Continuing The Damage

It’s a new school year–and to herald its start, the SY16-17 PARCC test results were announced last week. Despite a lack of significant change from last year, the scores have prompted several interesting remarks.

Charter board executive director Scott Pearson was quoted in the Post as noting that DCPS’s relatively stronger performance was evidence that charter schools do not “weaken” traditional public schools.

Another charter school proponent warned that the scores show that “DC’s charter school experiment may be wilting.”

Really?

We could just as easily consider several other interpretations of those test scores:

–That DCPS’s marginally better performance exposes the fallacy that charter schools are inherently superior;

–That test scores alone are poor measures of school quality;

–That test scores from different groups of kids from year to year might–gasp!–be different in ways related primarily to those different groups (and, sadly, the different tests they sometimes take); and

–That more than 20 years of education “reform” in DC—including massive by right school closures and a DeVosian embrace of school choice and charter schools–has produced only a small subset of public schools with high test scores, while the achievement gap remains huge and entire neighborhoods have been deprived of by right schools.

Ah, well. None of that seemed to matter last week in the lovely new media center of DCPS’s Watkins Elementary, where many city education leaders, including the mayor and council members, gathered in a kind of civic two-fer: announce the test results and commemorate the school’s $39 million renovation.

Watkins was my kids’ by right elementary school. Last year, noting the end of my time there as a parent, I wrote about years of fighting to get that renovation–and the years of kids and staff enduring unsafe conditions there.

Happily, the building that is Watkins now is lovely, full of light-filled (and large!) spaces that didn’t even exist in the school’s prior incarnation. It is truly a different, and better, structure.

But the damage continues.

That is, long before any charter school even existed in DC, Watkins had good test scores. And good teachers. And good programs. Still does.

But the uncontrolled growth of new schools outstripping the growth of the student population, alongside charter school marketing and the mismatch between DCPS and charter middle school grades, has ensured that Watkins’ enrollment, like that of all its fellow Capitol Hill elementaries, is affected every single year.

Which means its budget is affected. Which means its programming is affected. Which means huge (and unproductive) pressure in all quarters 24/7—on teachers, staff, parents, students.

In my time as a Watkins parent, all of that, combined with the poor condition of the building and the endless fight to get the city to respond, made for an atmosphere of more or less constant struggle, with adults of all stripes emailing, testifying, and phoning city officials regularly for everything from plumbing to staffing to–wait for it–door locks.

Oh, and did I mention that this is happening right now, all across the city? And that no city leader appears to care about DC’s imbalance of schools and student growth? And that all of this is devastating, most especially for schools and neighborhoods whose communities cannot advocate as well as mine?

“Weaken,” indeed.

For years, we Watkins parents were told that because its associated middle school, Stuart-Hobson, was receiving a renovation, Watkins just had to wait. It was booted on and off renovation schedules for years running.

Then, when Watkins’ renovation finally appeared on someone’s schedule somewhere, it was given $14 million. Like so many others advocating for their by right schools here, we were told that this money meant other by right schools were going without.

Despite such careful civic accounting, no one seemed to count the tens of millions allocated for all the new charter schools, and thousands of new school seats, approved in the years we fought to get Watkins’ renovation—and as others fought to get their by right schools renovated or staffed or, well, just maintained.

And as far as I know, no one at those new charter schools was told that their approval, and thus their use of public money, meant another school had to go without.

Nice “experiment.”

Sadly, Watkins’ initial $14 million renovation allocation was enough only to replace bathrooms, HVAC and windows—possibly because the school’s infrastructure was rated in 2008 among the worst in the city.

“Wilting” yet?

For all the civic pride lavished on, and at, Watkins last week, I could not help seeing it as just another face of those zero sum accounting games played on all parents, teachers, and students who have ever advocated for the basic safety and health of their school communities: not merely ironic, but calculated.

And as cold and hard as Watkins’ brilliant new terrazzo floors.

I can only hope that other children will not have, as mine did at Watkins, sinks fall off their school’s bathroom walls; or rain pour in through school windows, down walls, and through floors and ceilings; or mice chew on computer cords as kids use those computers. And I certainly hope that no child ever has to evacuate a school because of gas leaks caused by infrastructure long past its useful life, as my kids did at Watkins–each multiple times.

And I earnestly hope that if any of those things does happen, no one will be told by city leaders that, while there are apparently unlimited funds to create new schools when thousands of unfilled school seats currently exist, whatever is done for existing schools comes at the price of other schools and other children.

Come to think of it, here’s hoping city leaders will have a press conference announcing the end of all that continuing damage.

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