- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

In the months and weeks ahead, D.C. taxpayers will learn which schools will be closed and which ones will be modernized or consolidated with other city-run programs. Whether the plan lists but one school or 10 or 20, the reaction will be testy and teary because right-sizing a school system always draws emotional rhetoric.

We don’t view school buildings as mere bricks and mortar; we tend to see them as the photo albums, where we can revisit memories (fond and not-so fond) of our youthful days. But when school districts become victims of too many buildings, too few students and low academic achievement, realigning facilities portfolios to meet educational goals is a moral imperative.

When the Board of Education and the D.C. Council get the final plan, they should vote on it up or down, and not try to influence or tweak plans regarding individual schools.

Pittsburgh went through its testy-teary moments in November, when Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced the closing of 20 schools (among them Schenley High School, America’s first high school to cost more than $1 million), augured by shifts in demographics, academic reforms and fiscal realities (indeed, a $47 million deficit). Parents, children and alumni were upset, and rightly so; they were “losing” their alma maters.

Like schools all across America, Schenley High School has its notable alumni. Personally, my mother, aunt and a cousin, who was a basketball standout at Schenley, are among them. Other notables include Larry Brown, the Washington Redskins’ best latter-day running back (who was drafted by Otto Graham and molded by legendary coaches Vince Lombardy and George Allen) and Stanley Turrentine, who could do incredible things with his tenor sax. There’s also the remarkable George Benson, my favorite jazz guitarist. Artist Andy Warhol was a Schenley alum, too.

My mother, the matriarch of conservatism in the family, said if closing storied Schenley will help brighten the minds of children, “Then close it.” Memories, rather than misty-eyed nostalgia, remain in her mind’s eye.

Pittsburgh isn’t merely closing schools, however. Coinciding with the closings is a plan to open two new schools of accelerated learning, specifically for those students who continue to struggle. The reorganization plan also means 62 buildings instead of 80, and redefined efforts to turn around seven underachieving schools.

D.C. folks will soon learn the details of Superintendent Clifford Janey’s plans to reorganize D.C. Public Schools. Mr. Janey does not call it a reorganization, of course, for fear of frightening labor leaders. In Washington, the powers that be use terms like “master” facilities plan, “strategic” academic proposal and “multi-year” capital improvement program. But the problem in Washington isn’t the title of the plan; the problem in Washington is that everybody has a plan but none of the plans has raised the academic standing of public school students (public charter schools are the remarkable and lone exception).

We are fast approaching several pivotal moments concerning public education: 1) The superintendent has yet to deliver a budget for the 2006-07 school year; 2) an estimated 1,100 teachers (or 1:4) do not have proper teaching credentials; 3) the D.C. Council has, in effect, put the cart before the horse by trying to mandate a stream of revenue for schoolmodernization while the superintendent doesn’t even have a plan in hand on how to spend the money. Moreover, Mayor Tony Williams, who failed to generate the necessary support to turn control of public schools over to the executive and legislative branches, is preparing to give his last State of the District address as mayor and two-thirds of the members of the legislature are running for either re-election or are in search of other seats in City Hall. School board elections will be held as well.

In the throes of such an unprecedented political atmosphere, it’s anybody’s guess where the chips will fall for D.C. youth, who, because of no fault of their own, can’t seem to measure up. That has been the case in the city for two decades.

Amid all that are dozens of schools that have been not been modernized, and schools that are literally crumbling before taxpayers’ eyes. Some lack adequate restrooms, and almost all lack effective technology. Some are so old — though certainly not as old as the 90-year-old Schenley — that they have to be demolished and built anew.

Policy-makers must keep three facts in mind while awaiting word of the superintendent’s reform plan: 1) D.C. Public Schools continues to lose thousands of school-age children each year; 2) more and more new residents are double-income families with no kids (or DINKs, as they are called); 3) teachers and programs have far more of an influence on children’s lives than do bricks and mortar; 4) schools need to get — and keep — the parents of struggling students engaged in their children’s school life.

Schenley’s programs will be moved to Reizenstein Middle School in another part of town. Reizenstein is the school where Bill Cosby talked with parents and students about the importance of parental involvement. Pittsburghers are still talking about losing their beloved Schenley, but they’re looking forward to the academic opportunities on the horizon.

Change is sometimes difficult to articulate, and the first swallow after we’ve been informed is almost always hard. There’s no more time to waste for D.C. children. This time around, the grownups have to get it right.

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