That was the response on a sunny afternoon several weeks ago, in a 12th floor DCPS conference room with sight lines to the hills of Anacostia, when three DCPS officials (Sarah Parker; Claudia Lujan; Eli Hoffman) and Jennifer Comey, a staffer for the deputy mayor for education (DME), were asked who made the decision to create Bard College high school as well as expand Banneker high school at the site of the old Shaw junior high.
The meeting was set up by DCPS for me and a few other parents and plain citizens, as a result of our complaining that both decisions, announced in October, lacked public input and planning.
Asked the question a second time several minutes later (in case of auditory interference the first go), our city’s public servants responded the same way.
To be sure, there was a lot said with their silence:
–no denial of knowledge of who made those decisions;
–no explanation for not knowing something so basic relating to the future expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, whether in capital costs or operating funds; and
–no admission that the city actors in that room were prohibited from saying anything about who was responsible.
Enjoying mayoral control of schools yet?
Among the many people blindsided by the Bard and Banneker decisions were Shaw community members, who had worked for the better part of a decade for a new middle school of right there. Even though a request for proposals for a new Banneker HS at Shaw just went out (isn’t it amazing how fast our city can work?), Shaw MS advocates are doing their best to get heard.
To be sure, this DC disconnect between public desire and education policy is all of a piece:
In November, the mayor apparently characterized Ellington as operating not at capacity and raised the possibility of the building hosting a charter high school.
Then, at the beginning of December at a SHAPPE meeting, DCPS staffer Melissa Kim (DCPS’s chief of social, emotional, and academic development) noted that there will be no school closures next year, but that the writing is on the wall.
The common denominator here of all these incredible school forays is that they were made quite independent of public input, much less the city’s own planning—even to the point of contradicting data shown in the master facilities plan (MFP).
Recently released by the DME’s office, the MFP shows that Ellington is 80-95% utilized–while it also outlines that Banneker’s current building is 65-80% utilized. Moreover, three high schools of right–Anacostia, Coolidge, Woodson–are 0-50% utilized according to the MFP, while another (Dunbar) is 50-65% utilized. The MFP shows that only two DCPS high schools of right are more than 100% utilized: Wilson and Roosevelt.
Think this through for a minute:
–As a high school of choice, Banneker is not fully utilizing its current space with its current enrollment, which suggests that either the school is not attracting enough students or that it has no need for more space. In other words, the fact of its utilization at 65-80% would suggest, absent other evidence, that both moving to a larger space and expanding its population is entirely unwarranted. And yet that is what is happening now.
–The stated utilization rate of Ellington (80-95%) is high enough such that the free space available for a separate high school would be small–as in, uniquely small. The entire square footage of Ellington, per the MFP, is 279,000 square feet, so even assuming as much as 20% is available for use separate from Ellington’s operations, that works out to about 50,000 square feet for a co-located high school. Most DC public high schools have at least 100,000 square feet. What goal is being served by a co-location there?
–Of the 14 DCPS schools currently rated with 1 star (Anacostia, Ballou, Brookland, CW Harris, Cardozo, Coolidge, Eliot-Hine, Kramer, Langley, Moten, Patterson, Roosevelt, Sousa, and Thomas), not only is every single one a school of right, but 5 are high schools. According to p. 35 of DC’s plan for school accountability (ESSA), test scores will figure largely in determining school closures and takeovers by private operators.
–In a recent interview, DC’s new deputy mayor for education, Paul Kihn, said that schools of right must “look at their role” and was not bothered by the fact that my own high school of right offers only one foreign language while another across town (with wealthier students) offers five. Rather, he noted that high school offerings should be based on what parents want–which for all any of us know may be the case for the bountiful language immersion programs at the private school he sends his own children to. (What “role” he thinks my comprehensive high school of right has remained unsaid–but I think it’s safe to say comprehensive programming isn’t part of it.)
So it is that this lopsided prioritizing of high schools of choice (and now for a smaller subset yet, the college bound) will have an inevitable effect: closing high schools of right, whose students are mainly the non-college-bound–who are (not coincidentally) the majority of DC high school students.
The ripple effect from closing high schools of right will extend in many grotesque directions: Denial of rights; longer commutes; a wide open field of expansion for charters in DC; and handing over an already disadvantaged population of students to a sector for which disruptive school closures are bread and butter (and dollars, naturally).
And this doesn’t even get into the sickeningly disingenuous way in which school capacity, enrollment, and utilization are discussed in DC’s polite education circles.
For instance, in the MFP’s charmingly titled “gap analysis” for charter and DCPS schools–an analysis purportedly to show the relationship of enrollment to school capacity–“capacity” is referenced in terms of how many students one could theoretically put into a physical space delineated by a school building–not the programming or staffing already in those spaces nor how appropriate those spaces are for student use.
But any school is not just a building defined by gross square footage–a school is also about resources, including staffing and programming, and how that space works accordingly with that staffing and programming.
Moreover, a school that has fewer students enrolled than its building could theoretically hold doesn’t necessarily mean that resources are being wasted, because our schools are resourced according to enrollment, not building size.
That said, for charter operators (and now our mayor) wanting more space for their own schools or expansion thereof, any so-called excess space in DCPS schools seems like so much waste.
The irony of this is rich:
One of DC’s charter schools currently not at capacity just sublet out its extra space to a new parochial high school. That would be Perry Street Prep with the new St. Jerome high school. The building is owned by DC (it’s the former Taft junior high) and rented out to Perry Street Prep in a long-term lease.
All of this is perfectly in line with a worldview articulated frequently by DC education leaders, which is:
–Extra capacity in our public school buildings is an issue only when the buildings in question are owned and controlled by DCPS; and
–Planning for schools is about choice, not rights, so DCPS exists not as a primary system ensuring education rights, but as a secondary system to assist with school choice; and
–Planning in DCPS is very very VERY important–whereas our charter sector can define its own need and do its own thing at any time without any third party analysis of need, such that its growth ceiling is infinity (as one parent put it). Indeed, KIPP was just approved to take over Somerset’s high school and may expand to yet another, while there is a (nameless, faceless) survey out for yet another charter high school, Evolve. And at no time is there any cost analysis of that infinite growth ceiling with our city’s very finite growth of students.
Then there is reality:
While putting another operator in charge of so-called “failing” schools is outlined in DC’s ESSA plan, we have evidence that this failed just in the last decade with Dunbar, Anacostia, and Coolidge high schools. And yet, at that 12th floor conference room meeting the other week, the DCPS staffers said that starting in January, DCPS schools with 1 star would have an “intervention.”
As with who made the decisions about Bard and Banneker, what, exactly, that intervention would consist of remained unsaid.
And so we are back to the (literally) $100 million question: who made the decisions about Banneker and Bard?
As with our president’s tax returns, let me know when you get an answer to that.