D.C. Schools Open To Mixed Reviews

The Washington region copes with the season's most significant snow fall and braces for what could be the largest storm in three years.
By Bill Turque and Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

D.C. officials were greeted with a wintry mix of anger, frustration and approval for their decision to open schools two hours late yesterday after snow shuttered every other school system in the region.

Although the late-winter storm had largely ended by the time school doors opened, some parents complained that the city's decision did not account for the condition of streets and sidewalks that remained unplowed in many neighborhoods, creating potentially hazardous conditions. Several reported low student and teacher attendance.

"The DCPS decision to open schools is very frustrating," Sigrid Ford, who has children at Banneker and McKinley high schools, said in an e-mail to Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. "I would encourage you to rethink your policy in the future since the safety of our children should be your first consideration."

Officials said that after evaluating forecast data, they decided that the overriding community interest was in keeping the system open, especially for families without the resources to arrange for last-minute child care or that depend on schools for free and reduced-price meals for their children.

"D.C. Public Schools' first priority is to open schools to fulfill our obligation to educate our students whenever possible," said Dena Iverson, a Rhee spokeswoman. "DCPS remains sensitive to the needs of families who are not able to arrange child care when schools must unexpectedly close and the children who depend on at least one healthy meal a day from DCPS."

Iverson said the system did not have attendance figures because the data are gathered weekly. On Jan. 28, when schools also opened two hours late because of snow and ice, attendance was about 73 percent. Iverson said attendance usually runs about 90 percent systemwide.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at a midmorning news conference that he sympathized with parents and teachers over the weather predicament. But he said the challenges were not insurmountable.

"I understand if someone couldn't make it on time, but we addressed that by having a two-hour delay," said Fenty, who added that he began conference calls with staff at 3 a.m. before making a decision. Citing the relatively small number of traffic accidents reported yesterday morning, he said, "We don't believe that the condition of the roads should have prevented anyone from getting to school within the two-hour delay that we gave."

Lisa Raymond, president of the D.C. State Board of Education, who took her twin 4-year-olds to preschool at Peabody Elementary, agreed.

"I love it," Raymond said. "I think the delayed opening was the perfect compromise. I know it's tough for teachers who live in the suburbs. It's a real balance. But I think it's important for kids to be in school."

Snow is a political as well as meteorological issue in the Washington region. Parents routinely accuse school officials of overreacting and closing schools on the basis of relatively modest snowfalls. Last month, President Obama counted himself among the exasperated parents and took to task his daughters' new school, Sidwell Friends, for closing Jan. 28.

"Because of what? Some ice?" he said. "We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town."

Fenty chuckled yesterday when asked how the president would judge his response.

"I agreed with the thrust of his comments last time. I did. I've lived in D.C. all my life. I give him a lot of credit for being perceptive. I've often thought that D.C. needs to not be so knee-jerk in closing -- not just the schools, but so many of our government buildings and stores and everything else. I think we're developing that."

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker said last night that perhaps half of the system's teachers reported to work. He said they were concerned about safety for themselves and students.

The District's school-closing issue is complicated by the fact that the city generally does not bus students, more than 40 percent of whom attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

Mary Melchior, who has three children at Langdon Education Campus in Ward 5, said many side streets were inaccessible. "Also, a lot of teachers live out in the suburbs where the snow is much worse," she said.

"When I dropped my kids off at about quarter to eleven, there were a couple dozen kids in the auditorium, and we have over 400 kids at our school. I think it would have been better to keep them closed."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company