D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson stepped into her first major controversy when she announced last week that she wanted to close 20 public schools. Immediately, hundreds of parents and activists lined up to oppose her. One of the organizations that has worked long and hard to stop previous school closings is Empower DC. In an interview with The RootDC, Daniel del Pielago, an organizer for the group’s education campaign, argues that the closures will have a negative impact on thousands of school children largely because 40 percent of the students threatened with displacement this time were also affected by the 2008 school closings.

Vanessa Bertelli, chair of the Garrison Improvement Project Committee, with Milo Negri, 4, (in dark yellow), Leo Sank, 3, and Richard Sowell, 3, try to stay entertained at the Wilson Building as D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson talks during a review of school closures in Washington. Negri and Sank attend Garrison Elementary and Sowell attends Francis-Stevens Elementary. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Pielago said that the group has called for an immediate “moratorium on all school closures until a community driven process is put in place to make these tough decisions and a true study on the impact school closures have had on our city's students and communities.” He added: “We are concerned that thousands of students left DCPS after the last round of school closures, the biggest dip in enrollment in recent history. This coupled with the uncontrolled growth of charter schools does not give us any confidence that more closures are necessary.”

A second round of public hearings is scheduled to be held Monday evening. Here are some further excerpts of his interview:

Why you are opposed to the school closings laid out by Chancellor Henderson?

This continuous cycle of school closures and attrition will lead to the loss of neighborhood public schools of right. Additionally. school closures have disproportionately affected communities of color. Of the 6,300 students affected by school closures in 2008, only 15 were white, while 99 percent were African American or Hispanic. This year, [based on a study done bt local data analyst Mary Levy], out of the 3,800 students who will be displaced, only 36 are white students.  Once again, the higher concentration of school closures are in Wards 5, 7 and 8. We feel this is unjust and actually leads to the destabilization of communities.

Some have argued that it’s ineffective to keep schools open that are (a) underperforming and (b) below capacity. In your view. what should be done with these schools, given the attendance/performance erosion cited in some schools?

Firstly, I think the communities who will be directly affected by these threats need to lead the conversations on solutions and not just be nominally included once decisions are made. For example, a school like Garrison Elementary, where parents are fighting and being active to improve programming so it can in turn raise enrollment, is not being given the time nor resources to make this happen. 

A recent D.C. auditor report shows how the last round of closures actually cost our city more than originally estimated. The public has also not seen even a basic accounting on how much was saved from the last round and how it was used. I think we need to look at cutting down the inflated DCPS central office before we start to close the institutions our students and communities depend on.

I also think the mayor and City Council need to have a comprehensive plan for public education. This should include any DCPS school closings as well as recommendations for school boundary and feeder pattern changes. Charter school openings and closings should also be considered.

In an op-ed that appeared in The RootDC on Monday, Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. councilman and a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children, writes the following: If school closures simply mean overcrowding already overburdened schools with more children and fewer resources to go around, we’re doing no better than when those underperforming schools were around in the first place. We must provide families with a legitimately better-quality option in lieu of where they were, and it’s also not fair to overburden teachers and students at the schools that are likely to see a new influx of students from the soon-to-be-closed schools.”

What’s your response to this?

The chancellor's plan states that closure decisions are based on enrollment and not academic standings. I do agree that students and teachers should not be in a situation that is no better than their original situation. Replacing a closed school with a charter school would not necessarily mean that the situation would improve and that all students from the closed school would even be allowed to attend.

Instead of closing schools, DCPS should be focused on allaying concerns and misconceptions that folks may have about our public schools. The focus needs to be on growing strong programs and  enrollment, not simply trying to make the school system smaller.

What are your general thoughts about the charter school movement and its place in educating D.C. school children?

I think charter schools are a reality in the District of Columbia. They enroll over 40 percent of school-age children. I do feel that this continued unplanned growth of charters and competition is not good for DCPS. The competition draws students and resources away from our traditional public schools. Additionally, on the whole charters do not perform any better than traditional public schools. Although charters are publicly funded, they are not subject to the same rules traditional schools are and are not subject to the same oversight.

What are your immediate plans to stop Henderson’s school closing effort?

We will continue to grow awareness to communities who are directly affected and work together to identify any next steps. We are currently looking at legal strategies, and our membership is planning continued direct action. We want to make sure that we are working with a broad base of individuals and organizations and not allowed to be split into a school-by-school fight. One of the major problems with all of this is that community members don't really have a vehicle (such as an elected school board) to weigh in. Decision-making power is centralized with the mayor and chancellor.

More from The Root DC

D.C. school closures: Accountability must trump loyalty

RGIII and Redskins fans: Feeling perfect together

Does Gregory Hall deserve a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates?