- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

Opponents of an already-approved plan to convert Paul Junior High into a public charter school rallied outside the school this weekend, waving signs made by the Washington Teachers Union and chanting, "Save our school."

By the end of the day on Saturday, 90 persons signed a petition opposing the charter, a drive that is likely moot.

Paul's charter has already been approved, and the control board recently granted permission to lease the building at Eighth and Oglethorpe streets NW.

Several protesters said they were outraged over rumors that neighborhood children who currently attend the school would be kept out once it became a charter.

Norman Neverson, president of the Ward 4 Democrats and an organizer of the event, called the charter conversion "a sinister plan" hatched by the D.C. financial control board and the Republican-controlled Congress.

He led the crowd in a short march, invoking the civil rights movement with a rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Teachers union President Barbara Bullock and Ward 4 school board representative Dwight Singleton also spoke to the gathering.

Parents and neighborhood residents had questions for the speakers.

"What does charter school mean?" one mother asked. "Can you tell me? I looked up 'charter' in the dictionary, but it didn't give me the answer."

Others wanted to know where the charter school money would come from, and who would be allowed to enroll.

According to Paul's charter application, children who currently attend Paul, their siblings and children in the neighborhood will receive priority placement at the charter.

But few believed things would really work out that way.

"You know and I know that the school is going to be filled with children who are not from this area," said Al Hubbard, a teacher at Ballou Senior High School. "Maybe they will let the neighborhood kids in at first, but two weeks later, they can ask them to leave."

"My grandson would like to go here. They have good teachers here," said Gwendolyn Bailey. "But I'm afraid they will keep him out."

Some Paul students said they heard they would have to take a test to stay at Paul once it converts.

Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Charter School Board, which approved the Paul charter application, said such a test would be illegal.

Laws governing charter schools, approved by the U.S. Congress and the D.C. Council, prohibit charters from screening prospective students by academic performance or any other criteria, he said.

Mr. Smith accused the teachers union of deliberately spreading misinformation about charter schools in the community.

Paul, which enrolls 726 students in seventh through ninth grades, is scheduled to convert to a charter school this fall, in effect severing its ties with the established school system. More than 500 of the current Paul students have already signed up to enroll at the charter in the fall.

The conversion effort has taken more than three years. Supporting petitions were gathered from two-thirds of Paul parents and teachers, and a detailed school plan was approved by the charter board, whose members were appointed by former Mayor Marion Barry.

But several protesters said they knew nothing about the charter bid until they read about it recently in the newspapers. They said they were unaware of the three public hearings that were held by the charter board and were angry that the community had not been consulted.

Parents of current seventh-graders were not contacted about the charter conversion during the petition drive last year, when their children were in sixth grade at other "feeder" schools. Legislation is pending before the D.C. Council to amend the law and allow parents at "feeder" schools to take part in petition drives.

Meanwhile, questions have arisen about the process by which the signatures of parents and teachers were gathered before approval was granted. A letter of complaint from 19 Paul teachers prompted the D.C. inspector general to launch an investigation of charges that two teachers' signatures were forged, and that some parents signed petitions unknowingly.

Lisa Adams, a graduate of Paul and an organizer of Saturday's rally, said the real problem is the school's principal, Cecile Middleton.

"We are not happy with her," said Miss Adams, who does not have children at Paul. "She has an elitist attitude."

Mrs. Middleton has been principal at Paul for more than 10 years and is widely credited for boosting enrollment, morale and test scores.

Last year, 80 percent of Paul students scored at the "basic" level or above in reading on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, compared with 40 percent of junior high-age students citywide. In math, however, 50 percent of Paul students scored basic or above, compared with 70 percent of students citywide.

Mrs. Middleton has said she decided to pursue a charter conversion to escape the bureaucracy and red tape of the established school system.

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