City Paper is not for tourists
The day before Thanksgiving, DC Public Schools told Washington Metropolitan High School parents that it wants to close their kids’ school at the end of the academic year.
“A review of enrollment and instructional programs … have led the District to propose closing the school,” DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee wrote in a letter to families dated Nov. 26.
Washington Met, located in Ward 1, is one of four “Opportunity Academies,” which are intended to help students who struggle in traditional high schools. As compared to the other three schools, Washington Met has “consistently underperformed,” wrote Ferebee. He referenced declines in high school attendance, graduation rate, and enrollment. Should DCPS ultimately decide to close the school, with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s approval, Washington Met would be the first closure since 2013.
But some students believe their school was set up to fail because D.C. did not invest for it to succeed. City Desk spoke with five students who say the possible closure is punishing them and their classmates for what school leaders and DCPS administrators failed to do. Now, DCPS is disrupting what’s familiar and comfortable for students, and forcing them to say goodbye to supportive staff. One went as far as to say it’s yet another example of gentrification and displacement in the District.
“It’s a really upsetting feeling. I don’t want to go anywhere else, I don’t want to go to another school. I don’t want to get to know these teachers or these students all over again,” says 16-year-old Lyric Johnson, who is a part of the Chancellor’s Student Cabinet, a body that provides DCPS with reflections and feedback. “They feel like it’s attendance and all this and the third. But there is no resources that make a kid want to come to school. We don’t have anything.”
Washington Met enrolled 157 students this year, which is 21 students more than it did last year, but less than other alternative schools—335 less than Ballou STAY in Ward 8; 123 less than Luke C. Moore in Ward 5; and 604 less than Roosevelt STAY in Ward 4. Meanwhile, according to a staff member who requested anonymity, DCPS has largely neglected Washington Met. He says that over the last six years, art and music teachers left and were never replaced, along with the librarian; and the school experienced five different principals. He also says plans to teach culinary arts, as Roosevelt STAY does, and barbering, as Ballou STAY does, in a trailer outside never came to fruition and he doesn’t know why. At one point, he says students experiencing homelessness stayed in the trailer without permission because it went unused. Additionally, Washington Met hasn’t received any more mental health clinicians from Howard University as part of a mayoral program in 2017 that ranked the school as the most in need of them, per a document shared with City Desk.
In response to requests for comment, a DCPS spokesperson says it “allocates staff positions and other resources to schools based on the comprehensive staffing model,” which is driven by enrollment. Additionally, in an email, he says “DCPS increased the mental health staff allocation from 2.5 FTE (Psych and Social Workers) to 3.5 FTE between FY18 and FY20.”
While acknowledging limited resources at Washington Met, various students told City Desk the solution shouldn’t be to shutter their school. Washington Met has become a place of sanctuary for them despite the lack of investment. That’s the case for 16-year old DuLane McGill.
DuLane says he transferred to Washington Met in December 2018 after he was jumped by a group of students at Cardozo Education Campus.
“I really didn’t like school until I actually came to this school,” says DuLane. “While at Cardozo, I was always worried about other people so I never really got my work done.”
Travius Butler, 17, feels similarly.
“I used to skip class and never show up to school because my anxiety was so bad. So my old social worker recommended me here because it is a small school,” says Travius. “When I first got here, I was quiet. But after awhile I realized how the staff and the teachers—they open up to you. They welcome you. They treat you like you’re their own child—that made me really comfortable here, so I stayed.”
He ticked off numerous teachers at Washington Met who make school feel like home for him. Travius’ middle school teachers, by contrast, couldn’t handle his sense of humor. In eighth grade, he says he was suspended so often he basically dropped out. That made attending H.D. Woodson High School challenging.
“At H.D., I didn’t really talk, really communicate. No one really noticed that I was there. Low-key I kind of enjoyed that because I didn’t want to be bothered by people, somewhat. Sometimes I needed a little help, but no one paid attention to me,” says Travius.
Na’Asia Hawkins, 18, also describes getting more attention at Washington Met than in her previous school. While attending Anacostia High School, she got pregnant. She says the school subsequently unenrolled her, citing too many missed classes.
“They ended up taking me off their list in the middle of my pregnancy and I was like ‘oh my God.’ And they wouldn’t accept my maternity leave,” says Na’Asia. “I tried to go up there after I had my baby, probably a week after I had it. I went in and was like, ‘Can I get my work? So I can do my work and see that I’m accounted for?’ And they were like, ‘No you can’t do it, unless you have your papers.’”
At that point, Na’Asia wasn’t living with her mother, but rather her boyfriend’s family, so she couldn’t get her documents in order—specifically, a guardian signature—to get re-enrolled. By the time she learned of Washington Met, put her forms together, and got off the school’s waitlist, Na’Asia had missed almost two years of school. She started Washington Met this school year, and initially struggled to catch up. But Washington Met staff has been understanding of her situation. Staff always check in to make sure she and her son are OK. A teacher named Ms. Mason, whom she calls her mother, has even given her clothes for her son. Now, Na’Asiahas dreams—she wants to graduate Washington Met, just as her baby’s father did, and has plans to become a pediatrician to support her family.
“I’m trying to graduate by this summer. But if that doesn’t happen, where does that leave me? To a different school that I don’t know how they are going to react? They could be like Anacostia, I don’t know,” says Na’Asia. “I’m in a settled place where I know what’s going on and how everything is falling in place for me. And now, they are closing down. It could mess up an opportunity for me and other kids that actually come here, and we work.”
Should it decide to close Washington Met, DCPS says its Central Office Teams will work closely with staff to support families as they send their kids elsewhere. In a review of 17 studies over the last decade that looked into school closures, Chalkbeat found that closures can hurt students academically. But a lot depended on where students transferred. “Closure students who attended better schools tended to make greater academic gains than did their peers from not-closed low-performing schools in the same sector, while those ending up in worse or equivalent schools had weaker academic growth than their peers in comparable low-performing settings.”
The proposal is not final. DCPS is holding two public meetings about the topic, including one on Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. at the school. DCPS intends to make a definitive decision no later than mid-January. And Bowser still needs to approve the recommendations of DCPS.
Travius says that since the mayor has not visited the school over the last two years he’s attended, he wants her to know: “We, at Washington Met, try … We might have off days, but we bounce back and we keep trying … They make it seem like alternative schools [are] where you dump all the bad kids. But like most of us, we aren’t even bad. We just have things going on in our lives that most people don’t understand and never went through, so it’s hard for us to cope and open up. Other than that, we are cool, laid back kids. We want to have fun and graduate.”
The students City Desk spoke with believe Washington Met’s reputation—its stigma, that it’s just a tough school for kids with behavioral problems—is contributing to the District’s decision to potentially close it. On the day City Desk visited the school, police were waiting outside and eventually made their way inside to escort a student out. (A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson said the visit was logged as a “prisoner transport,” which could mean a number of things, such as the student was reported missing or a person of interest.) Students say that every school has its problems, and they shouldn’t be judged on its troubles alone.
“Even before I went here, I was like, ‘This school is bad, they bad,’” says Lyric. “But then I got here, and I got the love from [Ms. Mason] and Mr. Wheeler became our counselor. All of them at once—it was like love. Once I felt wanted and love came from people that were trying to help me, that’s when I was like, ‘This is the school I’m going to graduate from.’”
Lyric adds, “I had the opportunity to leave and go to a ‘real’ high school. But I didn’t, I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay here, where it was natural for me.”
“I understand why this school could be shut down,” says 18-year-old Zaria Williams. “But I think they don’t really have to shut it down. I think they could put more investment and resources inside the school to help more. I feel like they are just being lazy because it’s a small school. When kids get put out, they can just put them here. It’s not fair. This should be a school with guidance too—this school has no guidance. They just put the students here, and you have to put the puzzles together for yourself. And that’s just not right.”
“I could understand why our academics are so low,” says DuLane. “We do have resources but not all the right ones to get us where we have to be. There are certain kids that learn a certain way so you need more than one resource. We just have the computer. I can see other kids, they don’t learn right away with the computer.”
Nineteen-year-old alumIndia Portersees a bigger picture. For her, the closing of Washington Met is yet another story of displacement. “This is crazy. As a city, we look sad to try to shut down an alternative school,” says Porter. “We already know they are trying to gentrify the whole neighborhood, build condos … They are trying to get all of these black people out.”
It’s unclear what will happen to the building. DCPS says it would maintain the building for future use.
This post has been updated to include comment from DCPS.