It's Closing Time for 20 Struggling Schools in Washington D.C.

In our nation's capital, and across the U.S., activists protest the demise of the neighborhood school.

Thousands of students in Washington D.C. will have to change schools is the proposed closures happen. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Blame budget strains and growing competition from charter schools for the proposed closure of nearly two dozen Washington D.C. schools this week.

On Tuesday, Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced that she plans to close 20 low-performing schools in six wards where about 3,000 students attend. The news came nearly four years after former Chancellor Michelle Rhee closed 23 schools, stirring controversy and inciting angry parents.

According to a press release on the District of Columbia Public Schools website, the closures include eight elementary schools, two education campuses, four middle schools, one high school, three special education campuses, and two alternative schools.

More: Failing Public Schools: Should They Learn From Thriving Charters?

“The challenge we face in DCPS is clear – our buildings are wildly under-enrolled, our resources are stretched too thin and we’re not providing the complement of academic supports that our students and families deserve,” Henderson said in the release. “Consolidating schools is our best option to better utilize our facilities and work more efficiently for our schools, our teachers, our students and our city.”

While she is asking for feedback on the proposed closures, it seems very likely that they will be shut down.

Washington is not alone in facing such school consolidation.

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) protested the possible closure of 100 school in the city. Earlier this month, 10 teachers were arrested during a protest at City Hall in which they demanded “a moratorium on school closing and charter proliferation,” according to a CTU press release. The teachers staged a sit-in after Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, refused to meet with the group.

Such scenes will likely be common in the future, says Villanova University education professor Jerusha Conner.

“School closure is becoming an increasingly common strategy in urban districts, faced with budget deficits, competition from charter schools, and underutilized buildings that are expensive to maintain and repair,” Conner said in an interview.

She cites Philadelphia as another urban example. School officials there have announced that they could close as many as 57 schools this year. Parents are mobilizing in Florida near Cape Canaveral to prevent closures in that area. The same is happening in Delaware, Arizona and Michigan.

In the District of Columbia, Henderson said that schools have to close in order to the achieve the goals of having “a great school for every single student.”

She said, “We have to use all of our resources well – every dollar, every building, and every minute of instructional time.” That won’t work, she explained, in the current school system.

Opponents of school closures across the country argue that such drastic measures harm the traditional public school system and channel students to charter schools. When that happens, the public school system loses money.

School closures often occur because schools rank low on student performance tests. That’s not the case in Washington D.C., Henderson said on Tuesday. Rather, it’s about low enrollment, facility conditions, and space availability for displaced students.

It’s also political and part of the Obama Administration’s long-range education plan.

“School closure is a strategy supported by the federal Race to the Top program and listed as one of four ‘school turn-around’ models under the Obama administration's blueprint for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind,” Connor says.

She adds that effectiveness of such a strategy is not necessarily good in the long term.

Connor cites a study by researchers at the University of Colorado that found that closing a high school as Henderson plans to do can adversely impact the displaced students in academic performance, leading to lower graduation and higher dropout rates two years after the closure announcement.

In that study “Tracing Transitions: The Effect of High School Closure on Displaced Students,” the authors – Ben Kirshner, Matthew Gaertner and Kristen Pozzoboni – concluded: “Overall, the case study suggests that closure added stressors to students who were already contending with challenges associated with urban poverty.

To prevent such closure, activism – both in person and via social media – is the key.

“In districts where school closure is being discussed, community organizing groups, consisting of teachers, parents, and students, are actively fighting to maintain their neighborhood public schools and suggesting alternative strategies to closures,” Connor said.

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