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Barras: Education, starvation and obesity

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The boundary for Ward 3's Wilson High School tracks through parts of Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 4 and Ward 6. That wicked gerrymandering and a misguided out-of-boundary admissions process have caused overcrowding in some facilities. Other schools are severely under-used.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson have cited the latter as reason for school closures while ignoring the former and the role the government has played in both.

For example, Ward 4 families, among others, have been encouraged by DCPS' established boundary to enroll in Wilson. Yet schools in their communities, like Roosevelt or Coolidge High Schools, have suffered dwindling student populations, leading to a reduction in critical resources.

A change in boundaries could reduce overcrowding in Wilson and other Ward 3 facilities. It also could revive schools in other wards, eliminating the reason for closure.

Ward 3 D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh has pleaded for years with DCPS to redraw boundary lines. But neither former Chancellor Michelle Rhee nor Henderson has taken action.

"Part of the problem in terms of redrawing boundaries is that it's a hot political issue," Cheh told me last week.

Here's the raw truth: DCPS' boundaries and its out-of-boundary process are remnants of an inglorious past. They were designed to quell protests about academic inequity in a once segregated system.

But those neo-busing strategies have solved nothing. They have camouflaged the city's continued failure to invest adequately in many of its public schools, particularly those in low-income and working-class neighborhoods. They have protected local leaders against criticism about the absence of innovative methods for stimulating socioeconomic diversity, including citywide magnet schools.

The cure is the cancer. It has begun to destroy neighborhood choice for many families while decimating other communities through an aggressive, myopic school closure program.

Cheh has introduced legislation requiring a study of boundaries followed by appropriate and periodic adjustments. She believes the change could improve educational outcomes and lead to a more thoughtful diversity program, placing students from "well-resourced" backgrounds with those who are economically challenged. A public hearing on her proposal is set for Thursday.

"The legislation is not the solution. It puts the issue on the table," continued Cheh, adding that she thinks the DCPS should "mix it up."

Don't expect too much from the mayor or Henderson. DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said there was consideration of boundaries in the new school closure plan. But, she didn't elaborate.

It is time for change. The council should enact emergency legislation mandating Chancellor Henderson submit a proposal for new boundaries by Dec. 31, before closures take effect.

Children should not be subjected to overcrowding and warehouse-like conditions in their neighborhood schools. Nor should they be forced to travel outside their communities to receive a quality education.

District leaders created the problems. They should be made to solve them without further burdening the city's children.

jonetta rose barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

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

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