Justin Peligri: When it comes to schools, don’t fix what isn’t broken

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

A few blocks from GW, elementary and middle school students go to school in a brick building called the Francis-Stevens Education Campus.

But its little blue chairs and library shelves might soon be empty. Francis-Stevens, along with 20 other public schools in the District, is slated to be shut down next year due to low enrollment. A final decision about the closings will be made in January.

Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Kaya Henderson and Mayor Vincent Gray announced that over the next five years, they will attempt to allocate funding to schools more effectively, which entails closing schools that aren’t at their full capacity.

Parents and students connected to Francis-Stevens are justified in the concerns and frustrations which they expressed at a meeting Tuesday night on why the school must remain open. Henderson’s decision is both shortsighted and uninformed.

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans spoke out against closing schools to save money.

“The theory sounds okay in the abstract,” Evans said to the audience of parents and students. “But I told [Henderson] that it is the biggest mistake she could make.”

In the 2010-2011 school year, there were 239 students at Francis-Stevens. And this school year, that number dropped to 233. So on the surface, it might seem like there are numbers to defend the decision to close the school. But leaders in the D.C. public school system aren’t looking at the full picture.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, the number of students at Francis-Stevens was 237, a mere two-student drop from the year before. Maybe this year’s drop of four students reflects an oddball year with uncharacteristically low enrollment. But we won’t know for sure until we have more data.

“DCPS must use all of our resources wisely – every dollar, every building and every minute of instructional time,” the D.C. Public Schools website reads.

I hope Chancellor Henderson succeeds in revamping the school system. But if her goal is to improve schools and increase academic proficiency, she should keep in mind that valuable schools like Francis-Stevens are never a waste of resources.

Yes, between 2010 and 2012, Francis-Stevens’ enrollment decreased slightly. But its enrollment isn’t decreasing nearly as much as other schools in the District.

Francis-Stevens is an asset to the community because it offers preschool enrollment to 3-year-olds, unlike many public schools in the District, which only have programs for students ages 4 and older. This is particularly beneficial for local working residents who need a place for their children to stay free of charge during the work week.

One mother of a toddler told me she hopes to send her daughter to Francis-Stevens in the fall, but if it closes, she will have to pay for private school – an expense she’s not sure she can afford.

If the school closes, parents could send their 3-year-olds to a school in Adams Morgan. But providing transportation to a different area of the District would become a chore and an expense.

And in addition to being unique for allowing 3-year-olds to enroll, Francis-Stevens, a school which has a community partnership with GW, is special because many disabled students learn there. Visually-impaired children who attend Francis-Stevens will likely have trouble adjusting to new teachers, classmates and facilities if it is closed. Not to mention that it won’t be cheap to train new teachers in how to work with visually-impaired children effectively.

And the statistics back up the school’s strong record of success.

Students at Francis-Stevens exceed District averages in math and reading. School safety, as measured by the D.C. Public Schools, is better than that at many schools in the District. And retention rates for teachers are higher than the District average by a margin of 13 percentage points.

Seventy-nine percent of students attend at least 90 percent of school days, and community satisfaction is on par with the District average.

According to D.C. Census data from 2010, children under five years old made up nearly 41 percent of children under 17 in Ward 2, where Francis-Stevens is located. Although there might not be as many eighth graders in this area of the District, the number of young children as a percentage of the population is larger than most other areas. As the years go by and these children grow, the population of the school will only increase.

Francis-Stevens is on the up and up, and with a little more funding, it could be a stellar school. But closing it down is like inventing a solution for a problem that just doesn’t exist.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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