DC VOICE Testimony on School Closures within DCPS November 19, 2012


Public Hearing on School Closures within DCPS, November 19, 2012
Erika Landberg, DC VOICE

Good afternoon.  Thank you for this opportunity to testify on public school closing issues.  As a DCPS parent in the 70s, my son’s elementary school was closed when he was in first grade.  As a member of the DC Board of Education in the 1990s I voted on 18 proposed school closures:  I am no stranger to school closing, or to the often negative consequences that result when closings are not conducted with care and consultation with the communities affected.  Nevertheless, I am not against school closings.  For various reasons, they can be necessary.  This time I suggest we do two things differently:  1) redesign how we use underutilized school buildings and 2) design a community-based consolidation process.

Turn Underutilized School Buildings into Community Schools
In Chancellor Henderson’s press release accompanying her school closure proposals, she said:  “…we need our schools to look very different.”  Many of us would agree, but would go far beyond the examples which follow her statement:  rigorous coursework at all levels?  career and technical programs?  Those should already be in place and not need school closings to make them happen.
No, we at DC VOICE are talking about schools that not only look different but operate differently.  I’m talking about community schools – open longer hours and offering multiple programming for all ages, including their students.  Such schools become centers, anchors, of their communities, with the available space used to house multiple services from health and dental services to child care and tutoring to adult education and job training.  Such schools end up increasing student achievement because of their additional resources, partnerships and programming, their intentional community and parent engagement, and their services to families which enable those families in turn to be more supportive of their children’s learning. 

In his testimony on Friday, my colleague Jeff Smith reminded the Council that the legislation you passed last year, and funded in the 2013 budget is not being implemented as of yet.  The opportunity is here and now, and two possibilities emerge as part of this closing process:   One is to rethink a couple of the schools on the proposed list, schools that have 200-300 students now, have extra space, and are in communities that would especially benefit from the community school structure.  The second possibility is to look at consolidations that for whatever reasons should take place, and turn the consolidated school into a community school – so that the families from the closing school really do have a different and better place for their children and themselves, a place that will make them choose to go there instead of leaving DCPS and causing enrollment to fall.  By the way, experience elsewhere in the country has shown that enrollment often goes up as families realize the benefits and want to be part of a community school.

Design and Implement a Community-based Consolidation Process
When a school is closed and consolidated into another one, the parents of those displaced children don’t just fall into line and go to the new school.  Particularly now in Washington, DC when parents have so many options.  In 2006, DC VOICE conducted a study:  DCPS 2006 School Consolidations:  How did the Transitions Go?  We made 6 recommendations, which I have attached here.  And while all six are important, I want to focus on two today: 
  •  Form a transition task force at each school consolidation site
  • Develop and implement a communications and marking plan

The kind of task force we envision would have official standing, in the community and in the eyes of DCPS.  It would have decision making power; its ideas and proposals could not be dismissed.  It would have parents, community members and teachers on it for sure, so that the broadest spectrum possible of persons would have a voice and be part of the consolidation process, from beginning to school opening in the fall and beyond.

One of its tasks would be to personally contact every family and staff member in the closing school and ask them what is important to keep from the present school, including what programs should transfer; what their hopes and dreams are for their children in a new school; and, as much as possible, describe what to expect in the new school.  Such a task force would actually design and implement a marketing campaign for the new consolidated school. 

For that matter, DCPS needs to develop a marketing mentality and practices across the school system, regarding all of its schools.  Because we live in a time when parents have many choices, intentional outreach and marketing are needed for the school system to keep its market share, so to speak.  School closings make the system particularly vulnerable to enrollment loss.  If done badly – ignoring the dual needs to create truly different community schools with richer and more comprehensive programming, and to conduct school consolidations and marketing effectively – the enrollment decline could be catastrophic over time. 

DC VOICE Testimony at Hearing on School Closures - November 15, 2012


DC VOICE Testimony at D.C. City Council Hearing
Public Oversight Hearing on Review of School Closures within the District of Columbia Public Schools and Public Hearing on Bill 19-734: School Boundary Review Act
Thursday, November 15, 2012

Good Afternoon, my name is Jeff Smith. I'm the parent of a 6 year old DCPS student and a member of DC VOICE, a small civil rights organization whose lone civil rights issue is public education in the District of Columbia.

My testimony revolves solely around 4 findings and 4 questions that we would hope that council and its staff obtain answers to and shares with the public while it considers the Chancellors proposed list of school closings.

The Chancellor was quoted as saying, “we need to stop investing in the same things we have been investing in.  We need to make more radical progress.”  From this quote, one could interpret this to relate to school closings.   It is easy to see where some benefits might be derived from consolidating some programs and realizing several efficiencies.  It seems like a great idea to expand success and access to high-performing schools like School Without Walls.

But we closed 22 schools four years ago; we closed 5 two years before that.  That was a huge social, emotional and fiscal investment for this community and we have not been given information that shows the benefit or progress derived from those investments and now we are looking to invest in more of the same.  We have not received an evaluation of the last round of school closings or for that matter of Mayoral Control.

Question 1: what enhancements can affected communities count on? For example, how does closing schools carry over into more highly qualified teachers or ensure that additional counselors and enrichment activities are available to our children? Or, will many simply transfer into larger settings with the same programmatic offerings?

Additionally, we shouldn’t allow the Mayor to advance a proposal void of essential facts and figures such as the potential savings or cost avoidance that such a proposal brings about.
Question 2: How will the council and DCPS justify the closing of schools as an investment to the public and how will they measure their impact? How will they let the community know that they made a good decision to close these specific schools, and not just any schools?

One option offered is that we would convert these sites to charter schools. Given trends in enrollment and a growing demand for charter schools, this seems unavoidable. But what experience has shown us, is that the charters will simply claim the students in that neighborhood that were previously at DCPS’s under enrolled schools causing a further loss of enrollment.  Ceasar Chavez in my neighborhood is a perfectly good example.

Bruce Monroe was closed.  Chavez opened up the next year on the same property just down the same block.  Now all the kids I knew in my neighborhood that went to Bruce Monroe, except 1, now attend Chavez instead of the nearby Park View School that Bruce was moved into. There seems to be a cycle that promotes perpetual under-enrollment in public schools under this model.

Question 3: What is DCPS doing to stop enrollment loss? What size school system is envisioned by DCPS?

Just 5 years ago, DCPS began the process of dismantling Junior High Schools and instead making k-8’s and 6-8’s called Middle Schools.  Parents like myself were concerned with sending their kindergartners to school with 8th graders. That was the case when my wife and I looked into sending my daughter to Stevens, which had just converted to k-8.  Now we are shifting again to suggest sending 6th graders to school with 12th graders and Stevens will instead be combined with a High School. If we are doing this solely for facilities purposes, the High School and Junior High should remain separate as two entities – similar to Bell Multi-Cultural.  If, such as the case with K-8’s, there is a educational benefit to co-locating these various grades, that should be made clear as well along with whatever provisions will be taken to avoid increased bullying and intimidation by High School students onto their Middle School peers.

Question 4: How can the asset of having “extra” space be used to co-locate more programs and services for young people and their families.  If Middle School children and HIgh School students can occupy the same building, what is stopping DCPS from utilizing dual-use of buildings to house public services in the community schools format?

In 2009 we helped the D.C. City Council author legislation to create community schools that would offer comprehensive services and programming.  That bill was approved and funded this year after extensive and genuine community engagement.  Yet more than 200 days after its final approval OSSE has failed to comply with any of the requirements this body authored for establishing such schools or dispersing those monies.  Before shuttering more doors, city council owes the citizenry an answer to what’s happening with existing efforts to more efficiently use public school space in a way that supports students.  My Colleague Erika Landberg will talk more about Community Schools when she testifies on Monday.


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