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

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 20 under-enrolled schools across the District drew a throng of parents, teachers and activists to a packed D.C. Council hearing room Thursday evening, the first opportunity the public has had to weigh in on the proposal that would close one in six of the city’s schools.

Some made impassioned pleas to save particular schools, while others voiced fear that shuttering half-empty schools would drive students out of the system and into public charter schools, leading to further enrollment losses, more closures in the years to come and eventually an unrecognizably shrunken city school system.

“It is treating a symptom in a way that can only worsen the disease,” said Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer and researcher who has been through eight previous rounds of closures.

Council members agreed that the chancellor must address the root problems that are driving families away — and develop a more comprehensive strategy to keep them.

“When we can answer the question as to why our schools are under-enrolled, as to why our parents are making other decisions, as to what we can do to bring our students back to neighborhood schools — then we can be on the road to success,” said Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7).

Closing and merging schools in the District

Council members quibbled with some elements of the plan, which has roiled communities and provoked questions about how the city’s traditional public school system will coexist with the District’s fast-growing public charter schools.

But for the most part, the members appeared to agree with Henderson that after decades of dwindling enrollment, the school system must downsize in order to concentrate resources on improving academic programs instead of operating half-filled buildings.

“The best metaphor I can think of for what you’re doing is delivering very tough medicine for a sick patient,” said David A. Catania (I-At Large).

He said Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson illustrates why under-enrolled schools are an expensive problem for the city: The school has 131 students and employs more than 26 adults — only nine of whom are teachers. “There seems to be something out of whack,” Catania said.

Henderson has promised to listen to community feedback and tweak her plan in response to what she hears. But the chancellor, who has the authority to close schools without council approval, also has made it clear that 20 schools must close unless the council is willing to spend considerably more money.

Some of the strongest outcry Thursday came on behalf of Garrison Elementary in Northwest, which is slated to be shuttered and its students sent to nearby Seaton Elementary.

With about 228 students, Garrison is operating at about two-thirds capacity. But parents say the school is building momentum, drawing more of the neighborhood’s many young families with the help of a new, energetic principal.

“We will prove to DCPS that we have strength not only in numbers, but in passion and spirit, and we’ll go down fighting,” PTA officers wrote in an e-mail to their school community.

They already have launched an online petition and social media campaign, and they have won support from two council members — Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) — for keeping the school open. Graham said if all Garrison students go to Seaton, Seaton would be overcrowded by more than 100 students.

“Doesn’t that send the message that you really don’t want students to stay in DCPS? You want them to go to charter schools?” Graham said to applause.

Evans and several parents also spoke out against the plan to close Francis-Stevens Education Campus in Foggy Bottom. Others challenged the distribution of proposed closures, which would be concentrated in Northeast Washington and east of the Anacostia River.

Under the chancellor’s plan, the closures would displace about 3,000 students, who would be sent to nearby schools with extra space. School system officials said they could not say how many employees might be laid off as a result of the closures.

Several speakers expressed concern that there will be turf battles when students from different neighborhoods are moved into the same school.

In 2008, there was trouble when P.R. Harris Middle School was consolidated with Hart Middle, said Trayon White, the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.

“We are putting a lot of mixed ingredients [together], and we know there is going to be an explosion,” White said.

More than 50 people were scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing, the first of several public discussions of Henderson’s closure plan. Five hours into the hearing, fewer than half of them had been able to speak.

Another 50 are scheduled to testify at a second council hearing Monday, to be followed by four school-sponsored community meetings in late November and early December. Henderson has said she will finalize the closure list by mid-January.