This fall, the District of Columbia’s long-suffering school children are experiencing even more upset and uncertainty as two major educational systems confront the massive dilemma of improving academic results while managing schools with some modicum of economic responsibility. Two months ago, the Archdiocese of Washington announced that mounting deficits for the inner-city elementary schools organized in what’s known as the Center City Consortium would force these Catholic schools to close or to become charter schools under the public education umbrella, thus effectively ending Catholic elementary education in the city. Then, last week, Mayor Fenty and Superintendent Rhee announced plans to close 23 schools next year, most of them elementary schools, and the largest group in Ward 5, Trinity’s ward, including the venerable Brookland Elementary and John Burroughs Elementary Schools. These closings are necessary, apparently, in order to achieve greater economic efficiency and to devote resources to reorganizing educational programs.
Everyone in D.C. is united in the ultimate goal, which is to improve educational outcomes for children. These decisions by the Archdiocese and the Public School leadership may well be the best way to achieve improved results in the long run. But in the more immediate moment, the families and children most affected by these decisions are left feeling uncertain, perhaps even betrayed. The idea of pride in one’s school — school spirit — is something even the youngest first grader understands, and the cult of alumni loyalty lasts for generations from the most remote grade school through the most powerful universities. Closing schools does little to help children value their educational experiences more deeply. Very quickly, the educational and political leadership must move to assure the children that they will have schools to attend next year, and that they will not continue to experience disruption in their home bases for learning, wherever those bases might be as of next fall.
An article in today’s Washington Post reveals some of the political tensions emerging over Mayor Fenty’s style in managing educational reform issues. We all should be worried about the end-game if politics trumps reform. Failure is no longer an option for the children of D.C. when it comes to education. In spite of the feelings of pique over who-knew-what at the outset, the politicians all have to work together to provide the leadership the city needs to make educational reform a reality.
I have no opinion on closing schools or converting Catholic schools to charters per se, since I cannot possibly know all of the details. I do know what it’s like to try to manage a relatively small academic budget with limited resources, so I’m sympathetic to budget controls and the need for radical change at times in order to keep doing the mission. I also know that educational excellence can exist in all classrooms, regardless of the size of the budget, where students and teachers really work together to learn well. Ultimately, excellence in education can only occur in a classroom — not in the Council Chambers or Mayor’s Office. This city must find a way to stay focused on improving education on the ground, in the classrooms, in the libraries and community centers, in the homes where the children go each night where homework should come first.
The recent ratcheting-up of stakes and rhetoric seems to be moving farther away from real educational reform. Budget necessities must be addressed, yes, but all educational and political leaders need to be even more thoughtful about the impact of their actions on the citizens who have the most at stake, the children for whom all of this reform is supposedly being done. If the children hear that the future of their schools is even more uncertain, they will have little motivation to take school more seriously.