Last month, in a chemistry lab at Luke C. Moore high school, I may have gotten a glimpse of the future.
That was when, on July 25, I heard members of the cross sector task force discuss opening and closing of schools in our city.
Part of a subgroup of the task force, working on school facilities and coordination issues, the task force members in the room that evening were the following:
Antwan Wilson, DCPS chancellor
Jennifer Niles, deputy mayor for education (DME) and task force head
Melissa Kim, KIPP DC chief academic officer
Caryn Ernst, DCPS parent
Irene Holtzman, director of FOCUS, a charter advocacy organization
Bethany Little, policy expert and Murch and BASIS parent
Jenn Comey, staffer for the deputy mayor
Claudia Lujan, DCPS planning
While generally in accord with my recollection of the conversation, the official notes do not get to what, in my opinion, was truly amazing about that evening’s discussions.
First, there appeared to be general agreement in the group that opening and closing of schools is directly tied to “quality”–however “quality” is defined. For most of the group, “quality” seemed clearly associated (and possibly precisely aligned) with test scores. And there seemed general agreement that all of those things (quality, opening, closing) are tied to enrollment. That is, a fully enrolled school may be a “quality” one–but an underenrolled school is probably not.
Then, there appeared also to be general agreement in the group that the opening and closing of schools cannot be decided by the public–despite the often-stated need for better public engagement. The chancellor articulated this best by noting that if the public decides what schools open and close, “we sacrifice quality to make a few people happy.”
DCPS planner Claudia Lujan then noted that “people shouldn’t be surprised” by school closures. Nearly everyone seemed to agree that management of public reaction to school closures was key.
When one member of the group (Caryn Ernst, who alone went against the general agreement on those items above) pleaded for a better way to assess school quality than proficiency scores, the chancellor embarked on a response so far-reaching, extended, and passionate that, if set to music and sung, would have been a notable opera aria.
First, the chancellor noted his concern about schools where 80% of the kids score at level 1 (the lowest level on PARCC), with an indication that this cannot remain that way.
Then the chancellor went on to note the following:
–“My head space isn’t in mothballing [closed] schools”;
–“We will be very assertive when the data says we have kids who are struggling”; and
–“My fear is we will see the data [on test scores] and run from the difficult decisions we need to make.”
Finally, noting the “disproportionate impact” of school closures on poor and minority students, the chancellor said that “Anacostia High School will be open, but what model we have in there is up for discussion.” He also noted his desire to “assertively diversify our schools,” but didn’t specify what this meant.
I have no idea what any of the task force members in that room really thought about any of this.
But I do know that when I hear any city official talk, without prodding, about “mothballing” and “difficult decisions”–or state that a particular school will be open when no one has (publicly, anyway) said it would not be open–that suggests to me that such “difficult decisions” are not merely being bandied about as anodyne possibilities in a far-off future, but are close at hand, if not already decided.
More to the point:
When he said those things, the chancellor was seated directly across the table from his boss, the deputy mayor for education, who not only runs the task force, but whose office is in the midst of revising the public school master facilities plan (MFP) and formulating a strategic citywide analysis of our school landscape (whose creation and completion seem less than publicly available).
In other words, the people deciding the future of our public schools were seated in that chemistry lab that night.
And one of them seemed to indicate a movement toward school closures, consolidations, and rethinking about school models that was contradicted by utterly no one who could have done so.
When the entire task force came together again later that evening, the task force’s other subgroup–addressing issues with at risk students–gave a short presentation on what it had discussed: a “mock lottery” using a preference for at risk students. (See materials here and notes of the discussion here.)
The purpose of that mock lottery was to see what that at risk preference, which would sprinkle at risk students to a select group of DCPS and charter schools with both high (enough) test scores and with fewer than 25% of at risk students, would mean for lottery placements.
Now, ignore for a moment the fact that a school with few at risk students may not be staffed adequately to handle any (or more) at risk students. And also ignore the fact that the task force had earlier wanted to identify and replicate so-called “value-added” schools, which have both higher test scores and large at risk populations. Those schools could theoretically provide guidance for other schools struggling to help large populations of the most vulnerable students.
The problem with this mock lottery (to me, at least) was that as far as I could see, the task force had never uttered a word until that evening about sprinkling at risk students to schools with fewer than 25% at risk students!
To be sure, the slides presented that evening by the deputy mayor’s staff made clear what schools those were and why they were chosen for an at risk preference in that mock lottery:
On its face, there is nothing wrong with that mock lottery exercise–or the justification for those schools thusly chosen for an at risk preference.
But for the cross sector task force, which has spent the better part of two years in such discussions, the exercise seemed, well, out of the blue—and, worse, without any apparent prior consideration for what implementing such a preference would mean for schools or for our most vulnerable kids.
And that isn’t even getting to what were, for me, the most amazing parts of that mock lottery exercise:
–Sprinkling at risk students at so-called “high-performing” schools would indeed “assertively diversify our schools”—as the chancellor had noted earlier in the evening as one of his apparent desires; and
–Exploring how an at risk lottery preference might function would provide possible pathways for students from any newly closed DCPS schools, which have historically had large populations of at risk students.
In the end, it is hard for me (or, frankly, anyone who is not privy to decision makers’ conversations) to know how seriously to take any of this as signs that DCPS closures and conversions are at hand. Maybe it’s just free-floating talk among decision makers. Maybe it’s just a happy exploration of all ideas!
And yet, if this is all indeed just a free-floating exploration, I heard no one that night mention
—public schools as a public good; or
–the right of the public to participate in public school decision making; or
–the need for stability of school locations and resources; or
–the oversaturation of new school seats and its effect on enrollment; or
–the growth of school seats out of proportion to the growth of the population; or
–the cost of duplication of resources and schools; or
–what schools with large enrollments of at risk students do right; or
–what supports those schools need to do right; or
–the effects of charter school culling on kids as well as the schools that take them in.
Instead, in keeping with that evening’s DeVos-ian zeitgeist, one of the deputy mayor’s slides showed an edited version of the task force’s vision for our public schools. The edit served to downplay any role of a municipally run, publicly accountable, school system and to equate it with privately run, and publicly unaccountable, charter schools:
As far as I can see, neither this statement nor its edit was ever discussed by the cross sector task force.
So, yeah, maybe that July 25 meeting was all talk, no bite, by our city’s education decision makers.
But the possibilities for DCPS re-alignment sure felt like a done deal to me–and everything afterward seemed to confirm it.