Dozens of parents gathered in the rain early Saturday morning at the Old Congress Heights Building in Anacostia before going on to a seven-hour Board of Education hearing where they fought to save the school building and the Head Start Program it houses.
The District's Board of Education has proposed closing Old Congress Heights, which 120 three- and four-year-olds attend, as part of suggested cuts in District preschool education programs.
"First (school board members) started with closing the building. Now they want to close the whole program," said Patricia Davis, chairman of the Anacostia Preschool Program Parent Policy Committee.
Preschool education is one of several areas targeted for cuts in the proposed District education budget for the 1980 school year.
Almost 300 parents attended the Saturday hearing, despite the bad weather. The turnout was described as surprisingly high by Cynthia Wilson, a lawyer who helped the parents prepare testimony. "The more people you have out, the more the board will feel pressure to make the budget more suitable to the need of the community," she said.
But the school board is faced with deciding how best to distribute $27 million in cuts in the 1980 budget. "On the question of a cut, we don't have a choice," said John Warren, chairman of the Board of Education's committee on audit, budget and financial oversight. "It's a question of where.
"You can identify priorities. Maybe you can make some suggestions as to where. We have not made any decisions," Warren told the parents who crammed the aisles and jammed the doorways of the Board of Education's conference room. Another hearing on the matter was scheduled for last evening.
With a proposed budget of $252 million, about 10 percent less than requested, the board has proposed three ways to save money -- increasing the student-teacher ratio from 26 to 1 to 28 to 1; shortening prekindergarten and kindergarten classes to half a day; and reducing the work force by about 600 teachers or almost 15 percent.
The proposed plan would also reduce funding for school administration and eliminate the District's portion of funding for the Anacostia and Model School preschool programs. It would also eliminate all driver education classes and sabbatical leave for teachers, as well as trimming shop classes taught throughout the District.
Although there is speculation concerning cutting or introducing fees for the city's adult education, Warren said the board remained "committed to adult education."
The cuts, particularly the reduction in teachers, directly threatens the quality of education, several parents told the school board. "You're talking about adding a prep school for smart kids next September," said mother Helen Long. "The little kids need (the money) even more."
The $27 million reduction should come from cuts in nonbasic education services, the parents argued. "In order to provide basic learning programs for our children, it may be necessary to eliminate entire programs that do not relate to basic skills," said Gregory Hauptman, counsel for the Friendship PTA.
Several parents expressed support for the Old Congress Heights preschool program, the largest in Anacostia: "It's a good thing," said Patricia Davis. "In the ghetto, we need this. I live in the ghetto and I know. Three years in the age for children -- they are inquisitive. By the time they're six, it's too late."
Davis said her son Andre, who attends what is known formally as the Anacostia Preschool at the Old Congress Heights Building, was once considered a difficult child. "His behavior patterns have changed," said Davis. "He's been there since September and he can count to 20, knows the days of the week and some colors, can read his name, knows animals, shapes and can recognize many sounds. We really have some dynamite teachers."
Under the present proposal, the Old Congress Heights Preschool program would end in June -- when Head Start celebrates its 15th anniversary in D.C. -- and the building would be closed. The six teachers and four aides who work in the building at 6th and Alabama avenues SE would be fired and the children would be scattered among the other preschools in the area.
"If the school is closed down and the children scattered, then we would no longer qualify for the federal share of our grant," said John Griffin, father of seven and an active parent in the Old Congress Heights area. The Federal government provides 80 percent -- more than $500,000 -- of the cost of running the preschool.
At the hearing, parents also protested planned adjustments in the student/teacher ratio that would save $6 million fiscal 1980. Crowding children in classrooms reduces the amount of individual attention, especially at lower levels, many parents argued. "What a terrible price we would pay for this modest saving," said parent Sue Brunswick.
Many parents said they were disturbed to find the bulk of the cuts falling on teachers who deal directly with children, rather than on administrators. "Administrative functions seem to have taken priority," said Mary Etta Smith of Change, Inc. "Where are our children in this process?"
Seventy positions -- 1.7 percent -- of the administrative staff would be eliminated, while about 15 percent of the teaching positions will go. "The reduction of instructors is clearly greater than the reduction of its administrators," said Kenneth Cole, chairman of the Neighborhood Schools Council of Horace Mann School.
School board president Calvin Lockeridge added, "My recommendation is to put as many administrators as possible back into the classroom."
"Blacks as a race are not as involved in the education of our children as we should be," said parent Griffin. "When we have these meetings in the District Building concerning cutting the budget, we usually don't attend them. And all the decisions are made without our knowledge. When we can educate our children we'll have half of our problems solved."