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100 March Against D.C. Plan to Close Schools

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By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008; 8:21 AM

With prayer, song and chants, more than 100 D.C. students, parents and supporters took their displeasure over a proposal to close 23 schools to the school system's headquarters yesterday in the latest show of opposition to the plan.

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The group, much smaller than the 5,000 students who would be affected by the closings, braved a brisk early morning wind to pray that God would "turn the hearts" of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Several police officers escorted the marchers from the headquarters, on North Capitol Street, to E Street and on to another set of government buildings at Judiciary Square.

Fenty and Rhee have scheduled a news conference for 10:30 a.m. today to announce their final list of school closures. The mayor and chancellor have said that they were weighing public feedback to the list of closures proposed in November, and could make some changes to it.

Fenty has said he can close the schools by issuing a mayoral order, and does not need approval from the D.C. Council, some of whose members have been openly critical of the plan. Yesterday, council members Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) joined the protesters when they arrived at Judiciary Square.

"There are some people in this government who care about the rights of everyone," said Thomas, "and want to make sure that every neighborhood school gets what it deserves."

Barry and Thomas later sent a letter to Fenty (D) asking him to stop the closings process and set up additional meetings with parents and others. The letter said activists are planning more protests.

"Your failure to change course will likely result in continued agitation and take away the focus, time and energy from much needed educational reforms," the council members wrote.

Barry said they plan to introduce emergency legislation next week calling for greater community involvement in the closings plan. It was not clear whether such legislation would have any impact on the process.

Although yesterday's protest was billed as a citywide "stayout," relatively few students and teachers participated. School officials said they could not provide information on yesterday's attendance rate or say how many teacher left their classrooms and how many students skipped school to take part.

At the event, organized by the Coalition to Save Our Neighborhood Schools, students from Rudolph Elementary clutched signs pleading to keep the school open, and Stuart-Hobson Middle, John Burroughs and Smothers elementaries and other schools were represented. The largest group seemed to be from M.M. Washington Career High School, which is scheduled for closure.

"It's unfair for me to go to another school next year," said Vernetta Jenkins, 15, a junior at M.M. Washington who is studying culinary arts at the citywide vocational school in Northwest. "If they close this next year, I don't know what I'm going to do."

Avis McKinney, a first-grade teacher at Neville Thomas Elementary in Northeast, said she called her principal in the morning to let her know that she wouldn't be in. McKinney said she would put in for leave time, and if that was rejected, go without pay.

"We're not slated for closure, but I'm here to stand up for the rights of other teachers who may be afraid to speak out," McKinney said.

Since Fenty and Rhee announced that they intend to close schools and consolidate students, their plans have been praised by some parents and others for attempting to reduce the size of a 49,600-student system with some nearly empty buildings. But some parents and elected officials have expressed strong opposition, saying they are dissatisfied with the level of community input.

Rhee has met individually with parents, students and teachers at their request and appeared at nine community meetings on the proposal in the past two months. She also attended some of the 23 public hearings held simultaneously two weeks ago.

Yesterday, Rhee rearranged her schedule to meet with more than 75 students after the protest, most of them from M.M. Washington. For more than 30 minutes, she took questions about safety, the reasons behind the closures and her academic plans.

Some parents who had been at the protest said later that they were unfairly kept out of the meeting. Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said Rhee wanted to hear directly from students.

Hobson said the feedback from the past two months is shaping Rhee's final recommendations to the mayor. In the coming days, Hobson said yesterday, Fenty will present the plan "after careful consideration of all comments on the proposal."


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