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Break Up To Make Up: The Politics of School Closings

The big protest rally was supposed to draw thousands of people, but only dozens showed up. The boycott was going to paralyze the school system, but hardly anyone noticed. The city sent top administrators to every neighborhood to conduct 23 simultaneous public hearings, and at some places, not a single person showed up -- not one.

When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed shutting down 23 of Washington's most egregiously underenrolled schools, knee-jerk politicians predictably behaved like those unscrupulous drivers who shout about whiplash after somebody glances their fender.

Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, still the reigning champion of winning time on the TV news, issued one outraged statement after another, showed up at every protest and, as late as Thursday, was on the tube railing against Rhee: "The chancellor's just being bullheaded. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

Less than 24 hours later, a different Barry shook the mayor's hand and stepped before the cameras at a news conference announcing the final list of schools to be closed. "This is a historic day," the Mayor for Life said with a big smile. "Mayor Fenty took the bold action of making education number one." The closings -- the very same closings Barry had spent the previous two months slamming at every turn -- were suddenly an essential, empowering act of excellence.

"We have not a broken system, but a very, very, very broken system," Barry explained.

But wait -- weren't you just on the other side? Weren't you talking about how you, the parents and the whole city would fight to the end against shutting down 20 percent of the system?

"You're not going to satisfy everybody," Barry said. "Quite frankly, how we went through this was tame compared to what's happened when they did this in the rest of the country. People lost friendships behind it. But this is a victory for our children. . . . I'm delighted to be able to join in this situation."

"I thought that was fascinating," Rhee told me after watching the Barry pivot. (Hey, she's new in town.)

All Fenty would say when I asked about Barry's latest switcheroo was that the former mayor had "a pretty different tone" now that he saw which way the wind was blowing.

The school closings are no mere breeze. They're the latest gust from a storm system composed of a mayor who won every precinct in the city and a chancellor who has no past and no great desire to have a future in the school superintendent business, credentials that buy an unusual amount of independence.

Rhee and Fenty pushed through the closings of 18 schools this year and five more in the next three years with vastly less opposition than there appeared to be -- "certainly less than the media portrayed," Rhee says.

The news feeds on conflict. When opposition isn't huge, it is sometimes made to look as if it is. At Thursday's rally, TV camera guys coaxed protesters to move closer together so the on-air picture would look like a substantial gathering.

The fact is that despite the loud protests of a relative handful of activists, remarkably few of whom are parents, the overall reaction to Rhee and Fenty's school reform efforts has been a surprising quiet above a foundation of overwhelming support, as measured in last month's Washington Post poll.

If anything, the response to the closings was too quiet. "I would much rather come to a meeting where people are passionate and yelling at me than those rooms I walked into and no one was there to speak for any of the kids," Rhee says. "That was really alarming to me."

The chancellor explains the lack of parent involvement as a failure of the system. "They don't trust the schools or the District, and I understand why. We treat them poorly, with incredible disrespect."

Improving how parents are treated and ratcheting up the academic content are two of Rhee's big goals once she works through the closings.

The system doesn't have the money to add the full range of teachers Rhee wants in every school, but this fall, each school receiving students from closed buildings will be rewarded with several new positions for art, music and gym teachers, as well as nurses, social workers and librarians. That approach -- and not what Rhee calls the "drill and kill" emphasis on test skills that too many systems have adopted in response to the No Child Left Behind testing mania -- is what "creates achievement and teaches a love of learning," she says.

At Ron Brown Middle School, the run-down Northeast facility where Fenty and Rhee announced the final closings list, Principal Darrin Slade says parents understand the connection between shutting down nearly empty buildings and improving programs in the remaining schools. In a building that can handle 983 students, Slade has but 268 -- but rather than being closed, his school will take in students from a neighboring school. That will allow Slade to get the art program he has long wanted, improve his teaching staff and work down his building's maintenance backlog.

"Rhee has already made more positive changes than all the previous superintendents I've seen combined," Slade says.

When we finished talking, we were the only people left on the school's second floor, which has been largely unused for years. Come fall, it will be filled with children and teachers. Nobody will protest that.

Join me at noon Tuesday for "Raw Fisher Radio," this week featuring a talk with newsmakers about the new Nationals stadium, at

By Marc Fisher |  February 3, 2008; 7:41 AM ET
Previous: Dulles Rail and the Realities of Suburban Hubs | Next: Schools Monday: After The Closings


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Ms. Rhee says, "The chancellor explains the lack of parent involvement as a failure of the system. "They don't trust the schools or the District, and I understand why. We treat them poorly, with incredible disrespect."

Typical pol speak. The parents aren't involved because they don't want to take the time to get involved. They pump out the kids and then let them go their own way when they become of school age. This is not Ms. Rhee's fault, it is a failure of the culture in the District of Columbia.

As for Barry, what do expect from Mr. Flipflop? Barry is a hack and a political liability for the city. No common sense in Ward 8.

Posted by: MICHAEL1945 | February 3, 2008 1:22 PM

Marion Barry has got to be one of the biggest arguments AGAINST home rule!

I am pleased to see that Rhee's closings are moving along because they so totally make sense.

Posted by: RoseG | February 3, 2008 2:32 PM

This is not Ms. Rhee's fault, it is a failure of the culture in the District of Columbia.

What culture is that? The baby boomer lawyers in Palisades? I have no idea what you're talking about.

Posted by: DCer | February 3, 2008 3:36 PM

You pick Barry because he is a galvanizing figure..and in doing so...people would forget the lack of facts and substantive observations. And they may agree for ten seconds but a great deal of people just think you live outside reality and write stories from that vantage point

Posted by: Kylie | February 3, 2008 7:39 PM

Were you surprised that no parents showed up for meetings about the closings of the schools? Had it been a hearing about the end of the lottery or the suspension of wine sales the place would have been packed. Welcome to the city Madame Chancellor.

Posted by: Ray | February 3, 2008 8:47 PM


1) Where will the families we want to attract to D.C. send their kids?

2) What will be the attraction for revenue-generating families to move into the District if there are not enough good and conveniently located schools for their children?

3) Are mayor Adrian Fenty, the takeover team, some councilmembers and developers speculating that mostly or only high income CHILDLESS couples and singles will gentrify and finance the District?

Sure, it's easier to sell our public property than doing the hard work of rebuilding our public schools into centers of educational excellence. It's time to pause, think and consider the long term consequences, and at least one genuine and effective student-focused idea beyond closing schools, and selling taxpayer-owned property to private developers.

Why not renovate and convert parts or all of the under-enrolled schools in evening adult training and learning centers, or strategically located pre-school learning centers, DCPS satellite offices, family preventative healthcare centers, and community-based D.C. government agency offices (DMV, employment, tax, housing, etc.). Once these public properties are sold for private use, they're gone forever.

Moreover, to attract more revenue-generating families with conveniently located schools of academic excellence, let's redevelop D.C. public and charter schools into non-tuition citizen and teacher controlled Public Academies standardized by 10-student class sizes. Isn't the point to make D.C. a truly family-friendly city by also having and improving our public schools?

The academy concept is designed to enhance greater attention to individual student needs and academically empower all children, particularly our special education achievers, with a stronger, empowering and challenging educational program. At a basic level, we believe our plan fosters a truly student-focused District educational system where children are accomplishing basic reading and introductory mathematics by age 3, not grade 3 -- with an infrastructure where college attendance or post-high school professional occupation training is a standard accomplishment. Citizen-parent oversight and control is a key element throughout.

In the Excellent Schools Plan (ESP), the standard elementary to high school curriculum includes comprehensive English, general sciences, technology, practical to advanced mathematics, environmental studies, critical analysis, strategic thinking, conflict resolution, performing arts, fine arts, American cultural history, world cultural history, social science, government studies, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. Additionally, courses will include writing, public speaking, interpersonal communication, literature, language arts (Spanish, Hausa, Swahili, Yoruba, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Aramaic, Cherokee, French, Italian, Russian, Latin, Greek, German, and Portuguese), pre-college studies, life management, team dynamics, citizen activism, physical fitness, martial arts, and health education. Included in ESP are diverse training courses and paid apprenticeship programs for Senior Academy students (computer repair, software and Internet programming, electrical and electronics repair, plumbing, carpentry, automobile repair, healthcare services, and small business development), complemented by rigorous academic studies, and extended full week neighborhood-based student services.

The ESP initiative is designed to systemically provide guaranteed full funding, upgrades and accountable operation in all aspects of the Public Academies to effectively educate pre-kindergarten (age 2) children to high school students. Estimated systemic funding for ESP will be conservatively at least 11% less than the current overall spending for the entire DCPS system. In an example, as a support tool for teachers and students and on-time delivery of up-to-date curriculum materials, students are assigned highly durable wireless notebook computers. These rugged lightweight units will be pre-loaded with secure curriculum software appropriate to each grade level and specific teacher lesson plans or course materials -- plus additional CD and DVD formatted educational resources. The computers' wireless capability will be encoded to only have access to a school-based Internet transmission, the ISIS system (Information Systems Infrastructure for Schools), and formatted CD, DVD and MP3 educational content. As our children are already electronically engaged, we must embrace this interest and ability by using familiar tools and hands-on teacher instruction that enhance their education. These tools will increase fiscal responsibility and accountability regarding expensive annual textbook procurements, storage, waste and on-time delivery.

Within 5 years we have the power to effectively empower all of our children by initiating the development and standardization of a Public Academy education system with the Preschool Academy (ages 2-3), Primary Academy (kindergarten to 4th grade; ages 4-8), Junior Academy (5th to 8th grade; ages 9-12) and Senior Academy (9th to 12th grade; ages 13-16) students. The program combines highly motivated and experienced teachers with state-of-the-art educational resources. Each class of 10 students has one teacher, amounting to a maximum 500 students per school composed of 100 students per grade. Companies can be given tax incentives and afterschool support to facilitate smaller onsite Preschool Academies and Primary Academies -- as well as increase the productivity and peace of mind of their working parents. In the Senior Academy years, 16-year-old graduates will go into pre-college and/or private and public sector apprenticeship programs. No doubt, we desperately need to improve and increase the District's pool of educated, trained and job-ready citizens. The exponential socioeconomic benefits are much greater than any savings from closing and selling public school property.

Admittedly, the ESP Public Academy concept is bold and outside the box. Yet, it is a very doable, educationally effective, practical, fully accountable, and fiscally responsible plan.

More details on the ESP Public Academy Concept are at:

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control

Posted by: Dennis Moore DCICC | February 3, 2008 11:22 PM

School closings - for me, the phrase always conjures "snow" and lately "Kori" making me feel like a dummy here. In self-defense, I wonder if there might not be a clearer phrase. Shuttered schools?

Posted by: jhbyer | February 4, 2008 12:44 AM

"The Politics of Schools Being Shuttered." No? Hmm...thinking...

Posted by: jhbyer | February 4, 2008 1:02 AM

"The Politics of School Closures."

Too abstract, Mr. Fisher (or sir or madam WaPo headline writer)? Let's move the "s":

"The Politics of Schools Closure."

Rightfully final? Too wonkish? Rightfully wonkish? Too zzzzz? Don't mind me, please. Still thinking...

Posted by: jhbyer | February 4, 2008 4:07 PM

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