Among D.C. Parents, Anxiety Over School Closings

Imani Diggs, 7, left, and Safaa Elemataoui, 8, take advantage of playtime at Ross Elementary School. With low enrollment, the school may be cut under the superintendent's
Imani Diggs, 7, left, and Safaa Elemataoui, 8, take advantage of playtime at Ross Elementary School. With low enrollment, the school may be cut under the superintendent's "master education plan." Ross is among about 30 D.C. public schools that could be eliminated under the plan. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

As D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey moves swiftly toward recommending the closure or consolidation of an estimated 30 schools, many parents across the city are worried that he will heavily target buildings with the smallest enrollment.

The school board, faced with a decrease of 10,000 students over the past five years, decided last month to eliminate 3 million square feet of space -- the equivalent of about 30 schools -- by August 2008.

Last week, the board accelerated the pace of the downsizing, voting to shed the first million square feet of space by Aug. 28 of this year. Board members said that by leasing the space, they hoped to generate money quickly for the many schools that are threatening to cut staff and programs to cover projected shortfalls in their fiscal 2007 budget.

Janey plans to announce next month which schools he wants to close or consolidate this year, and announce in May the schools he would close by 2008. School officials said he will provide the board this week with his criteria for selecting the schools.

The guideline he has emphasized -- in a "master education plan" he issued last month and in subsequent comments -- is enrollment. His master plan specified the minimum enrollment a school must have to be considered educationally viable: 320 students for an elementary school, 360 for a middle school and 600 for a high school.

About 70 schools, nearly half the system's inventory of 147 buildings, fall below that standard, according to the 21st Century School Fund, an organization that studies school facility issues.

Parents at schools with enrollments far below the minimums said it would be unfair to target them for that reason alone.

Ross Elementary School in Northwest, for example, enrolls about 140 students. But with a capacity of 175, it is better utilized than some other schools with low enrollment, school experts say. It is also a high-performing school with a strong support system of active community groups and parents.

"It's self-defeating for the school system not to look at [keeping] public school models that are working -- regardless of size," said Maureen Diner, a parent who chairs the Ross school restructuring team.

Diner said the prospect that Ross could make Janey's list of proposed closings has prompted some parents to explore the possibility of turning it into a charter school. "Will the specter of closure spur the charter school application? Definitely," she said.

The last large wave of D.C. school closings, which occurred in 1997 when the system was run by a federally appointed financial control board, prompted charges of favoritism.

School activist Emily Washington, who was a member of the school board then, urged last week that Janey spread the closings throughout the city and not confine them to poor neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8.


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