After four long public hearings with more than 250 witnesses, the District of Columbia school board is scheduled to decide next week the fate of 23 schools that Superintendent Vincent Reed has recommended for closing.
Virtually every one of the proposed shut-downs has encountered strong opposition as parents and neighborhood groups argued that the schools were needed in their communities, even though in most cases enrollment has fallen sharply in recent years and students would be sent to newer buildings.
"Just because a building is old has nothing to do with the quality of education," said Leon G. Fields, president of the Parent-Teachers Association at Syphaz Elementary School, Half and N streets SW, one of the schools on Reed's closing list.
"The children at Syphaz do better than those at the schools they want to send them to," Fields continued. "Even the building is better. It's old, but it's soundly constructed. The newer buildings aren't built as well."
Washington is far from alone in its agony over school closings. The same issue, caused primarily by a falling birth rate, has confronted hundreds of American school districts, including those in the Washington suburbs. But the pain of the parents and communities involved here is still acute, and their protests have been strenuous.
When Reed recommended the closings on March 17, he said he was aware of the reaction they would encounter.
"It's a tough decision," the superintendent remarked. "Not a popular one for sure. I understand the anxieties people have about losing schools. But we have to close some schools to maximize benefits for our students."
In mid-April four members of the school board voted to reject all the superintendent's recommendations, and not hold hearings. But the board majority decided to go ahead with the hearings and consider the future of each school separately.
Next Tuesday afternoon the board's Capital Improvements Committee is scheduled to take a preliminary vote on the proposed closings.
The full board will hold a special meeting on the issue on June 15 at 6 p.m. in the Department of Commerce auditorium, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
"They expect a lot of people, and I suppose a little ruckus," one member of the board's staff said. "It's going to be a tough one."
School board President Conrad P. Smith said the board will consider all the testimony carefully, but will vote to close school buildings if they are "economically unfeasible to operate."
Smith's son attends one of the schools on the closing list, Bunker Hill Elementary, 14th Street and Michigan Avenue NE.
At Syphax Elementary, a red brick building that opened in 1901, nearly all of the 432 children come from public housing projects or old rowhouses - the only part of Southwest left untouched by the area's massive urban renewal. A wing was added in the mid-1930s; ten years ago the school had almost 800 students.
With enrollment down, its large high-ceilinged classrooms that one held 40 students apiece now have 25 to 29 pupils. Six rooms are not used for regular classes at all. Instead, they are called resource rooms or learning labs, and are used by specialists in reading, and math to give extra help to students who need it.
Three of the specialists are paid for by the federal government under Title I, the federal education aid program for low-income children. More than half of Syphax's students are poor enough to qualify.
Many rooms and hallways have peeling paint and cracked plaster, and in winter heat spreads through the building unevenly. But the school is clean and parents and teachers seem satisfied.
"We're better off now than we had been for years," one long time teacher remarked, "Now they want to take it away from us."
If Syphax is closed, it children would be transferred to Amidon or Bowen, two other much newer Southwest schools. Bowen has a new wing that opened two years ago.
At the public hearings, however, many parents said they were unhappy about the prospect of having their children cross busy streets to get to the new schools. Some said they also were concerned about how well the children would learn in Bowen's new open-space classrooms, which can accommodate more than 100 youngsters and their teachers in one large carpeted room.
During the past decade Washington has spent more than $300,000 for 40 new schools and additions. Nearly all of them are built on the open-space plan.
At the same time, total enrollment in D.C. public schools has dropped from a peak of 149,116 in 1969 to just under 120,000 this year - a decline of 19.5 percent.
Until now as new schools have opened, few old schools have been closed. In several cases new and old buildings stand next to each other - both far under capacity.
Last fall the General Accounting Office reported the school system had 19,000 excess seats in elementary schools and would have a surplus of 28,000 by 1980.
Reed said his proposed closings would save $600,000 next year and much more in following years as the number of school administrators (who cannot be fired if they have tenure) is reduced by retirements.
The superintendent said the school closings would cause no reduction in the number of teachers and no increase in class size.The teachers will simply move with their students, he said, to different schools and fill classrooms that now are not used for regular teaching. Under his proposal, Reed said, all children who walk to school now will be able to continue to do so.
In addition, Edward Winner, deputy superintendent for budget and management, said the school closings would allow the school system to use its maintenance budget and custodians more efficiently to keep schools clean and in good repair.
As it is now, Winner said, the maintenance force is stretched thin, leading to complaints by janitors that they are overworked, and complaints by teachers that buildings are not clean. The school system's $5 million budget for repairs has not been increased for the past five years, Winner said, despite inflation and the opening of new schools. As a result, peeling paint, broken clocks and falling plaster are widespread throughout the school system.
"We have enough money to fix the leaks," Winner said, "But not enough to fix the damage underneath them. Right now we just sweep it up.
"People say we should keep all the schools open, but the city just does not provide us with the resources for that kind of luxury."
If the school closings are carried out, Winner said, the city's school children will be concentrated in "better staffed, better cleaned, more attractive buildings. We think there will be more attractive schools for the children."
However, virtually all the witnesses at the public hearings did not see it this way.
"The small school we have is like a home for our children," said Jacquelyn Howard, president of the PTA at Cleveland Elementary, 8th and T Streets NW, which has 260 children. "Do you really want to destroy something that's working so well?"
"Everybody likes to know that they have a neighborhood school where their children are safe," said Shirley Jackson, a parent at Nalle Elementary, 50th and C Streets SE, which is also on the proposed closing list. "For God's sake, let's keep Nalle open. It's a shame that schools have to be closed."