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Maria P. Jones has a lot riding on the actions of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Jones has a 4-year-old daughter, Laci Joseph, who attends pre-K at Burroughs Elementary School in Northeast. Jones and her husband live across the street from Burroughs. They did a lot of scouting before settling on Burroughs. They took two tours of Burroughs. They met with the principal of Burroughs.
Now each school day morning, Jones says her daughter can’t wait for Borroughs to open its doors.
Burroughs, however, is among two dozen public schools in the District slated for closing. The case for shuttering the schools, as articulated by Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty, is strong. The school population has dropped below 50,000 students, leaving classrooms across the system empty or close enough. School brass are forever chasing one deficit or another, and closing schools serves fiscal responsibility in two ways—the city can sell the real estate and trim its enormous facilities-maintenance budget.
D.C. has gone down this road before. The schools administration in 1997 proposed closing 16 schools and actually closed 11.
The five saved in that round benefited from smash-mouth civic activism. Mad parents got in the faces of the bean counters and shouted them down, taking a cue from the ages to protect their children from all predators: in this case, whatever consolidation plan the administrators happened to draw up at headquarters.
The same process will repeat itself this time, but with a bit of a twist. Rhee and Fenty scheduled 23 simultaneous public hearings last night, one for each proposed closing. In addition, two councilmembers scheduled a “people’s meeting” to cover general concerns at the John A. Wilson building. Twenty-four hearings in a single night: Rest assured neither Fenty nor Rhee could possibly make the rounds to become the punching bag at all, or even most, of them.
D.C. history buffs will tell you that the city has a glorious history of low-to-the-ground political participation, even over the past decade or so. House Speaker Newt Gingrich made history in 1995 by hosting a town hall meeting on District ills at Eastern High School. Hundreds were shut out of the affair. The masses turned out again for public sessions on Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ failed plan to take over the school system. And every four years, just about every civic association in town hosts a forum for mayoral candidates.
That grassroots spirit was in evidence last night, albeit somewhat hushed. Many of the Maria P. Joneses of D.C. trudged through snow, braving a level of slush that would normally grind the District to a panicked halt, to show up and bitch. But at some hearings—like the one to discuss the closing of Rudolph Elementary—no one showed up to testify. Not one parent. Not a single teacher.
The people who did come to the forums did so with pretty much the same basic message: Don’t shut down my child’s school, goddamnit.
But like any truly democratic event, it was far richer than that. The participants, after all, had been rehearsing their lines for weeks, losing sleep over how they’d shout down Rhee, Fenty, or whichever principal happened to be standing in front of them. And we went to all 24 of the historic bitch sessions, even the ones where the parents didn’t show. With the Elite Irate and the Also Rans, we celebrate this night of grassroots rhetoric and launch the pursuit of the finest school-closing sound bite in the entire District of Columbia. —Erik Wemple
Not every quote can make it to the Elite Irate. There were plenty of Also Rans at the 23 “reorganization and rightsizing” hearings for the District of Columbia Public Schools—and a few from the People’s Meeting down at the Wilson Building. Here are the best quotes culled from all 24 hearings:
“If you close Bruce-Monroe, you will be messin’ up a good thing.”
–Patrice Richardson, 18, former student at Bruce-Monroe Elementary, graduate of Cardozo High
“Black, white, yellow. When we place our common interests first, we can move mountains. Let’s do it. Let’s move mountains.”
–Cesar Espejo, 6th grade teacher at Bruce-Monroe
“These children are the children of voters. We have voted before, and we will vote again.”
–Maurice Powers, Bruce-Monroe parent. Fifty years ago, he was a second-grader at Parkview even though he could see Monroe School from his house.
“This will only disrupt the progress we are currently making and lead to low morale.”
–David Pauk, teacher at Bruce-Monroe
“[Smothers Elementary] is a family that loves each other.”
–Lorren Love, age 10
“When you close one school, you sacrifice children….It can be a culture shock. [My son] needs to be in a closed environment rather than an open space. He may think it’s a playground rather than a school.”
“The law says no child left behind, but once again we’ve been left behind.”
“Tell Fenty he’s got a lot to answer for! A lot! He said he was gonna open more schools, but it only took him nine months to pick up where Williams left off!”
“How are we going to have the division where the older kids aren’t running over our 3-year-olds?”
–Joyce Hill, Washington Teachers Union building rep for LaSalle Elementary
“It feels very artificial, us coming out tonight to talk to a tape recorder…. We’ll have no more clarity than when we’re gossiping around the water cooler, watching the news, or reading the newspaper.”
–Jana Parker, third-grade teacher at LaSalle
“Can we be resolved that we can make a difference? You gotta believe you can make a difference!”
–Marion Barry, mayor for life
“This is the People’s Meeting! I had to come to the People’s Meeting!”
–Kwame Brown, not quite mayor for life yet
General chant at the Wilson Building: “Make no mistake / Don’t be fooled / They’re about condos / We’re about schools!”
“It is a conspiracy. That’s why they were able to do this.”
–Joyce Robinson-Paul, ML Washington Career HS counselor
“When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled. I’m not gonna name names, but you better Rhee-member!”
“The people who organized this know how to disorganize us.”
-a man who had been given the wrong address for the Cooke school meeting by the DCPS Web site
“I’m concerned that the opportunity for parents to have input is diminished by having discussions of the closings in places that are in no way in proximity to where people live.”
“I came here today. I came because I care about those dirty, stinking little children. Every day, they come in wearing the same stinky underwear, hugging you. And I care about them.”
–Deborah Pitts, teacher at P.R. Harris Elementary
“You have nothing to worry about. We’re going to take the best talent in the schools and lift them up so we can do even better. It’s going to be great.”
–Mayor Adrian Fenty
“They’re trying to move us out, get better, more modernized citizens in. More productive, with jobs and stuff.”
–Ayesha Harris, 26
“Our children are being hustled out. It’s self-explanatory. They’re using the children and taking them to another community so their schools can stay open. So that’s hustling.”
–Hannah Hawkins, director of after-school center
“We will wait. I will sing.”
–Ximena F. Hartsock, assistant to the chancellor, after reading the rules of order in both English and Spanish and nobody was there to speak. (She didn’t sing.)
“If a school with capacity for 2,000 students has 200 in it, something should be done. I can see that’s a waste of space.”
–Sheila Copeland, fifth-grade teacher at Tubman.
“How can you all decide what schools are going to be closed when you don’t know anything about the community…Take that back to Rhee…She needs to go back to New York where she came from.”
“I just feel it’s a drastic process.”
–Joan Irabor, Miner Elementary parent
“We have fought so hard to bring children and parents together, and now we’re going to have another split.”
–Brenda Artis, grandparent of two at Miner and PSA 103 citizen coordinator
“Here we are celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday some 40 years later with the same problem of educational choices being denied.”
–Darlene Babil, president of M.M. Washington Career High School’s PTA
“We cannot continue to postpone taking the bitter medicine of school reform.”
–Ted McGinn, co-chair of the Emery Elementary Local School Restructuring Team
“If you look at the Burroughs campus, you will see it is clean. This is because parents have taken ownership of the schools. [At Taft Center, which could receive Burroughs’ students] the floors are buckled.”
– Rudolph Knott
Contributors: Mark Athitakis, Jule Banville, Andrew Beaujon, Matt Borlik, Jason Cherkis, Mike DeBonis, Arthur Delaney, Amanda Hess, Dave McKenna, Ruth Samuelson, Franklin Schneider, Rend Smith, Tanya Snyder, Angela Valdez, Erik Wemple