Barras: D.C.'s schools closing plan raises lots of uncomfortable questions

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

When Daniel del Pielago, of Empower DC, asked a week ago whether Mayor Vince C. Gray's and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's method for achieving their stated goal of reducing the number of low-performing traditional schools was to close them, I didn't full embrace his charge. I thought it a tad too cynical.

But as I have reviewed the mayor and chancellor's closure package, I may have been too quick to judge del Pielago. It turns out that half of the 20 schools Henderson has proposed shuttering are on the list of the system's lowest-performing schools.

Davis, Ferebee-Hope, M.C. Terrell, Malcolm X, Marshall, Shaw-Garnet Patterson, Smothers; they are all elementary schools listed among the lowest performers and slated for closure. Prospect and Winston Education Campuses and Johnson Middle School are identified as lowest performers who also appear in the closure-consolidation plan, according to documents provided by DCPS.

In Henderson's written closure plan, she said that "the availability of receiving schools to offer students an improved experience" was one of "the four factors in selecting schools to recommend for consolidation." Interestingly, poor performers are being merged, in some cases, with others that also are among the system's lowest-performing schools, which somewhat contradicts the chancellor's assertion of improvements.

Davis Elementary would be merged with C.W. Harris, for example. Johnson's students would be sent to Hart and Kramer Middle Schools, while Ron Brown's would be sent to Kelly Miller. The students enrolled in Shaw-Garnet Patterson would be sent to Cardozo, which would become, in some instances, the dumping ground for the system's bad actors.

Is this any way to educate the city's children, many of whom are low-income minorities? They must feel like the deck chairs on the Titanic.

To be fair, Henderson has said during multiple presentations of her plan in the media and before the D.C. Council that nothing has been finalized. She has suggested that she might be willing to make changes -- although it's clear she remains intent on closing underused schools.

But a consensus is building even on the city council that perhaps a more comprehensive plan is needed that combines concerns about academic performance with the need to reform an antiquated boundary system and address low occupancy rates in some buildings.

"We need to look at this in a comprehensive fashion," Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans said during a recent public hearing. Garrison Elementary in Logan Circle, which has a 64 percent occupancy rate and is not one of the lowest-performing schools, is on the closure list, as is Francis-Stevens Education Campus, a pre-K through eighth-grade facility in Foggy Bottom.

"Closing buildings is not radical change," said Jeff Smith, a parent leader with DC Voice. "It's just controversial."

It's also the easy response to a difficult question: how best to fund small schools and how to educate children who aren't necessarily well-prepared academically and may not have the necessary home-based support systems to ensure their success. Surely the answer can't be closing their schools every four years.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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