The Unbearable Lightness of Being [A Public School Family in DC]: Part 1

So, here it is, almost March, and after viewing more than 3 hours of the February 18 DCPS performance oversight hearing, I am struck by the odd way in which nothing said was new. OK, much of it was new to me personally, but none of it was new in a way in which I or any of my fellow public school parents would have said, “Aha! Now we know what THAT is!”

Below is a (by my necessity) incomplete and idiosyncratic round-up. Only one council member–David Grosso, chair of the council’s education committee–sat in for the entire hearing. Only one other, Charles Allen, passed through.

Let’s hope that the missing members of the council education committee (who are collectively by default our only elected officials with public schools enforcement oversight) have a break in their busy schedules to listen to the testimony before DCPS goes on the offensive on Friday March 4:

Bruce Monroe Elementary does not have enough funds for remodeling, despite having an inadequate facility. It also lacks funding for adequate staffing. The school was targeted for closure in 2008. (A Post article from the time noted a metric of a “median enrollment loss” used by then-chancellor Michelle Rhee to determine school closures, along with building condition.) Then, when parents and staff pushed back, it was combined with the nearby Park View School, and the old Bruce Monroe building subsequently demolished.

(As crazy and uncivic-minded as it might sound to determine school closures and even demolition by the condition of the deteriorated school buildings that city officials ignored for years, it is only the logical outcome of our public schools oversight. For instance, folks at Potomac Prep just got to know that oversight up close and personal, wherein their school was voted closed after a decade of problems overlooked by the charter board and council and mayor and DME–and then, after parent and staff protests, given a 1-year grace period to change everything (which they didn’t, according to an OSSE review of numbers-driven test data). The apparent logic behind such decision making entirely leaves out the responsibility of civic agencies and officials in those outcomes (i.e, students and staff don’t make buildings fall down nor do they prevent civic officials from acting on worrisome school issues more than once a decade)—all the while making such undeniably bad things like unchanging low test scores or decrepit buildings appear the result of, well, free-floating inadequacies that never quite attach themselves to the shiny Teflon of public officials who are the only ones holding the bag of funding and enforcement. It’s a brilliant way to do oversight—not to mention a cruel one.)

But I digress.

When one of the public witnesses spoke of a private grant that the school obtained to fix some of the cafeteria’s problems, and noted that despite their ribbon cutting, the private grant didn’t solve all their cafeteria problems, Grosso asked (26:55), “Why would you do a ribbon cutting if it doesn’t solve the problems?”

(Hmm: good question. Having now been present during any number of public laudings by public officials of the laudable Stuart-Hobson Middle School renovation, which is officially finished and still has outstanding major problems unaddressed, I worry that perhaps Councilmember Grosso isn’t quite aware of how this whole school facility thing works. That is: Public officials come and go, but when there is not enough political power in parents, students and/or schools, problems remain, and in the end, it isn’t private grants or parents who can make the difference because they’re not the ones holding the real budget or making the real decisionmaking. See digression above.)

But I digress again:

High school students testified about lack of counselors for mental health and post graduation plans (well, for any plans other than college or the military). They also testified about inequity of classes, particularly AP courses, across the city. They also testified about lack of freshness, quality, and quantity in school lunches (confidential to the chancellor: girls do not eat less than boys). And they also testified about unsanitary conditions in bathrooms (lack of toilet paper, nonfunctional water, etc.).

Apparently, DCPS doesn’t allow parents to observe special ed classrooms (1:46:00).

Banneker High School is still unrenovated, occupying a former junior high building that looks like time stopped circa 1955. It lacks an elevator, like some other unrenovated schools, so students who cannot make it up stairs are carried up. (This was a new twist for me: At the unrenovated Stuart-Hobson, a student was given a home tutor when surgery prevented her from negotiating the stairs at the school, which then lacked an elevator.)

But I digress again:

Talking about the disparity of offerings and experience at two DCPS elementaries mere blocks from each other on Capitol Hill, Miner Elementary’s LSAT chair (2:06:56) said: “We value some more than others in our school system. Schools with more black and brown students from poor families get less. Schools with more white students and higher income students get more.”

Capitol Hill neighbors, the Miner LSAT secretary noted, have opted out of the school, all the while young children have been dropped off outside at early morning hours to wait, alone, for the building to open.

Another parent noted that DCPS puts the “burden of proof” for problems and solutions on parents.

Speaking of DCPS’s push for a longer school year only for some schools (notably, with some of the most economically challenged students), Joseph Gavrilovic of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates noted that it “takes more than a classroom experience to create educated and engaged students.”

Terry Lynch of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations talked about the abomination of the public school sports situation (lack of coaches, lack of places to practice, no coordination with private schools, huge gobs of wasted money that never makes it to kids). David Grosso alludes to a hearing in May on school athletics.

Having received a state of the art renovation less than a decade ago, Ward 3’s Stoddert Elementary is overcrowded and wants another renovation. Given the statement at 2:06:56, I would not bet against it.

In the meantime, let us see what hard-working David Grosso makes of all this when Chancellor Henderson appears before his committee this Friday–and if he can pry his fellow committee members away from their other-pressing tasks.

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