Failing High School, DC Style

Silence.

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.

Silence.

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.

5 thoughts on “Failing High School, DC Style

  1. Am I understanding correctly that you and some other parents went to a meeting arranged by DCPS with some of its central office staff and a member of the DME’s staff for the specific purpose of finding out who made the decisions about Banneker and Bard and none of them would say who?

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  2. No. The meeting was called for by DCPS personnel in the wake of my complaining about the Bard rollout (and then Banneker)–ostensibly to figure out better ways to engage the public. We spent most of the time talking about how DCPS did *not* engage the public in a variety of ways. I noted that I often felt like there was always something behind the scenes that I couldn’t ever know about that seemed in conflict with publicly stated data or goals–for example, I had no idea who decided to create Bard and expand Banneker, two major decisions never mentioned in the MFP and with definite consequences even beyond relatively large expenditures of tax dollars. So I asked–and you know the rest.

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  3. If “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.”, how can you know whether the Banneker building is at educational capacity or not? I can tell you from my personal experience. Banneker is at educational capacity.

    We have spent so much money on high school renovations. I have heard complaints about cost overruns but have never seen the venom expelled directly at a particular DC High School and by people who support DCPS schools no less. Banneker is a DCPS school. Does the Shaw community know that? Have you asked the Banneker community why they are in favor of the expansion? What about the fact that Duke Ellington is at capacity because of the way they use their space, when they too are a small school. Banneker has a very specific model. Have you asked the Banneker community why they think it is a good idea to change their model? Have you looked at what curriculum options they can afford with the number of students they have? Have you compared their class selection to that of the much wealthier Walls and Wilson? Has anyone considered the fact that the Shaw community is inflexible on this issue and everyone else be damned so they can have exactly what they want? Has anyone noticed that no mayor has offered the Shaw building to the Shaw community and keeping Banneker from getting the building does not guarantee it to the Shaw community? Why isn’t the Mayor being held directly responsible for this mess? Who cares whose idea this is? The buck stops with Mayor Bowser. If she didn’t want this, it wouldn’t happen.

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  4. “Have you asked the Banneker community why they are in favor of the expansion? What about the fact that Duke Ellington is at capacity because of the way they use their space, when they too are a small school. Banneker has a very specific model. Have you asked the Banneker community why they think it is a good idea to change their model? Have you looked at what curriculum options they can afford with the number of students they have? Have you compared their class selection to that of the much wealthier Walls and Wilson?”

    These are all great questions! So what answers from the mayor; DME; or DCPS have been given to those questions? I am thus far unable to find any of those answers in statements from the mayor, DME, or DCPS. I think it’s the responsibility of the people making those decisions to explain them to the public.

    As it is, our city spent a fair chunk of change doing the MFP–and the answers to these questions are not only not contained therein, but the entire MFP doesn’t even mention these plans for Banneker or Bard therein. Why not? Wasn’t it the mayor’s people working on all of them at the same time?

    To me at this point, whether the Shaw community is “inflexible,” and whether or not past mayors offered the building to Shaw (NB: Mayor Gray had an allocation in the capital budget for renovating it as Shaw middle school), is almost entirely irrelevant, because the current mayor has made, and is making, plans that do not involve affected communities adequately (or at all); do not appear to take into consideration answers to those questions above (at least publicly); and even when a member of the mayor’s own staff was present, there was no answer to a simple question of WHO made these decisions.

    IMO none of us, and particularly Banneker and Shaw, has been treated well by the mayor.

    So it is that your last question–“why isn’t the Mayor being held directly responsible for this mess?”–is (to me, anyway) entirely related to another of your questions: “who cares whose idea this is?” As you note, the buck stops with Mayor Bowser. How do you hold someone accountable for this when they don’t even admit who did this nor why (except to be perhaps “inflexible” and protest)?

    To me, the way in which the mayor has done this resembles authoritarianism, pitting the needs of two communities against each another, all the while the people making these decisions blithely do whatever they want. To be sure, this may work out well for some or even all of us in the end–but it’s certainly not democratic, and it could have been so much better. Thus, to me, it’s worth asking why wasn’t done differently?

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  5. Given where we are and how we got here, what “flexibility” is needed or wanted from the Shaw feeder community at this juncture?

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