 city schools, activists and politicians have peppered her with different versions of the same question: How will she persuade students from closed schools to stay within DCPS instead of fleeing to charters?

Now Henderson has outlined part of her answer: A “Transition Marketing and Recruitment Plan” intended to ensure that at least 80 percent of students from closed schools re-enroll in DCPS receiving schools.

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The chancellor submitted the four-page plan to the D.C. Council’s education committee in advance of a Friday hearing in which student retention is sure to come up.

“We are mounting an aggressive recruitment strategy at each receiving school in coordination with the closing school leaders to retain and attract students and families,” Henderson wrote in a letter to Council Member David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee.

The school system is in the midst of finding a graphics and communications firm to help mastermind the marketing, Henderson wrote, but has already begun work on the effort.

Every communication from the closing school to families should have “an encouraging message to re-enroll in DCPS,” for example, and principals from receiving schools are being asked to attend meetings and events at those closing schools so parents can get to know them.

Schools’ staff and PTA members will be trained on how to market themselves through messaging, marketing kits and old-fashioned neighborhood canvassing.

Young people will also be pressed into service on behalf of their schools: At each receiving school, a group of kids will create a “2-3 minute, imaginative and energetic video welcoming students and parents from neighboring schools.”

Finally, schools that hit enrollment targets — and teachers who persuade students to re-enroll in a closing school — will win rewards. The school system is in the midst of meeting with potential donors to support those rewards.

The chancellor has also promised that the school closures will allow her to strengthen programs within schools, but further details won’t be available until budget season. Many parents say that substantive and positive changes within schools will be more powerful than any marketing effort.

Activists at Garrison Elementary, for example — where the PTA has launched a full-bore effort to boost enrollment after barely escaping closure — say that the school needs a renovation and foreign-language immersion programs to attract and retain local parents.

“While every other DCPS [school] is hemorrhaging children to charters, dual-language DCPS [schools] are almost impervious to retention issues,” said Garrison parent Vanessa Bertelli during a recent council hearing, pointing out that schools that offer foreign languages tend to have long waiting lists. “So why is DCPS not jumping at the opportunity to caputre these students by filling the gap between demand and offerings?”

A number of other questions about the post-closure transition need to be worked out in the coming months. The chancellor has outlined which of her senior staff members would be responsible for each of those issues. She also has released an FAQ for staff at closing schools, who are not guaranteed a job next.

The school system is aiming to enroll 46,836 students next year, an increase of nearly 3 percent over current enrollment. This year the school system grew by less than 1 percent to 45,557 students.

 
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