Lights Out At School For At-Risk D.C. Kids

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

City Lights Public Charter School's closure at the end of the month will leave a hole in Mike Green's life where something good used to be. The school is broke, and Green is losing a family.

"You don't get no love from your parents, you come in here, it's all love," said Green, 20, a senior who has spent most of his life in foster homes.

The school's 52 students, many of whom have serious learning and emotional disabilities, arrived after years of struggling elsewhere. The average age of a ninth-grader is 17. Parents and staff members call it "the last second chance."

The collapse of City Lights, housed in a former Catholic elementary school on T Street NE, has triggered a round of finger-pointing and second-guessing among school and District officials over alleged mismanagement. But the most immediate casualties are students such as Green, who is three credits shy of graduation. He came three years ago from McKinley High after spending time in the Oak Hill juvenile detention center. He said City Lights' small size and caring faculty made a huge difference, down to the office manager who took him shopping for a suit to wear to a job interview.

"I was always in trouble, fighting all the time," Green said. "This year, no fighting . . . because of this school."

The closure, announced Jan. 23, sent parents scrambling for new schools. Although their children are guaranteed spots in their neighborhood public schools, some parents expressed reluctance about enrolling them, either because of bitter experience with the system or what they have heard about a poor record of providing special education services.

"It's hard enough getting your kids to go to school, let alone finding a place they enjoy coming to," said Darlene Walker, a security guard whose daughter Kellene, 14, had trouble getting help at the District's Hendley Elementary.

The District is operating under a federal court order to improve the timeliness of its responses to families of children with special needs. About 23 percent of the District's 46,000 public school students are in special education programs. That includes about 2,300 in private schools at taxpayer expense because the District can't serve them.

By the end of last week, just eight City Lights students were enrolled in public high schools, including Spingarn, Dunbar and McKinley. Richard Nyankori, the city's deputy chancellor for special education, said City Lights students would be welcomed "with open arms" into a system that is starting to improve. "One of the biggest myths is that we don't have services for these kids. We do," Nyankori said.

Last year, about 12 percent of the 21,800 students in D.C. public charter schools -- also subject to the court order -- received special education services. The law prohibits schools from asking about learning disabilities or emotional problems during the admission process. As a practical matter, few charters are set up to handle City Lights students, many of whom require heavy support: at least 25 hours a week of care from specialized teachers, psychologists, crisis intervention staff and other personnel. At week's end, five City Lights students had enrolled at Booker T. Washington, Cesar Chavez and Options charter schools.

The care is expensive. This year, like all charter schools, City Lights received a per-pupil allocation of $10,200 from the District, along with a $3,100-a-head facilities allowance. It got an additional $20,000 for each special education student. City Lights executive director Iris Lewis said that although that seems like a lot of money, it never quite covers the cost of maintaining such a specialized staff. The school got far less than the $2.2 million it expected after city auditors found records for 47 students rather than the 75 the school based its budget on.

"Unfortunately, students have to pay the price for their bad management of the student data," said Jeremy Williams, finance manager for the charter board.

Lewis said basic record-keeping is complicated by the circumstances of the students and their families, some of whom deal with poverty, drug issues, homelessness and violence.

But that wrangling means little to parents looking for a new school.

Terry Perkins, whose daughter Latrice, 17, is a senior with a 19-month-old son, is apprehensive about the much larger Booker T. Washington.

"She was at McKinley, but it didn't work," Perkins said. "She wouldn't speak to anyone and was always angry. Teachers here weaned her off Ritalin, and she made it to the 12th grade." Perkins said Latrice has been accepted at Trinity College.

Some students, staff members fear, will drop out or end up in private schools at the District's expense.

"In many cases, this school has been the one constant in their lives," said social studies teacher Michael Cummings. "They're fed, they feel safe and they respond."

Geraldine Tate, a school cook, is worried because many of youth do not eat regularly at home. Pointing to several students sitting at cafeteria tables last month, she said: "That's my baby, that's my baby, that's my baby and this is my baby!"

Despite the testimonials, school officials said City Lights, opened in 1982 as a private school for emotionally disturbed adolescents, underperformed.

The charter board placed City Lights on probation for four months last year because of "significant deficiencies" in staffing. The school also failed to produce a single student who scored at proficiency level on the D.C.-CAS standardized tests. School leaders said their students should not be held to the same standards because of their learning disabilities.

Even so, the final days at City Lights have been tearful and chaotic. A list of openings at other schools, supplied by the staff of the Public Charter School Board, was inaccurate. Parents made fruitless phone calls and trips to schools where they thought there was room. Lewis incensed District officials this month by telling parents that Feb. 6 was the school's last day, a ploy to flush out parents she had been unable to contact.

But the move caused a panic as parents struggled to find schools.

City Lights is slowly shutting down. Teachers leave as they find new jobs. Parents and students cycle in and out of the cramped main office as Lewis and principal Brenda Richards, their eyes brimming with tears, work the phones, trying to place their kids. Officials from the District, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the Charter School Board said they are trying to help. But Lewis said the discussions are not pleasant.

"They just think we're sitting here, taking up God's good air and doing nothing," she said.

Lewis said there is a larger inequity at work. St. Coletta, a charter school in Southeast Washington that serves students with severe physical and mental disabilities, receives "gap funding" from the District to make up the difference between what a school can pay and what services cost. Lewis pursued the same arrangement but was turned down by District officials.

As closing day nears, there is regret about what has been lost, as imperfect as it might have been.

"I'm sad," said Derrick Whitfield, 17, a senior who will finish his last 4 1/2 credits at Booker T. Washington. "The way the teachers teach here is good."

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