Barras: D.C.'s education emergency

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The District continues to have a public education emergency.

Many charters could be considered mediocre. A significant number of traditional schools have been labeled low performers; some of those, undoubtedly, are on Mayor Vincent C. Gray's and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's facilities closure list, expected to be released within days.

Taxpayers should revolt. More than $1 billion of their money is being spent annually on two systems -- neither of which can claim true excellence.

"We have work to do as a community," Skip McCoy, vice president of the public charter school board told me, following a press conference where the group released its 2012 performance reports. Currently, there are 57 schools on 102 campuses -- 64 of which received numerical scores, pushing them into one of three tiers.

Only 20 of the 64 reached Tier 1 -- the category for the highest-performing schools. That's two fewer than last year.

Thirty-five schools were in the mushy Tier 2, with scores between 35 and 64.9 percent. The last nine were in the abysmal Tier 3, where scores ranged from 14 percent to 34.8 percent.

"We're pleased with the high performers. [But] there is work to do even with Tier 1 schools," added McCoy. A charter could score as low as 65 percent and still reach Tier 1.

When I was in school, 65 percent was unsatisfactory -- unless, of course, grading was on a curve. That seems to be what's happening with the charter board's evaluations.

Things aren't much better at DCPS. Gray and Henderson had pledged in a five-year academic plan to bolster the system's 40 lowest-performing schools. Now advocates are questioning whether the executive expects to achieve that goal through school closures.

"Is closing [schools] their solution," asked Daniel del Pielago, an organizer with the nonprofit Empower DC, which has been working with parents and a coalition of organizations to prevent the closures. It also has filed a federal Title VI complaint, alleging such action would disproportionately affect communities of color.

The D.C. Council is expected to hold a public hearing next week on DCPS-related issues including closures and legislation introduced by Ward 3's Mary Cheh to examine school boundaries.

"We think there should be a moratorium on closures," continued del Pielago. "There has been no evaluation of mayoral control and no analysis of the impact of the last round of closures."

When then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools in 2007, they promised facility and academic improvements. Buildings have been renovated. But there appears to have been academic disinvestment. Moreover, the legally mandated evaluation has been pushed to 2013.

Empower DC and other advocates have begun training and preparing parents to testify at the council's Thursday hearing. They have promised to do whatever is necessary to stop the closures, including going to court.

Even if they can't stop the closures, they may get an answer to the question they have asked for the past five years: What were the benefits of previous closures?

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

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