For the past several years, parents in the District have agonized over school closings that have decimated the value of community schools and disrupted their children’s lives.
But that anger and increasing frustration, while palpable, has not been able to deter city leaders and school administrators from going ahead with the closing of 15 District of Columbia Public Schools by the end of academic year 2014. The closures are just the latest go-round of the shuttering of schools since 2008 under the former chancellor.
In response, activists are taking an action that they say indicates the level of seriousness with which they view the current situation. On March 28, a lawyer for Empower DC will file a lawsuit to stop Henderson from closing the schools on her list. Empower DC is a grassroots organization based in Northwest.
“They are discriminating against black and brown children, children with disabilities and where people live – all suspect categories,” said longtime civil libertarian and lawyer Johnny Barnes during an interview Saturday. “We believe that this has resulted in the violation of the U.S. Constitution as well as several federal and local statutes. There are several counts and multiple claims. You can’t just treat people this way.”
“We filed a statement of claim to allow the [city] government the opportunity to discuss, mediate or arbitrate and they declined.”
Henderson has been under mounting pressure from parents and other critics since November when she first revealed her plan to shutter schools which will begin in August. But she has insisted that the closings are in the best interest of the 2,000 students who will be affected.
When Henderson, 43, unveiled her controversial “DCPS Consolidation and Re-organization Plan” 20 schools across the city were slated for closure. She said all of them were either under-enrolled or under-performing. However, following a series of community meetings – some of which the chancellor attended – she returned to the table in January with a list that was pared down to 15 schools.
Daniel del Pielago, the education organizer for Empower DC, acknowledged the gravity of filing a lawsuit.
“It’s a big step,” he said, while waiting at a Chicago airport after attending a conference of groups and individuals fighting similar school battles elsewhere around the country. “We’ve seen nothing in the past showing that this improves anything. What we get is a loss of public school students and an additional burden on taxpayers. I think parents are very concerned and very confused with what’s going on.”
“[School officials] said they’re putting together a plan to retain students, but I go to affected schools and [parents] say they don’t know what’s going on. In conversations with Spanish-speaking parents, they say they’ve seen nothing in their language and they’re not told what’s going on. This just shows that there’s a plan that they’re engaged in and the end result will deeply and severely affect a majority of people, most who are minorities and our children.”
Barnes, 64, and del Pielago, 39, said marches, rallies, demands by parents and calls for a moratorium on school closings have yielded little or no response from Henderson, Mayor Vincent Gray or the D.C. Council. And as parents realize what’s happening, they’re mobilizing and forming instruments and groups of resistance to the proposed changes, the men said.
Henderson’s moves are seen by many as part of a carefully measured reformation of the District’s schools. Parents in affected communities are incensed that all 15 schools slated to be closed are located east of Rock Creek Park and predominantly east of the Anacostia River. Among the casualties: Spingarn Senior High School in Northeast.
In 2008, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools she deemed to be under-performing and during and after her tenure, the school system has been rocked by a series of changes she and her successor say will eventually produce stronger academic programs, reorganize resources and develop new efficiencies for schools across the city. Rhee did all this while alienating large swathes of the community with what people considered her brashness and arrogant behavior.
Henderson possesses a softer touch. But while she has been less autocratic and more willing to keep parents and administrators apprised of the process, the perception persists in the minds of parents, activists, and others that she will listen but then go ahead with her plans over their most strenuous objections.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the closings reflect school choice and a full-pitched battle for the soul of schools in the city. Currently, the push is for charter schools to replace traditional public schools, a struggle being waged in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and other municipalities, he said.
“The trend of putting public schools out of business and charters coming into business has been going strongly for a decade,” said Saunders, 48. “The District is moving more toward charter schools. This will continue to be a problem until these and other issues are addressed.”