Local: Education

Council: D.C. schools need thorough improvement plan

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Photo - Students at Garrison Elementary School in D.C. (Examiner file photo)
Students at Garrison Elementary School in D.C. (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Education,Lisa Gartner

The D.C. Council called for a more comprehensive plan for improving DC Public Schools than the school system's proposal to close 20 campuses, as dozens of parents lined up Thursday night to protest the closings.

"We have a situation where we have schools in a downward spiral, and what happens is they're in this downward spiral, and resources are cut, so they're in a further downward spiral," Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh said at a hearing on the proposed closings that stretched well into the night. "We need a plan that's forward-looking to save our schools."

Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer who has done budget work for the council, said she has been involved in eight rounds of school closings, and this proposal "is more troubling than any of its predecessors. It is misplaced and mistimed, because it deals with a symptom in a way that can only worsen the illness it brings about": parents' unwillingness to send their children to DCPS campuses.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced Tuesday that the school system was targeting 20 schools for closure, including 18 neighborhood schools that would shut by next year.

Because schools are funded according to how many students attend them, underenrolled schools need to be "subsidized" by DCPS to pay for administrative and facility costs, Henderson said. By closing some of those schools, she could use those dollars to ensure every school has librarians, art teachers and multiple classes per grade level.

But lawmakers questioned why school closings were happening in a vacuum, when other, intertwined issues remain unaddressed, such as new school boundaries and feeder patterns, how DCPS should work with -- rather than against -- public charter schools, and the underlying reasons that schools couldn't attract enough students.

"We really need to get to the root causes for why our schools are closing," said Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander.

Why was Francis-Stevens Education Campus closing to make room for School Without Walls to expand, instead of focusing on a long-term approach to the magnet high school's overflowing success? When boundaries are redrawn to relieve crowding in Ward 3, where will students go? Why was Garrison Elementary closing, when its parents were rallying around the school and starting projects to improve the facilities? What would it take to make Ward 7 schools attractive to parents?

Though Henderson explicitly said schools are not closing because of low performance, she has acknowledged that it's a significant factor in underenrollment.

Parents were frustrated that in some cases, their children would be sent to schools with lower math and reading proficiency rates than their current schools up for closure.

"It's not safer. It's not better," said Tom Martin, a parent at Francis-Stevens. "If your goal is to keep students in the DCPS system and attract new students, this closure would further erode parents' trust in your system."

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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