Parents and students listen as DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is questioned at the Wilson Building Thursday, Nov.15, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of District parents, teachers and activists showed up at three community meetings this week to challenge and critique Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 under-enrolled schools.

Speaker after speaker argued in favor of keeping the schools open, often saying that shuttering traditional schools shakes parents’ confidence and pushes students into fast-growing public charters.

“Instead of giving up on our schools, I want all of us to roll up our sleeves and compete. We can compete with charters,” said Nakisha Winston, a Langdon Education Campus parent who spoke at Thursday’s meeting at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington. “We can fix our schools.”

The most full-throated cry against school closures came Wednesday night from a standing-room-only crowd packed into the gym at Sousa Middle School in Ward 7, where the chancellor has proposed closing five schools.

Eboni-Rose Thompson, president of the Ward 7 Education Council, presented an alternative plan: Keep all five open by adding programs — such as engineering, foreign languages and arts — to attract more families.

Closing and merging schools in the District

“All this came from parents telling us what would make them put their child back in a Ward 7 school,” Thompson said. “If you build it, they will come. We’re asking you to build it so they will come.”

Henderson applauded Ward 7’s “spectacular” turnout and promised to consider the alternative plan. “I introduced this as a proposal,” she said. “I’m serious about listening to community input, about using it to amend, tweak, strengthen the set of recommendations that we made.”

At each meeting, Henderson said she had learned from mistakes made in 2008, when 23 schools were closed. But she pushed back against criticism that those closures led to the exodus of thousands of students from the school system. A year later, she said, enrollment stabilized after falling for decades.

Activists who went to meetings expecting to rally to save schools at a town-hall style forum were instead asked to offer feedback in small groups, each of which had a facilitator taking notes.

A representative from each table then spoke to the whole group at the end of the evening, and some of the facilitators’ notes were posted online.

Daniel del Pielago, an organizer with Empower DC, called it a “divide and conquer” strategy meant to dilute protest. School system spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said it was designed to encourage constructive input from all participants.

“The purpose of these meetings is to have active and productive conversations, and this is the best way to get that,” she said.

Parents expressed near-universal concern about students’ ability to safely move into new schools.

Older students might face taunting and bullying, the result of neighborhood rivalries, they said, while younger students may be forced to travel more than a mile to school, walking through unsafe neighborhoods in the dark.

David Tansey, a Dunbar High math teacher, urged the school system to pay students’ public transit costs to avoid creating an obstacle to attending class. “I give money to kids every day so they’ll have money to get to school,” he said in comments made Thursday at McKinley.

Many teachers and parents pleaded for more time to show progress, saying their schools — such as Marshall Elementary in Ward 5, Davis and Smothers elementaries in Ward 7 and Malcolm X Elementary in Ward 8 — are gaining momentum.

The chancellor has planned another community meeting for Dec. 5 at Brightwood Education Campus in Northwest. She will also take public feedback during office hours in December before making final recommendations on school closures to the mayor in January.