After D.C. school-closure proposal, a flurry of activity
By Emma Brown,
Aday after D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced her plan to close 20 schools, parents across the city signaled their intent to protest, labor leaders said they would push to unionize charter schools and charter-school advocates vowed to fight for control of vacated buildings.
The reactions to Henderson’s plan were the first salvos in a battle that will unfold over the next several weeks and ultimately decide the shape of the District’s school system.
Parents in Northwest Washington said they will oppose plans to put some middle and high school students in the same building. The chancellor’s proposal would create two campuses shared by sixth- through 12th-graders.
“Our parents will not put our kids in that environment,” said Lee Granados, a mother of two children at Ross Elementary, which would feed into Cardozo High School.
The chancellor said her plan is meant to shift resources from maintaining under-enrolled schools to focus on improving academic programs. She said she will tweak the details of the plan after hearing community feedback but will hold firm on the number of schools to be shuttered.
“We’ve got to close 20 schools,” she told reporters Tuesday. “If it’s not this school, it’s that school.”
Henderson has offered few specifics about how a grade 6-12 school campus would work, Granados said, testing the patience of parents who want to commit to the school system but see no attractive option. Many parents are already fleeing to charter schools for middle school, she added.
“It’s scary,” Granados said of the chancellor’s plan, “and parents aren’t going to risk their children.”
Across the Anacostia River at Ferebee-Hope Elementary in Southeast, parents planned a Thursday afternoon protest of the chancellor’s proposal to close the under-enrolled school and send its students to Hendley Elementary, a half-mile away.
“Hendley is in a drug-infested area,” said Shannon Smith, whose two grandchildren attend Ferebee-Hope.
“Not only that, they have gunshots out there,” she said.
The D.C. Council is scheduled to receive feedback from more than 100 people during two public hearings on the school closure plan. The first is Thursday and will launch the city into a conversation not just about the particulars of Henderson’s plan, but also about how traditional public schools and public charter schools will coexist.
The Washington Teachers’ Union sees the proposal to close schools as a sign that charter schools — which educate more than 40 percent of the city’s students — must be unionized because they will continue to grow quickly.
“It was commonly conceived by our members that many of these schools might receive pressure to reopen as charters,” said the union’s president, Nathan Saunders. “They wanted to look at options for union membership should that happen.”
Saunders said he has the legal right to organize charter schools but that it is difficult because they are exempt from the law that requires the city to enter into collective bargaining with public employees.
The teachers union wants to end that exemption, Saunders said, bringing charter schools under the same labor law that governs the city’s public schools.
That would require the approval of the D.C. Council and Congress, which seems politically unlikely given a Republican-led House with little interest in helping teachers unions grow and strong bipartisan support for charter schools.
“I don’t see how it could be a worse idea, and it’s not going anyplace,” said Robert Cane, who is executive director of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.
The freedom to employ nonunionized teachers is part of what sets the charter movement apart from traditional schools, Cane said.
Cane and other charter-school advocates criticized Henderson for indicating that she plans to keep control over the buildings left vacant after schools are closed.
Suitable and affordable school buildings are a rare and coveted commodity among charter schools. City law gives charters “right of first offer” on buildings given up by the school system, and some advocates had hoped that Henderson’s closure plan would yield more facilities.
Henderson said she might rent some of her buildings to charters on short-term leases, but that was little comfort, said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools. Charter schools have trouble getting financing for temporary quarters, she said.
“It’s very disappointing,” Edelin said. “To have 20 closures and offer none of the buildings is shocking.”
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which approves new charter schools, was more measured. He said it was too soon to offer an opinion on a plan that hasn’t been finalized and that the chancellor has pledged to tweak in response to public input.
“I’m not convinced that DCPS has a firm plan for all those buildings,” Pearson said. “I think she genuinely wants to hear from the community.”
As advocates and activists staked out positions on Henderson’s closure proposal, students and teachers at targeted schools showed up for class Wednesday and began coming to grips with the prospect of change.
Librarian Ellen Dodsworth, who amassed 7,000 books and 400 DVDs at Spingarn High over the past seven years, wondered where she’ll find a new home for her collection now that Spingarn is slated to close.
She built the collection volume by volume with the help of donations and her personal bank account. It includes contemporary fiction and nonfiction, books suitable for college-bound kids and students who read far below grade level.
“I have one of the best African American studies collections in the city,” Dodsworth said. “I’m not leaving it.”