The campus, in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington, is one of the city’s few high schools that have not received a significant infusion of money to modernize facilities. There are no computers in the library and media center at Washington Metropolitan — known as Washington Met — and piles of books are shoved haphazardly in boxes.
“The lack of service and lack of support we receive is really criminal. This is gross neglect,” said Brian Morrison, a history teacher at Washington Met, which, like most alternative schools, serves students who struggled on traditional campuses.
“These are the students who need the most resources,” Morrison said.
The proposal to shut down the 150-student school illustrates the city’s challenges in developing and sustaining robust educational options for children with the greatest needs — often students who failed academically at other schools, had behavioral problems or did not show up for class. Ferebee’s Nov. 27 announcement that the school may close came just months after Washington Met enrolled its inaugural seventh-grade class of 19 students.
The school educates more than 40 eighth-graders. Washington Met is the school system’s only alternative campus educating middle school students, and Ferebee said the curriculum fails to properly serve those students. He also said it was ineffective to share staff between high school and middle school students.
The District’s alternative high schools use Summit Learning, a computerized program that allows students to review lesson plans and take quizzes online at their own pace. This approach did not work for the middle school students at Washington Met, Ferebee said.
“Like we do in many other areas where we have challenges with students’ outcomes and achievements, we try something new,” Ferebee said. “And if those strategies are not successful, we go in a different direction.”
Throughout the country, city leaders must weigh the potential financial and academic benefits of closing a school against the downsides for students. Smaller schools cost more to operate and, because schools receive funding based on enrollment, often lack resources compared with larger campuses.
Ferebee said that city leaders are listening to students and teachers and that he does not take the decision to close a school lightly.
The potential consequences of closing Washington Met are evident in the stories of students such as Anthony Shipman-Mercer, who plans to graduate this semester.
In September — two months before the chancellor announced his proposal to close the campus — the school’s vice principal messaged the principal and three staff members saying 20 Washington Met high school students needed to be transferred by the end of the week, according to an email obtained by The Washington Post.
It is unclear why the email was sent, and the school system declined to comment on it.
Shipman-Mercer said he was told he had to find a new school. But he did not want to transfer, so he picked up extra shifts at a KFC for a few weeks as he considered whether to switch to a different school to earn his diploma.
A few weeks passed. Then his mother visited Washington Met and received permission for her son to return.
But the confusion around Shipman-Mercer’s schooling and his near-decision not to come back underscores why teachers say they are worried about a potential closure at the end of the academic year. They fear their students will simply drop out.
Many of the students were expelled from other schools, and Brian Wheeler, a school social worker, said promised one-on-one meetings with students aren’t enough. The city needs a more detailed transition plan, he said.
“When there’s no plan,” Wheeler said, “I know what’s going to happen to most of these students.”
Calls to keep school open
Washington Met opened in 2008 as one of the city’s four alternative high schools. It moved in 2016 to its location near Howard University. At its peak, it served about 280 students, according to city data.
The city’s three other alternative high schools that are part of the traditional public school system have received facility upgrades and have overhauled career education in recent years.
But officials point to investments they have made in Washington Met, including paid internship opportunities and additional mental health workers.
Still, Ferebee said, students would be better served at the school system’s other campuses. Most of the teens live closer to other alternative high schools, which could boost attendance.
Students could also transition back to traditional campuses.
“DC Public Schools has a responsibility to create learning environments where every student can succeed at their neighborhood school,” Ferebee said in a statement.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is expected to make a decision on Washington Met’s fate by the end of the month, city officials said. The city wants to make a decision before the Feb. 3 deadline for students to participate in the school lottery, which gives students a shot at a seat on a campus other than their neighborhood school.
Since Ferebee announced his proposal to shutter the school, students and teachers — with the backing of the Washington Teachers’ Union — have attended community meetings and walked the hallways of city hall advocating to keep the school open. A petition has garnered more than 1,500 signatures.
The students have slowly started to gather support from and audiences with city officials. The deputy mayor for education, who has not taken a stance, met with students for more than 20 minutes when they approached him in city hall on Jan. 15.
All nine members of the D.C. State Board of Education, who are elected but hold little power, wrote a letter to the chancellor and deputy mayor calling on them to keep the school open.
And D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) wrote a letter to the chancellor last week saying she does not want the school to close in June.
“To close a school just a year after adding a 7th grade program appears irresponsible, or at the very least, signals a lack of thoughtful planning,” Nadeau, whose ward includes the school, wrote. “I would like to work with you to figure out how we can keep Washington Metropolitan open until existing students have graduated.”
'Teachers are so supportive'
Shareeda Jones never intended for her daughter to transfer schools so frequently. But her 15-year-old attended three schools in three years. If Washington Met is shut down, she could be forced to send her child to another school for the next academic year.
When Jones’s daughter attended her neighborhood middle school for sixth grade, she was suspended frequently. Her counselors suggested a nearby arts-focused charter school would be a better fit. Jones enrolled her there a month into seventh grade and said her daughter loved the music courses and thrived.
But education officials last year closed that charter school — which is publicly funded but privately operated — amid low academic performance by students.
It was then that school counselors recommended her daughter enroll at Washington Met, which she did.
“Now,” Jones said, “we are in a place where we have to put my child in another school.”
Jones’s story isn’t unique among Washington Met students. One 16-year-old with a young child said she cycled through three D.C. high schools before starting at Washington Met.
Fifteen percent of the school’s students are homeless, and 41 percent require special education services, according to city data.
Students said in interviews that parole officers, school counselors and relatives encouraged them to enroll in Washington Met.
Yasmin Brown, an 18-year-old aspiring nurse, credits the school with putting her on track to graduate this spring. This is the fourth high school she has attended, and she said the first where she has formed relationships with teachers and learned.
“This is the longest time I’ve been at a high school,” Brown said.
Teachers provide them with diapers for their babies, help them find jobs and provide one-on-one academic help.
“The teachers are so supportive; they are like parents,” said Lyric Johnson, a 16-year-old high school student. “For some of our kids, this is their last hope.”