Conflicting Feelings as Elementary School Marks Its End

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

The plastic champagne glasses were filled with sparkling cider as Principal Brearn Wright Jr., sporting a tuxedo for the occasion, proposed a toast to the last days of Clark Elementary.

"We're not going to shed tears tonight," he said to the smattering of students, parents and staff members in the gym of the school in the District's Petworth neighborhood Thursday evening.

"Clark's closing is a sacrifice for the greater good," Wright said.

Not everyone who raised a glass shares Wright's take on the demise of Clark, one of 23 schools earmarked by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee for closure this month. "I think it is a shame that Chancellor Rhee and her team are not willing to give us a chance to show our talents," said fifth-grader Thomas Nash, one of the dozen or so students who drew applause for reading short essays about Clark, part of an exhibition called "Memories and Dreams."

Some of the student artwork and writing, mounted on the gym walls, reflected the anxiety spawned by the prospect of unfamiliar surroundings in the fall.

"Who will be my teachers?" one second-grader wrote. "I don't want to go to another school because I love this school. If this school close I can't go to my friend's house. David and I can't play about things we learn if my school is closed. I am going to miss Luis and Steven too."

By the numbers, the school on Kansas Avenue NW is like most of the others Rhee has targeted. Enrollment is down 29 percent since 2002, from 298 students to 213 in a building that holds 352. School officials estimate that closing the 40-year-old campus will eventually save $570,000 annually in such fixed costs as heating and cooling.

Under the consolidation plan, students will attend one of several schools within about a half-mile of their homes. Powell Elementary will merge with MacFarland Middle to serve pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Truesdell Elementary, currently K-6, will add seventh grade this fall and eighth next year. Barnard Elementary also is expected to receive Clark students.

Rhee has presented the closures as a rational tradeoff. Savings from the consolidation will give the receiving schools advantages kids at Clark haven't had, she says, such as music teachers and full-time art instructors. Truesdell and Barnard are the sites of pilot programs to provide early intervention for issues at home, including substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment and illiteracy.

But some parents see Clark students losing a good deal more than they might gain.

For the past two years, Wright, the principal, has used outside partners to lift academic programs. Clark students get art instruction through the Fillmore Arts Center. Wright also has used his entire professional development budget to hire the Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit organization that tries to foster collaboration and break down the "egg carton" isolation teachers experience when they close their classroom doors.

"We learned to be a community and a family," visual arts teacher Carmen Jenkins-Parris said.

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