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On Monday morning, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty made good on a longstanding promise to enroll his twin sons, Matthew and Andrew, in public schools. It was an important symbolic move, considering that, more than two years ago, Fenty took control of all city schools.
Yet few were applauding the mayor for following through. No one was saying what a stand-up guy he was.
That’s because of where Matthew and Andrew alighted. Not at their local school, West Elementary, at 14th and Farragut Streets NW, but at the far more prestigious Lafayette Elementary, in Chevy Chase. How much of an improvement is that? On the most recent round of testing, better than 90 percent of Lafayette students scored proficient or better in reading; fewer than 60 percent of West kids met the same standard.
So how did Fenty pull off the educational upgrade?
Quizzed on that point at a press appearance Monday morning, Hizzoner was terse, saying he would not discuss the matter out of respect for the kids’ “private life.” That evening, mayoral spokesperson Mafara Hobson doubled down on her boss’ silence, releasing this statement: “This morning Mayor Fenty and his wife, Michelle, officially enrolled their boys in DC Public Schools. Out of respect for the boys’ privacy, he has declined to comment further.” On Tuesday, Fenty again declined to discuss the matter.
Thus begins the Battle of Lafayette.
Fenty and his minions doubtless understand that their accountability-dodging ways have no grounding in public ethics: How the city’s chief executive leapfrogged the neighborhood school in favor of one of the city’s best schools is automatically fair game for the media. So the Fenty team can either explain how this happened and move on to other issues, or stonewall until the truth surfaces.
Investigation of the Fenty-Lafayette maneuver starts with a look at bureaucracy. Each year, loads of District parents enter a lottery to get their kids out of poorly performing neighborhood schools and into better ones that are often across town—especially those, like Lafayette, that are west of Rock Creek Park. The process involves identifying as many as five potential schools, filling out an application early in the year, submitting the paperwork, and crossing your fingers. It’s a highly competitive undertaking, with few slots available in the most desirable schools for transfer students (such as Lafayette).
Fenty very well could have entered that lottery and won. The chances, however, are slim. It is unclear whether Lafayette even accepted any transfer students this year.
Crystala Lewis, who lives in the Capitol View neighborhood in the city’s eastern corner, braved the out-of-boundary placement process last year for her son, now a first-grader. At an informational session, parents were informed that many of the city’s most desirable elementary schools—Murch, Janney, Lafayette—are already full of in-boundary kids. “We were steered away from them,” says Lewis.
Other avenues into Lafayette do exist. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, parents are entitled to move their kids from schools that haven’t met federal standards—such as West—to ones that have through a process separate from the lottery. A motorcoach full of such kids pulls up in front of Lafayette every morning.
Another transfer possibility occurs when a student has special needs. In that case, each student has an “individualized education plan” spelling out what those needs are. DCPS then places the student in a location appropriate to those needs. More dramatic cases that DCPS is not equipped to handle are famously placed in private facilities at public expense.
There is one additional option: Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, pursuant to an emergency rulemaking published in January, has the power to allow a transfer when it “would be in the best interests of the student” and “would promote the overall interests of the school system.”
As its test scores attest, there’s no doubt that having your kids at Lafayette rather than West would be good for the kids.
More than that, “It’s just a wonderful, throwback neighborhood school,” says Debra Fried Levin, a Lafayette parent since 2001. “Our numbers are always good, but that doesn’t tell the full story.” She praises an arts integration program that includes a fabulous teacher and a grant arrangement that has folks from the Kennedy Center coming in to work arts into lesson plans.
John Ayers, another parent, says it’s a close-knit community with an active corps of parent volunteers—helpful when dealing with an under-resourced DCPS school. “When it snows, we go and shovel the snow,” he says. “It ain’t Sidwell, but people make it work.” And sometimes joining him with a shovel is the school’s well-regarded principal, Lynn Main.
Main did not return LL’s phone calls, but parents describe her as a bureaucratic warrior, knowledgeable about the DCPS hierarchy and the budget process and not afraid to clash with Rhee in order to help her teachers and students. “She understands how to get things done for the school,” Levin says.
But one thing none of the parents know anything about is how the Fenty kids ended up at their school. Some won’t even say that much: LL phoned the brass of the Lafayette Home and School Association on Monday. All that co-president Lisa Resch would say on the record is that “Lafayette is the largest elementary school in the District.”
If Fenty did have his kids placed in non-neighborhood schools through extraordinary means, he’ll undermine his mayoralty by taking unfair advantage of it. He’ll also imperil his pet project of DCPS reform, because the Lafayette move would hardly constitute a signal of confidence to the hundreds of parents thinking about taking a chance on their local DCPS school—as recent advertisements have suggested they do.
“Go public and get a great free education,” the ads urge. But what if you’re not the mayor?
“We’re all supposed to abide by the same rules,” says Lewis, whose child now attends Eaton Elementary in Cleveland Park. “If we could all walk up to a building and say, ‘My child is going to this school,’ I’m sure it would be chaos.”
Iris Toyer, a DCPS parent and schools activist who helped draft the out-of-boundary lottery process as part of a 2003 task force, says that Fenty’s silence thus far is telling: “If he went though the process, I would say, ‘Yes, I did.’ To me, by not saying anything, you are making a statement.”
Toyer points out that much as Fenty might insist that this is about his children, and thus off limits as a matter of public concern, this really isn’t about the kids: “The question is,” she says, “did the mayor get special treatment because he was the mayor?”
“I understand not wanting to talk about the children,” she adds, “but what they want to talk about is the process. Did you follow the same process?”
Fire Brass Likes Parking in Front of Hydrant
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department has hydrant problems, that much we know. With water flow cited as a key cause in the destruction of Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s Chain Bridge Road manse last month, the department has been checking and rechecking plugs across the city to prevent another disaster.
Tania Shand also has some hydrant problems.
Shand lives next door to the FEMS headquarters, which is located in the former Grimke School on Vermont Avenue NW. She has a hydrant in front of her house, and fire department brass are constantly parking in front of it.
“It’s a regular occurrence,” she says, noting that she’ll catch cars parked illegally multiple times per week. “It’s not just the fire vehicles; they will park their private vehicles there as well.”
And Shand says this isn’t a matter of idling for a few minutes while running an errand inside. “What I have a problem with is parking, going to a meeting, sitting in your office for two hours, and using that as legitimate parking.”
The situation came to a head earlier this month, when Shand was leaving for work and spotted an FEMS fleet vehicle in front of the hydrant as she pulled out of her driveway. She drove up to the Grimke entrance, walked in and asked to see Fire Chief Dennis Rubin. He never showed, but another fire official, she says, made a “patronizing” comment equating her double-parked car to the hydrant-parker.
Incensed, she e-mailed Rubin demanding an explanation for his scofflaw subordinates.
Rubin, responding to the message, apologized. Barely. The phenomenon of fire officials obstructing fire hydrants, he explained, was due to the need “to make room for a customer that needed a child safety seat installed this morning. I could cancel the child safety seat program, but I don’t think that would make sense in that it is the only one in the City that I am aware of and clearly protects out children.”
Circling the block in search of a legal space, it seems, was not an option.
The hydrant offenses represent just one front of a war that’s been waged for years between Grimke’s neighbors and Grimke’s occupants—the FEMS brass and the Department of Corrections. Says neighbor Chuck Dittrich, “They park on the sidewalk. They park in the alley.”
The issue is the small parking lot available at Grimke for employees’ private cars. Add to that the bevy of fleet cars used there, and the result is a terrible parking crunch—never mind that there’s a Metro station right across the street. At one point, the parties hashed out an agreement with the help of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham to have the city officials obey parking laws , Dittrich says, but adherence to that covenant has deteriorated over the years.
Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth L. Crosswhite says he is aware of Shand’s complaints and has met with her several times, but he denies that department employees are parking vehicles in front of the hydrant. “That is one of Chief Rubin’s pet peeves. He made that known since Day 1,” he says. “I can assure you that there’s no officials parking in front of fire hydrants.”
Crosswhite notes that the department’s rulebook indicates that drivers of official cars are “accountable for ensuring that the parking/stopping of Department vehicles, during non-emergency situations, is done in such a way as to cause the least amount of inconvenience to the public.” The Grimke building and fire hydrants are both specifically mentioned. But nowhere in the rule does it mention that drivers are obligated to follow applicable parking laws.
The long-term plan has been to move the city agencies out of Grimke, but D.C. Council politics have thus far interfered with that plan. Thus Dittrich posits a conspiracy of sorts on the part of the FEMS and corrections employees, who don’t want to be in the decrepit building any more than the neighbors do. “They try to do this on purpose,” Dittrich says. “Their goal is to take it out on us, to have us lobby to get rid of them.”
Dittrich says the hydrant violations would be the “most egregious” example thereof. Adds Shand, “It’s just symbolic of the whole sitation.”
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