At Hearing, Supporters Push to Keep SE School Open

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

About a dozen parents and community activists demanded last night that the D.C. Board of Education reject a proposal by Superintendent Clifford B. Janey to close Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center in Southeast Washington.

At the first public hearing on Janey's proposal to close six schools in the face of declining enrollment, the speakers from Fletcher-Johnson's Marshall Heights neighborhood urged board members to keep it open. They said the facility is superior to the buildings where the students would be relocated, and they expressed apprehension about the longer distance that students would have to walk.

The "vacant, boarded-up buildings that the students would have to pass are a great concern," said Mary Spencer, a community activist. The school is in the 4600 block of Benning Road SE.

Fletcher-Johnson, a 302,000-square-foot building that covers pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has long been criticized as inefficient by education experts. It was built to house 814 students but enrolls 435, and an open-space design makes the building costly to heat and cool. The open floor plan has been blamed for excessive noise and distractions.

Under Janey's proposal, Fletcher-Johnson students would attend Nalle Elementary School in Southeast or Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast.

Tracy Wright, principal of Nalle, said her school offers an array of academic and after-school programs for children and several community programs for adults, including GED preparation, job training and mental health services.

"We're not just here for the children; we're here for the parents, too," she said. "The children only stand to gain from this right-sizing."

But some supporters of Fletcher-Johnson said the tan warehouselike building on a hill should be spared because the system spent millions of dollars over the past year to upgrade the air conditioning and gymnasium. The campus also has tennis courts and two baseball diamonds.

"Let them come here. We have enough space to accommodate everybody," said Idella Tate, whose three children graduated from the school.

School employees acknowledged that the building is wasteful. About 40 percent of it is being used, Demetrius Reed, the building foreman, said in an interview.

Janey's proposal to close the six schools is aimed at eliminating 1 million square feet of underused space in a system that has lost 10,000 students in five years. The others are: Merritt Educational Center in Northeast, Shadd Elementary in Southeast, M.C. Terrell Elementary in Southeast, Van Ness Elementary in Southeast and Walker-Jones Elementary in Northwest.

William Wilson, president of the Ward 7 educational council, said the school board was rushing to close schools without enough study. The board decided in March to eliminate 1 million square feet, and Janey released recommendations last month.

"The board gave Dr. Janey two months" to come up with the plan, Wilson said. "Don't you think that's too short a time?"

Janey also wants to consolidate two schools and lease out excess space in nine buildings.

The school board, which over the next two weeks will hold hearings on the other five schools recommended for closure, is scheduled to vote on the proposal June 28.

Christine Armstrong, who has two grandchildren at Fletcher-Johnson, asked what would happen to the building.

Thomas M. Brady, the system's chief business operations officer, said the administration has not yet recommended whether the building should be leased to charter schools or redeveloped through a public-private partnership.

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