Ward 5 Questions Why Area Is Hardest Hit

By Theola Labb¿
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

The proposal by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Michelle A. Rhee to shut 23 schools has sparked intense debate and speculation in Ward 5, where seven schools are slated for closure, the most of any ward.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) has convened a town hall meeting at Bertie Backus Middle School tomorrow to talk with residents and parents who are trying to understand why their ward was hit so hard.

"What is the logic of closing all of these schools in the same ward?" said Marlene Hollins last week after picking up her 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son at Bunker Hill Elementary School, which is on the closure list. In 1986, it was cited for excellence by then-Education Secretary William Bennett. But now, Hollins said she has seen the school lose a psychologist and some teacher's aide positions and she complains that her son's pre-K class is overcrowded.

Thomas is not opposed to school closures, and says that Rhee's plans to put resources from operating half-empty schools toward new academic programs has merit. But those plusses are being overshadowed by the shock of potential consolidations, Thomas said.

"We need to have a real frank discussion on closings," Thomas said.

Of the 23 schools facing closure, seven are in Ward 5, not nine out of 24 as earlier information indicated.

Rhee said enrollment trends weighed heavily as she sifted through research collected by the 21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution and Urban Institute, nonprofit groups that worked on the proposal under contract with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Rhee relied on their research for what she described last week as a "data-driven" perspective on school closings.

But she said she also considered the wishes of parents who told her in her first six months on the job that they wanted more innovative academic programs. The proposal calls for a slew of academic initiatives citywide.

In Ward 5, parents and students would see a new Science Technology Engineering and Math program at Emery Elementary that would give students the chance to follow that track into nearby McKinley Technology High School. At Taft, there will be a new fine arts program in conjunction with the Fillmore Arts Center. And the to-be-consolidated Bunker Hill/Brookland would have a new early childhood program.

"One of the top things I wanted to do was proliferate programs that we know are working," Rhee said last week.

With its large detached houses on leafy streets and suburbs-in-the-city feel in neighborhoods such as North Michigan Park, many Ward 5 residents have long felt a strong sense of pride in their section of Northeast. But according to census figures, that pride is felt among an aging population with a diminishing number of school-age children.

In addition to Bunker Hill, the schools on the closure list are: M.M. Washington Career High School and special education center; Bertie Backus Middle; John Burroughs, J.F. Cook and Slowe elementary schools; and either Young Elementary or Brown Middle -- two adjacent schools that will be combined at one location into a pre-K to eighth-grade school.

The total reported student enrollment in those schools is 1,555 students. But the school by school picture is the most telling. For example, Slowe Elementary has seen its enrollment decline by 64 percent in the past five years; this year there were 83 students enrolled in the school as of October in a building with a capacity for 451 students. A charter school, Mary McLeod Bethune, has about 80 students at Slowe this year under a one-year lease with the school system.

And there could be more space-sharing agreements. With the release of the closure proposal, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso and his staff are following up on a survey they circulated this year to charter schools that solicited preferences for D.C. school buildings. Fenty (D) pledged last week that school buildings left vacant by closures would not be sold, but he did not indicate how the buildings might be used.

Charter schools continue to have a large effect across the city and in Ward 5, where a small cluster in the Edgewood section -- William E. Doar, D.C. Preparatory Academy and Hope Community -- are growing in popularity with neighborhood children and others from around the city.

The ward is an example of how the long-held idea of a neighborhood school has changed, and as a result, DCPS enrollment has declined. For example, in the area around Shaed Elementary on Douglas Street NE, just as many children attend nearby charter schools as attend Shaed. Additionally, compared with the enrollment at Shaed, a larger number of students within its boundary attend a DCPS school in another part of the city.

About 1 1/2 miles from Shaed, the Elsie Whitlow Stokes charter school recently paid $4.7 million for a building on Oakview Terrace, a move that was controversial among neighbors who cited traffic concerns. Some neighbors in Brookland are trading e-mails over Lighthouse charter school, which is eyeing property in the ward.

At-large council member Kwame R. Brown (D) said he has asked administration officials for more data on the "charter school effect" on declining enrollment in D.C. public schools.

"Everyone knew we were going to close schools," Brown said, "but when we look at seven schools in Ward 5, it's time to analyze what those schools are and how they came up with those closures."

Rhee and Fenty may face an uphill battle convincing some residents who feel their ward receives unfair treatment.

"It just seems like they're always picking on us -- first the strip clubs, then the trash transfer station and now this," said Marshall R. Phillips Sr., a ward advisory neighborhood commissioner who recalled the history of controversial projects proposed for the ward at a meeting last week for civic leaders. Listening to Phillips, members of the group nodded in assent.

News researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company