PARCC and the “Elsewhere” Schools

Right now, city leaders, education officials, and parents are poring over the latest PARCC test results for grades 3 through 8 in our public schools. There have been, and will be, many things written about these test results. Some will tout the results as evidence that one sector or set of schools or approaches is better than another. Many will say that improvement takes time, that works needs to be done, that the trajectory is clear.

Test scores are satisfying that way–they tell a story that has a beginning and an end, supported by the seemingly unassailable rationality and logic of numbers.

That rationality and logic provide a comforting bulwark for educational policy in the face of vast changes in DC public education over the last 20 years: Mayoral control of all public schools. The start, and tremendous spread, of DC charter schools. A computerized lottery system that allows anyone to choose nearly any public school. The churning of principals. The mobility of our student population. The incredible firing, and hiring, of teachers. The equally incredible opening, and closure, rate of schools. The push for accountability in the form of testing.

Test and ye shall know–something.

But what is not said, what has now and historically in DC been relegated elsewhere, are the persistent and difficult issues in DC public education that such testing hints at (and of course can never address): inequities across schools, including availability of AP classes, functional libraries, teacher qualifications, and renovated facilities; wide and unchanging achievement gaps; socioeconomically segregated school populations and their negative effects on the poorest students; and school closures that disproportionately affect the poorest and most powerless.

A literal example of this old DC phenomenon is this large hole in the ground, near Eastern Market metro.

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This hole is where for about 150 years, until this summer, DC public school buildings once stood. It is being developed for condos and townhouses. Eastern Market is the brick building in the background, to the left.

When Eastern Market caught fire some years back, a fellow Capitol Hill neighbor said that it felt like an old friend dying. Many in my neighborhood of Capitol Hill felt the same while watching Frager’s hardware store disintegrate in flames.

I do not know who regarded the passing of the last school on this site, Hine Junior High, in the same light.

I know no one currently living on Capitol Hill who sent their child to Hine. I know no one around me who even thought about it as a school for their child. I went there to vote and, once, to participate in a citywide planning session for DCPS school buildings. Plenty of people noted what an ugly building it was.

That 1960’s era building was not the first iteration of Hine on that site. The first Hine school was built in 1891, next to the Wallach School, designed by Adolf Cluss decades earlier and one of the city’s first public school buildings. The 1891 building at 7th and C streets SE was known first as Eastern High School, then renamed Hine Junior High when the present Eastern High School–on East Capitol Street–was built in the 1920s.

By 1954 and desegregation, the 1891 Hine–formerly all-white–was in poor condition, a situation unremedied by 1963, when visiting members of Congress nicknamed it “Horrible Hine” for the poor condition it was in. A man who grew up nearby recalled to me that when he was a child in the early 1960s, the 1891 Hine, tall and decrepit, “leaned like the Tower of Pisa.”

But plans to replace, and then to expand, “Horrible Hine” were received with unhappiness. In March 1965, the Washington Post noted that those “seeking a prestige area of mostly upper class single persons or older couples living in luxury or restored housing, have come out against expanding the school.” A local organization argued against having any school on the site at all, noting that “a separate school could be built elsewhere.”

Fifty years on, the kids and the schools are finally elsewhere. After a period in which I recall the term “Horrible Hine” used to reference the school’s test scores, students, and staff, Hine was closed and its students sent to Eliot Middle School, about a mile away, next to Eastern High.

During Hine’s demolition this summer, I saw an exposed stairwell, with railings, balusters, and tile identical to those in my daughter’s DCPS elementary, Watkins, just half a mile away. Not surprising that the two public schools, of about the same age, would share materials and design.

After years of gas leaks; damage from unrepaired windows; and evacuations due to aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance, Watkins is slated to receive a renovation this summer. Parents just heard that there would be a swing space–with Eliot-Hine Middle School as one possibility.

That would be the Eliot-Hine that took in students from the now-demolished Hine Junior High. The Eliot-Hine that is less than half full as we create new schools every year across the city, without any coordination with existing schools. The Eliot-Hine that the mayor and a host of city leaders toured recently as an example of an aging, poorly maintained public school, with decrepit bathrooms, leaking roof, mold, and unregulated heat and air conditioning. Whose renovation has been repeatedly postponed.

Recently, Eliot-Hine parent Heather Schoell heartbreakingly begged city leaders that if Eliot-Hine students did not warrant clean air at their school, then perhaps those leaders could provide it for the sake of Watkins students.

As we spend millions annually to test our public school students, in the wake of which our city leaders and education officials decry or celebrate the results, take a minute to ask what is not said, what we have relegated elsewhere–and why.

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