Local: Education

Barras: Saluting D.C. teachers, then delivering a smack in the face

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Local,DC,Education,Jonetta Rose Barras,Vincent Gray

Wicked. That's the best description for D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's and Mayor Vincent Gray's sense of timing.

The District held its so-called "standing ovation" for teachers and principals at the Kennedy Center during the same week Gray and Henderson are expected to release the final list of schools to be closed. Instructors and administrators from those facilities likely will lose their jobs.

"This is part of the smack in your face and confusing nature of DCPS," said Daniel del Pielago, education organizer for the nonprofit organization Empower DC.

It, several other organizations and tons of residents have called for a moratorium on all school closures. They have said the closings are "unjust and discriminatory because they disproportionately impact communities of color; a coalition led by Empower DC held a summit last week to outline future actions to stop the closings.

"We are going to take legal action. We are in the process of identifying plaintiffs," said del Pielago. Empower DC and District residents also have joined forces with their counterparts in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia to create a national movement against school closings. They have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education; a hearing has been set for Jan. 29.

Henderson submitted her proposal to close 20 schools last fall. Many of the facilities are east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. Since her announcement, she has held community hearings and met privately with dozens of individuals and groups including the Ward 7 Education Council.

Still, the widely held, objective view is that this third round of closures in six years could be the death knell for DCPS.

"We've run out of schools to close if we want to keep a system of walkable neighborhood schools," said Mary Levy, an expert on District public schools. She said she supported previous closures but is against this action.

"I foresee the downward spiral of DCPS," Levy said.

Already the network of independent charters has captured 43 percent of public school students. In 2008, after the closure of 23 facilities, 3,000 DCPS students raced to charters. Henderson has said DCPS recouped that loss.

Del Pielago has called the closures "subterfuge." He said they misdirect the conversation about DCPS' poor achievement results. The Washington Examiner's Rachel Baye wrote recently that Education Week's "Quality Counts" report card gave the District a "B" for standards, assessments and accountability. But the city earned an "F" for K-12 achievement.

Everyone should want to know why education reform policies haven't instigated sufficient improvements in student performance.

Levy said the city needs an "overall plan." That can't be developed until officials have completed several studies and reviews currently in the works: a master facilities plan; a review of current boundaries and feeder patterns; an examination of funding and its adequacy; and an independent evaluation of mayoral control of the public education system.

"Why would you close schools before that work is done and there is an overall plan?"

Good question.

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

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