Empower DC, a grassroots community activist group, went to D.C. Superior Court March 29 to try to block D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to close 15 schools by 2014. The suit, filed on behalf of four parents of D.C. schools students, alleges that the school closings are a violation of civil rights and equal access to education because they disproportionately affect minority and special needs students.
If, after arguments that are to be conducted April 4, a temporary restraining order is granted, the plan to close schools would be halted for 10 days. A subsequent request for a preliminary injunction that would halt the plan was also submitted to delay the measure until D.C. Council members to vote on the plan before scheduled budget hearings May 22.
“The District of Columbia has a rich history in the courts of protecting equal access to education,” said Johnny Barnes, attorney for Empower DC and former executive director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. “They’re not closing any schools “West of the Park”; the only schools they’re closing are all ‘East of the Park.’ Only two White students are affected by these school closures. All the rest are people of color, students with special education needs and students who live in low income neighborhoods.”
The suit states that more than 2,700 students will be affected by the school closings, more than 90 percent of them African-American, 82 percent from low-income households and 27 percent of them in need of special education.
The lawsuit is the first of what experts expect will be many similar lawsuits as parents of the urban poor in school districts across the country face similar threats of school closures in the name of budget balancing.
DCPS asserts that the scheduled school closings will save over $8.5 million which they plan to reinvest in student instruction. However, Empower DC says it feels the cost-cutting measure is unjustified in a city with a $417 million dollar budget surplus and limited academic progress.
“There’s unfortunately now a cycle in the city that they have closed schools. A notable round of schools closures appeared a couple of years ago in 2008 under Michelle Rhee,” said Daniel Del Pielago, education organizer for Empower DC.
“We haven’t seen any real improvement; we saw a loss of students and no real savings. That doesn’t lead us to believe that this round will be successful.”
Schools slated to close are: Sharpe Health and McFarland Middle School in Ward 4; Mamie D. Lee, Marshall Middle School, CHOICE at Hamilton, Spingarn High School and Spingarn STAY in Ward 5; Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson and Prospect Learning Center in Ward 6; Davis Elementary School, Kenilworth Elementary School, Winston Educational Center and Ron Brown Middle School in Ward 7; and Ferebee-Hope Education Center and Mary Church Terrell-McGogney Elementary School in Ward 8.
All of the schools are slated to close this school year with the exception of Mamie D. Lee and Sharpe Health, which are specifically for students with disabilities and special needs, and are scheduled to close in 2014. DCPS plans to move these students to River Terrace Elementary in Northeast.
Brenda Williams, a mother of four whose 8-year old daughter Bre-yah attends Sharpe Health and is severely disabled with muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, is concerned with the relocation.
“Where Sharpe Health is now, it’s beautiful, up on a hill,” said Williams, a plaintiff in the case. “You telling me you’re taking her from this picturesque place uptown and dropping her in the middle of River Terrace where there’s nothing.”
Some of Williams’ concerns about the relocation include potential environmental pollution from nearby auto businesses such as a car rental shop, cab repair shop and a gas station citing that many of these students have problems with asthma.
Marlece Turner’s son Ellington, 13, is an IEP (Individualized Education Program) student at McFarland Middle School. IEP students have learning disabilities and a team comes together to help them succeed academically. McFarland also serves their special education students with an autism program.
“I want the school to stay open, it is a good school.” Turner said. In recent years the school environment has changed with a newer principal, more male teachers and a variety of activities for her son and she feels, ”The principal has put the right people there for the kids to prosper.”
But, Turner is frustrated with school officials in this closing process sharing that, “I think they really don’t care. They don’t care about how we feel. I don’t think the mayor even cares, he’s been silent.”