Last month, the day before Thanksgiving break, the school staff was told that Washington Met, which serves middle and high school students who struggled on traditional campuses, would close in June. D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee wrote, “Washington Metropolitan has consistently underperformed.” Ferebee cited under-enrollment as the main reason for the sudden change four months into the school year.
Since the 2013 documentary, Washington Met students have experienced the change of five principals in six years. In this period, D.C. Public Schools has cut Washington Met’s art classes, athletic programs, music and library. Academics are down to math and reading. So who is to blame? DCPS wants to blame Washington Met staff for failing to live up to unattainable goals; Washington Met staff will say the school was set up to fail and lacked the supportive resources from DCPS that other schools receive.
To the students who attend Washington Met, this is another failure in a long list of traumatizing and disappointing events in their lives. The blame is irrelevant.
DCPS has long used mental-health language such as “trauma-informed care” and “social-emotional learning,” but rarely has the needed depth of trauma-informed care been implemented in school settings.
In 2017, as part of the mayor’s school mental-health expansion program, Washington Met was assessed and ranked as having the highest need in the city based on its high at-risk population. The purpose of the expansion was to place additional mental-health clinicians in the highest-needs schools. Dozens of schools across the District have received additional mental-health support. Yet, as 2020 approaches, Washington Met has yet to receive a social worker.
It is difficult to believe that DCPS wanted Washington Met to succeed in this changing city. But make no mistake, the majority of research indicates that school closures disrupt communities, rarely save money and have negative effects on student outcomes. While DCPS can claim that under-enrollment is the cause, this perspective neglects decades of research that suggest smaller, attachment-based school relationships are extremely beneficial, especially to the most underserved populations. When you define school success with test scores, you overlook the stability that Washington Met brings and the importance of a home for a student’s psychological well-being. In the social work field, the not-so-secret secret is that there is a main catalyst for change in therapy. No matter the modality, the overwhelming research cites the relationship as the catalyst. DCPS is taking that away.
Washington Met students come to school, not always to do math and reading, but to be nurtured, cared for and loved while working through various traumas. For many students, the feeling of care from staff is the starting point of recovery that brings them back to a sense of normalcy. When ready, many students who have intermittently poor attendance will have the space to recover and complete their academics while processing their various traumas and mental health. Many will earn their diplomas and enter the world with the guidance of the stable and positive relationship that they know will always be at Washington Met. Why take that space away?
In the coming weeks, Washington Met will go through its own sense of academic mourning that will appear much like grief and loss. It will be important to hear the voices of the students. They deserve the right to be heard and listened to, and we should make space for their frustration and anger. It is part of the process.
Our school system has failed the students of Washington Met. We are seeing the endgame of a process that systematically whittled away any meaningful academic support. All the students have left is a few classes and the caring, healing relationships with dedicated staff. Now our leaders want to take those away.
Is closing a school a trauma-informed decision? Typically the answer is no, and let me make this very clear: Closing Washington Metropolitan High School will cause trauma. How will it be handled, and do the residents of the District care about our most vulnerable population?