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D.C. residents’ opposition to school closures intensifies
On Jan. 12, over 80 D.C. community members and activists gathered at the Guildfield Baptist Church for the Save Our Schools Action Summit organized by Empower DC, a local nonprofit organization.
The summit was held in response to D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s proposal released Nov. 13 to close up to 20 public schools in Wards 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Henderson says the schools are under-enrolled, often utilizing little more than half of their buildings. Schools in Wards 1 and 3 were spared because they are typically over-subscribed. A total of 28 schools have already been shuttered since 2008, when Henderson’s predecessor Michelle Rhee last looked to consolidate school buildings and resources, and this latest round could be completed by the end of next school year.
“I think [Kaya Henderson] may be profoundly misguided as to the long-term effects of school closures,” said Julianne Robertson King, mother of one children attending DCPS schools and panelist at the summit. “The community should push the chancellor to keep her promises and develop unique and innovative techniques for teaching students who are in the urban environment.”
One of the main concerns raised by community members was the concentration of school closings in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods. According to a study conducted by education finance expert Mary Levy, 89 percent of students in schools proposed for closing are black and another 7 percent are Hispanic. In addition, 83 percent of these students are low-income.
“We feel that the school closures are discriminatory,” said Daniel del Pielago, Education Organizer for Empower DC. “They are being used as another tool to force out low and moderate-income residents who tend to be people of color. In 2008, when they closed 28 schools, only 15 white students in the district were affected by it.”
Diana Onley-Cambell, another panelist at the summit and Board Chair for Empower DC, agreed. “The people who are being most affected are the traditionally most oppressed groups in our country.”
Community members are also skeptical of Henderson’s argument that “consolidating schools is our best option to better utilize our facilities and work more effectively for our schools, our teachers, our students, and our city.”
“School closures have not been shown to save any money in the District of Columbia,” del Pielago said. “The last time that they closed schools it was projected that they would cost $9.7 million. That in fact ended up costing the city $40 million dollars.”
According to a study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, even though proposed school closings would save around $10.4 million in staffing costs in the 2013-14 school year, these savings would be neutralized by the $10.2 million cost of closures to pay for inventory, relocation, and storage. It is unclear how much the closures are expected to save until the list of schools to be closed is finalized.
“These closures serve to destabilize communities, and force people out of the district,” del Pielago said. “People don’t have access to or it’s getting tougher for them to have access to quality education in their own neighborhood.”
Another concern raised by the school closures is their impact on local communities and the opportunities of upward-mobility for children growing up in low-income families.
“There are children who may be performing brilliantly but, because of their school closings, their actions in life are going to be curtailed or greatly diminished,” King said.
DC Action for Children, a nonprofit dedicated to children issues in the district, reports in a study that in eight of the 12 neighborhoods where schools are planning to be closed, child poverty is over 30 percent and community assets such as grocery stores are lacking.
“A school isn’t just a place where students go to during the day,” said Katharine Kairys, policy analyst for DC Action for Children. “It also serves as a community gathering point, like a fixture with before school or after school activities.”
Even though meetings have been organized with the goal of giving community members a space to voice their concerns and opinions, many feel that these meetings are not effective, especially because they occur after school closure decisions are made.
“There is a great deal of frustration in the community because Kaya Henderson and her subordinates continue to give less emphasis to the idea of accepting community input, respecting the community’s point of view and taking our ideas and desires into account,” King said.
In response to the proposal, Empower DC has presented a citywide petition calling for a moratorium on school closures.
“We feel that this [moratorium] is necessary because all of this process has omitted the communities that are directly affected,” del Pielago said. “We are calling for an immediate moratorium in order to develop a better process that actually values community input into making these decisions. We want to make sure for the city to look at the impact that these closures have had.”
The petition argues that “these closures are harmful to students, teachers, and communities and are being carried out in an unjust and discriminatory manner.”
Last year, D.C. community members collaborated with members of other urban cities to file several Title VI complaints, arguing that school closures around the country were a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination in federally funded programs.
As a response, the Department of Education has agreed to hold a hearing on the impact of school closures on Jan. 29.
“We want to use this as an opportunity to show that there is a national movement starting, and that there is an organized base of people that is representing the country that is willing to continue the fight against this injustice,” del Pielago said.
Update (01/19/13, 12:08pm)
DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the final school consolidation and reorganization plan on Jan. 18. 15 schools of the originally proposed 20 will be consolidated, 13 of them at the end of the 2012-2013 school year and two at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
“The proposal we put out in early November evoked strong reactions from the community,” said Henderson. “I’ve been inspired and encouraged by the thoughtful feedback we heard from parents, advocates, students, school staff and others during this process. My priority is, and will remain, what is best for our students, and I am confident that our final plan will best support our students and their families.”
Schools will be consolidated in Wards 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The final school consolidation and reorganization plan will also “expand quality program offerings and quality seats available at several schools,” according to Henderson’s press release.
Even though five schools were taken out of the original list of proposed school closings, the community is still not completely satisfied with the decision.
“It is great to hear that Garrison and Francis-Stevens [both in Ward 2] have come of the closure list, but realize that this means that the unjust impact of school closures will now overwhelmingly affect African-American and Latino students most living in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty,” wrote Daniel del Pielago in an email to the Voice.
“Gray and Henderson’s decisions hurt students of color but they seem to not care, they continue the legacy of top-down decisions which favor privatization/money over people. Empower DC along with allies from around the city will continue the fight to stop this unjust cycle of discriminatory school closings.”