D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told a roomful of African American community leaders and educators this week that growing white enrollment in city schools brings the system closer to what she called “the promise of a good public education.”
“There are white families that are choosing DCPS. That’s just life,” Henderson told the gathering, organized by the Ward 8 Education Council. The group was formed by D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to help parents advocate for their children.
Henderson’s unusually blunt statement came in a meeting Thursday night at M.C. Terrell Elementary in Southeast to address protests over her decision to close three parent resource centers. The centers were designed to support low-income parents in managing their children’s education. Henderson stood by the decision on budget grounds but apologized for communicating it poorly.
The discussion veered — briefly but intensely — into resentment over statements attributed to a Henderson deputy in a Tuesday column by the Examiner’s Harry Jaffe. Abigail Smith, chief of transformation management, was quoted as saying that white enrollment in the 45,000-student system was approaching 10 percent — about double the share of a decade ago. Much of the increase is in schools in upper Northwest, Capitol Hill and Shaw. Smith called it “a big deal,” adding: “Communities supporting local schools, whatever the color, is a positive thing. Having more kids in our city engage a diverse population is a good thing.” On Friday she did not dispute the accuracy of the quote.
Absalom Jordan, chairman of the education council, said Smith’s remarks carried “racist overtones.”
“This statement spoke to the feeling of entitlement held by whites,” Jordan, a former D.C. Council candidate whose son attended Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, told Henderson. He said later he was expressing concern that growing white enrollment will narrow opportunities for African American children in wards 7 and 8 to vie for seats in high-quality schools in an annual lottery. Without concerted steps to widen opportunities, the disadvantaged will continue to lose ground, he said.
Henderson replied that the growing diversity was a positive development. She described herself as the beneficiary of diverse schools in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon.
“My family was in the projects for 47 years,” she said. “But the reason I’m here is that I got a good public education. What matters is that little brown girls like me get the same chance.”
Afterward, Henderson stood by Smith’s assertions about the uptick in white enrollment: “I do believe it’s a good thing. The great thing about getting an urban education is getting kids to interact with kids from all over the place. Increasingly, black parents are saying to me, ‘It’s okay, I want my kids to learn how to interact with white people.’ ”
While census data show the number of African Americans in the District fell in the last decade — to barely 50 percent in 2010 — D.C. public schools are about 73 percent black.
Race figures, one way or another, into nearly every serious discussion of D.C. school reform. But seldom is it discussed publicly in such an unvarnished way by a schools leader. In an e-mail Friday, Henderson acknowledged that race relations in the city “are incredibly difficult and very politicized.” She emphasized that excellent teachers and principals are most important.
Diversity “is not a must-have in order to achieve an excellent education,” she said, “but it adds additional dimensions of exposure and engagement for students who must be able to succeed in a city and a world that is becoming more and more diverse.”
She added that she was “committed to creating a system where neither your race, neighborhood or income level determine your educational outcomes.”
There was little response to Henderson on this subject at the meeting. At least one person who was there said later that the issue’s complexity required careful discussion in another forum.
“She has a right to her viewpoint. I’m certainly not against white enrollment growing in DCPS,” said Thomas Byrd, a member of the board of the Ward 8 council and former head of the PTA at Ballou High School. “But I’m just saying there’s a perception out there that whites get what they want.”
Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, stepped into a thicket of controversy in an attempt to draw more whites into the system. In 2009, Rhee met with parents in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest who were reluctant to send white children to majority-black Hardy Middle School in the heart of Georgetown. The parents said their issues were with the school’s principal and its arts- and music-centered program. But when Rhee told a civic group that she wanted to “turn” the school, and later removed Patrick Pope as principal, Hardy parents were outraged. Rhee later said her comments had nothing to do with trying to limit African American enrollment at the school.
Henderson defended closure of the parent centers, saying they cost $4.4 million over five years but reached only a small clientele in wards 1, 7 and 8. In the 2010-11 school year, she said, they served 157 parents.
She also said that the school system is not equipped to help adults be better parents. Henderson reiterated her intention to reopen the centers, under operation of organizations with a track record in that area.
She said money would be better spent helping schools become more welcoming for parents. That would mean, among other things, an effort to change the culture of the front office in schools. Parents often complain that staff are uncommunicative or even hostile.
Henderson said she understood the frustration. “People walk in and there’s Sad Sack, Sorry Sue and Sister Snap-at-You.” She said she was arranging a meeting with all school office staff to address the issue.
But Henderson apologized for failing to consult with the community before shutting the centers in mid-July.
“The truth of the matter is we completely jacked up communication of this decision,” she said. “I own it.”