Twenty D.C. schools targeted for closure


D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is interviewed at her office in this file photo. (MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 13, 2012

One in six traditional D.C. public schools is targeted for closure under a plan put forth Tuesday by Chancellor Kaya Henderson, the latest sign of a system facing budget pressures and increased competition from fast-growing charter schools.

The chancellor said her plan would shift resources from maintaining under-enrolled schools to focus on improving academic programs.

The 20 schools marked for closure are spread across six city wards but are concentrated in Northeast Washington and east of the Anacostia River. They include the first neighborhood high school in recent memory that would close — Spingarn in Northeast — and two middle schools that would be absorbed into high schools, creating a pair of sixth-through-12th-grade secondary campuses.

Altogether, the targeted schools enroll about 3,000 students who would be sent to other buildings with available space.

Henderson said she plans to keep most of the vacated buildings under DCPS control, finding community uses until enrollment rebounds to reopen them. She said some of the buildings could be rented to charter schools, accelerating the growth of the publicly funded but independently run schools. They now enroll more than 40 percent of D.C. students, up from about 31 percent five years ago.

Henderson said she believes in “a strong and growing system of traditional neighborhood public schools” but acknowledged that in some neighborhoods, the majority of parents have opted for charter schools.

“There are neighborhoods where we have not been successful after multiple tries and many years,” she said, “and there is a high-performing charter that has cracked the nut.”

Four years ago, then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee closed 23 schools, igniting angry protest and long-lasting political backlash. Henderson hopes to avoid a similar reaction. She has banked on the idea that communities will be more willing to accept closures if they’ve had a chance to hear and respond to her plans.

But on Tuesday, she did not seem willing to significantly reduce the number of schools to be closed. To meet the system’s ambitious goals for lifting student achievement, “we cannot continue to invest in the same things that we have been investing in,” she said. “We need to make more radical progress, and that means concentrating our resources on things that we know affect teaching and learning.”

As deputy to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Henderson can carry out the plan without the approval of the D.C. Council.

She said she is eager for community input about how to use vacated buildings, emphasizing that too many school buildings were left empty for years after the 2008 closings.

“Communities feel like a school closing means divesting from a community, and we don’t want that to happen,” she said. “My commitment is to find a new use for each of the buildings that are no longer occupied by our schools.”

As news of the closures began to spread Tuesday, some parents were shocked, angry and already promising a fight.

“It’s like a kick in the teeth,” said Ann McLeod, president of the PTA at Garrison Elementary in Northwest, which is slated to be closed under Henderson’s plan and turned into a community arts center. Its students would be sent to nearby Seaton Elementary.

McLeod said Garrison has been gathering momentum in recent years, drawing attention and buzz from the neighborhood’s growing number of young families. “I just don’t see that closing Garrison and moving us to Seaton is going to get any more students enrolled into DCPS,” McLeod said. “In fact, it might get fewer.”

Her concerns echo those of activists who have been rallying in opposition to the proposed closures in recent weeks. They argue that shuttering buildings could drive students out of the traditional public school system, accelerate enrollment losses and lead to further closures in the years ahead.

Students from schools closed during the Rhee era were twice as likely to enroll in public charter schools as students from other DCPS schools, leading to a loss of enrollment that cost the school system about $5 million in 2009, according to a study by three think tanks.

“We’ve suffered a lot of school closures, and it’s not so much that we’re not willing to accept any school closures ever, but we want to start making smart decisions,” said Eboni-Rose Thompson, chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, which has called for a moratorium on closures.

A controversial study commissioned by the city this year recommended closing dozens of schools with low performance on standardized tests, but Henderson said academic achievement was not part of her closure calculus. Instead, schools were identified for possible closure based on low enrollment, the condition of the facility and the availability of space for displaced students in nearby buildings.

Henderson could not say how much money would be saved and redirected because of the closures. She also said the school system has no estimate for the number of employee layoffs expected due to the closures.

The chancellor said in an interview last week, however, that she will push D.C. Council members in early 2013 to grant her authority to approve charter schools, which could then operate in vacant DCPS-owned buildings.

“We don’t have to compete. We can absolutely collaborate,” she said.

Eighteen of the 20 schools would close at the end of this school year. The others — Sharpe Health and Mamie D. Lee, which serve students with disabilities — would move into the former River Terrace Elementary in 2014 after that building is renovated.

Two high schools, Cardozo and Roosevelt, would be converted into secondary schools serving students in grades six through 12. Their feeder middle schools, Shaw at Garnet-Patterson, which serves about 150 students in the U Street corridor, and MacFarland Middle School in Petworth, which is operating at about one-third capacity, would close.

Cathy Reilly, director of the advocacy group SHAPPE (the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators), said it is far from clear that parents want their sixth-graders going to school with much older teenagers.

“I understand that it’s a really a difficult problem to have severely under-enrolled schools, but I really question whether the six-to-12s are the best solution,” Reilly said. “The community will really have to weigh in.”

Students at Spingarn High would be dispersed to Eastern, Dunbar and Woodson. Henderson wants to renovate Spingarn and turn it into a career and technical education center.

A fourth high school, the selective and high-performing School Without Walls, would expand by several hundred students. Francis-Stevens Education Campus, which has pre-K through eighth grade in Foggy Bottom, would close and be converted into additional space for that school.

The city’s education leaders have been pushing for closures since before Rhee’s arrival, arguing that the school system, which has lost about 100,000 students since its peak enrollment in the 1960s, needs to downsize to run efficiently.

DCPS now enrolls about 45,000 students in 117 buildings; Fairfax County, meanwhile, has about four times as many students in 196 schools.

Henderson said Tuesday that the closures would leave the school system with 101 school buildings with an average enrollment of 432 students, up from 376.

The school system has planned four community meetings for late November and early December to hear community feedback, including on how vacant buildings should be used. In addition, the D.C. Council will hold public hearings on the plan Thursday and Monday.

Henderson said she will listen to public input before making final recommendations to Gray in mid-January.

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