Where Is Our Safe Room?

Just the other day, while the charter board approved almost 2000 new school seats (in the face of an official determination that we have thousands of unfilled seats already), and while many schools of right in wards 7 & 8 face unbelievable budget cuts (see the chart here, on p. 2) that will ensure they have even more unfilled seats, I attended a meeting with C4DC and DCPS officials, including Chancellor Lewis Ferebee.

The coalition of education advocates from across the city met with the chancellor to talk about the group’s recent push for increasing the budgets of those fiscally devastated schools and how DCPS could increase community and family engagement. (See here and here and here.)

The conversation was cordial enough—until the chancellor stated that ours was “not a safe room.”

Yes: the DCPS chancellor said that it was “not a safe room” while talking with 25 other adults, most of whom serve voluntarily on ward education councils and some of whom were his own staff, teachers, parents, former parents, and DCPS graduates.

Hours earlier that same day, I was on the phone with my daughter’s DCPS middle school principal. Our brief conversation was not about my daughter (who had called me) nor her progress nor her teachers.

No: the conversation was about school climate–specifically, about how four classrooms at the school had no moving air; how the gym was 83 degrees at 10 am; how an overworked HVAC unit was leaking such that a class and hallway were flooded; and how teachers were moving students around the building to accommodate the dysfunctional HVAC and PARCC testing that they were valiantly trying to get done at the same time.

All on a day in which the temperature outside soared to 90 degrees.

The irony was not lost on me:

Almost 10 years ago, I was among a group of parents lobbying to get the same school renovated because, among other things, it did not have a functional HVAC system. (Or decent bathrooms. Or gym. Or–well, you get the idea.)

Now, years later, we once again don’t have functional HVAC—along with a chancellor who does not feel safe in a room with adults who have pledged to do everything they can to preserve, strengthen, and make more equitable the school system he oversees.

But maybe Dr. Ferebee has something there:

After all, in their 14 years in DCPS, my children have been subjected to no less than 7 gas leaks at their schools, most of which required evacuation. Not to mention lead in water; failed heating and cooling; leaking roofs and falling plaster; water shut offs; laid-off teachers; missing books; and slashed budgets.

Maybe if the chancellor finds that safe room, he can share it with my kids–and the 47,000 other children whose education rights he secures as the head of DCPS.

Just this year, for instance, the schools many of those students attend are losing millions of dollars in budget cuts.

Here is a list of 11 DCPS schools currently facing budget cuts greater than 10%, based not on their actual enrollment (which for some is not declining) nor, apparently, on the large numbers of at risk students they serve:

HD Cooke, 47% at risk
Raymond, 47% at risk
Thomas, 79% at risk
Anacostia, 83% at risk
Ballou, 81% at risk
Excel, unknown % at risk but likely high %
Garfield, 86% at risk
Hart, 80% at risk
Hendley, 93% at risk
ML King, 87% at risk
Moten, 87% at risk

Those at risk numbers BTW come from OSSE’s school report cards (which are apparently generated by people in an office that–just a guess here–has functional HVAC, no gas leaks, and potable water).

Here is where the students currently at these schools reside (data taken from this document, from council responses):

Ward 1: 294
Ward 2: 5
Ward 3: 5
Ward 4: 32
Ward 5: 24
Ward 6: 1
Ward 7: 7
Ward 8: 9

Ward 1: 312
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 1
Ward 4: 157
Ward 5: 44
Ward 6: 2
Ward 7: 16
Ward 8: 10

Ward 1: 0
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 1
Ward 5: 5
Ward 6: 4
Ward 7: 300
Ward 8: 27

Ward 1: 0
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 3
Ward 5: 6
Ward 6: 4
Ward 7: 88
Ward 8: 188

Ward 1: 2
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 1
Ward 5: 7
Ward 6: 15
Ward 7: 41
Ward 8: 553

Ward 1: 2
Ward 2: 1
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 7
Ward 5: 17
Ward 6: 7
Ward 7: 55
Ward 8: 340

Ward 1: 0
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 0
Ward 5: 1
Ward 6: 0
Ward 7: 11
Ward 8: 272

Ward 1: 0
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 0
Ward 5: 3
Ward 6: 3
Ward 7: 15
Ward 8: 322

Ward 1: 4
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 1
Ward 5: 4
Ward 6: 1
Ward 7: 10
Ward 8: 322

ML King:
Ward 1: 0
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 1
Ward 4: 0
Ward 5: 15
Ward 6: 0
Ward 7: 21
Ward 8: 239

Ward 1: 0
Ward 2: 0
Ward 3: 0
Ward 4: 1
Ward 5: 12
Ward 6: 6
Ward 7: 22
Ward 8: 269

Sadly, this is not the extent of the schools the chancellor oversees that are experiencing ruinous budget cuts this year: alongside dozens of other schools with budget cuts are eight more DCPS schools with budget cuts between 5-10%. Like most of the schools detailed above, all of the schools with cuts between 5-10% are in the poorest wards of the city and mainly attended by at risk students living in the same ward.

So it is that in a city that says it values school choice, our leaders do not support the choice of parents at schools where most of the students are poor AND live near the schools they attend.

Tell me: Where is their safe room?

Weeks earlier, on April 25, our deputy mayor for education, Paul Kihn, testified at his office’s budget hearing that we are actually “overinvesting” in these schools.

Yes: The same deputy mayor who sends his own children to a DC private school whose annual investment per child averages, by my calculation, more than $30,000, said that we are “overinvesting” in schools east of the Anacostia by spending roughly half that or less on kids who actually need the most help in the entire city. (Though to be fair, Kihn did say that students at Anacostia high school are receiving the equivalent of $30,000 each in city money annually—which, if true, is pretty amazing, since they’re not exactly getting what Kihn’s children are getting for that same amount.)

(See it here for yourself.)

The day before that testimony, Kihn’s employee, Chancellor Ferebee, said in the DCPS budget hearing that we must base our school budgets strictly on enrollments–while both Kihn and Ferebee have made clear that enrollment loss is the first step to closure. Of course, with defunding comes loss of resources and thus more than likely enrollment losses as well.

Tell me: Where is the safe room from such disaster capitalism?

Yet, while dozens of DCPS schools reeled with inevitable layoffs and troubling staffing decisions, their leader was thousands of miles away, speaking to a school privatizing group supported by wealthy education reform interests advocating for school choice–which we now know in DC does NOT include the choice of poor parents who have chosen their neighborhood DCPS schools.

Tell me: Where is the safe room for those parents and their choices?

Just the other day, a man was murdered outside a DCPS school–while children were present.

That same day, the board of a charter school with very vulnerable children decided to close, leaving its families no educational recourse now that the lottery is past–well, except to send their children to their DCPS schools of right, most of which have been defunded.

Tell me: Where is their safe room?

Both Kihn and Ferebee have skillfully used narratives to pose as budget problems and solutions: low enrollments are not “sustainable,” we are “overinvesting” in schools of right in largely poor areas, and school choice is always affordable, even when it means obliging the city to $6 million more every year in facilities funds for those newly approved charter schools.

All the while we have nothing–nothing!–from them or anyone serving with them to show that we cannot afford schools of right in every single neighborhood, some of which no longer have any schools of right because of prior closures; that we cannot afford what we have spent on those schools; and that we cannot support programming in Anacostia high school (or frankly anywhere) that matches the programming that Kihn’s own children receive in his private school.

And always nothing–nothing!–about prioritizing rights in education over choice. (But the choice of some only, for only some schools.)

Please tell me: Where is our safe room from this grotesque manipulation of facts and budgets?

There are people who have written cogently and urgently about the current budget crisis in our schools (read here and here and here for starters).

Now, while our schools suffer for all of those cuts–while the choices of largely poor families who choose defunded schools, and forcibly closed schools, are ignored; while my school still doesn’t have functional HVAC; while the leader of my children’s schools tells me that I and other DC parents, teachers, educators, advocates constitute a threat, please someone, anyone, tell me:

Where is our safe room?

2 thoughts on “Where Is Our Safe Room?

  1. Interesting that one of DC’s philanthropies, City Bridge Education, is listed in the “wealthy education reform interests” link in the paragraph about the chancellor being away. On their website, citybridge.org, one can read about the organization’s interest in “bringing the next generation of schools to market” in DC.


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