Get our free newsletter
A school system that’s struggling to reform itself can’t seem to
accommodate schools that are already working.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Six-year-old Ivan Oliver is a problem student. That is, he was a problem student, back when he started kindergarten at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in the fall of 1998. Charlie Oliver and Claudia Pabo had adopted Ivan* only a few months before from an orphanage in Cherepovts, a city in the northern part of Russia. By the time he went to school, Ivan could speak only a few words of English and had a hard time paying attention in class. He spent most of the time wandering about the classroom. Staffers realized Ivan was having a hard time fitting in when they found him perched on a jungle gym, peeing onto the pavement below while the rest of the kids played around him.
But Ivan’s teacher, Brenda Burns, saw some sparks behind Ivan’s slightly crossed gray eyes. In her 17 years at Hearst, a school that teaches pre-kindergarten through third-grade students, Burns had seen plenty of kids with conflicted backgrounds and believed that there were ways to teach someone like Ivan. During the first few months of class, she spent time working individually with him, finding ways to engage him in class and conversation. She learned that he was well-spoken in his native tongue, and that back in Russia, he would tag along with the orphanage custodian, helping to change light bulbs and build toy boats. Ivan was fond of singing along to a piano.
Burns’ interest in Ivan was returned. He found a level of comfort with his teacher that was hard to come by in a new school and an unknown country. By the end of the first few weeks, he had started to call Burns “Mama,” using the only word he knew that would describe the warmth and interest she’d shown, says Ivan’s father. Gradually, Ivan became more engaged in class, paying attention to his course work and engaging socially with his classmates. His innate intelligence, skilled teachers, and accommodating school all added up to a very different student by the end of the year. Ivan had become an academic star in his kindergarten class and was growing wise to American slang. After one teachable moment last year, says Burns, a rapt Ivan responded with a short pause and then: “Wow. No shit.”
“It was like—what’s his name?—Rip Van Winkle, where he wakes up and the world is new,” says Burns, now a pre-kindergarten teacher at Garrison Elementary School. “It was so wonderful to see him take delight in everything around him….[Ivan] has just an unbelievable perceptiveness about people and language and what it all means.”
Had Ivan been put into one of many other District schools, he might have been marginalized and perhaps ended up as a special education case. But Hearst isn’t like most D.C. schools. A small institution set in swanky Cleveland Park, Hearst has high standardized test scores, students from all quarters of the city, and a reputation as a school that works in a school system that doesn’t.
In fact, though, the very things that make Hearst Hearst—its small size, its service to out-of-boundary kids, its choice location—are the same things that have led, almost, to its undoing. District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) officials considered closing the school twice in the 1990s. And even though Hearst survived, it picked up some deep bruises. Last year, after months of conflicts between parents and then-Principal Shirley Hopkinson, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman transferred Hopkinson—which made Hearst parents very happy—but she also transferred two of the school’s most popular teachers—which made Hearst parents very angry. Burns was one of them.
The transfers were followed by a mass exodus of teachers, and many parents took their kids elsewhere. Those who remained feared that the go-round over the principal had brought the school one step closer to extinction. Add in the set-tos around closings and staffing, and die-hard Hearst parents thought the school might be better off outside of a system that too long considered it an easy target. Last summer, they decided to submit an application to make Hearst one of the city’s newest charter schools. As a charter, the school would receive public funds diverted from DCPS money but would operate independently of the school system.
“I viewed [the transfers] as a declaration of war on our particular little neighborhood,” says Charlie Oliver. “I believe that if you put the control of schools in hands of parents, they would be better off than if either the school board or Ackerman had any involvement….Just get downtown out
of the picture. Sell the administration building. Just eliminate them and send checks. That would be far superior.”
Not everyone at Hearst is as ready to bolt as Oliver. And there’s a long way to go before the charter-school idea becomes a reality. Whether it happens or not, the parents at Hearst are sending a strong signal to the central administration that there could be consequences if DCPS leadership continues to push them around. The charter option allows dissatisfied parents real leverage, a chance to speak out in a way they’ve never done before—not just by taking their children to another school, but by taking their school along with them. Given the current state of public education in the District, the prospect of DCPS losing even some of its better-prepared kids and more involved parents is a scary one.
“Hearst is a microcosm of a major aspect…of what’s wrong with our public system—that it is not sensitive to [schools that are] good and nurturing,” says At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in the Hearst area. “The parents are sick of it. I think this is a test for the school system. The school system is going to have to figure it out and give some assurances to Hearst, or I think it’s going to lose Hearst.”
Ackerman, for one, agrees that charter schools have the potential to drain public schools of financial and other resources—for little or no payback. “Right now, they’re untested,” she says. “So we have to see if they do a better job, if they’re going to be an answer.”
Ackerman says she tries not to worry too much, focusing instead on improving existing schools so that parents won’t feel the need to go looking for education elsewhere. “I hope that we will create some systemic reform initiatives that will allow parents and the schools to feel that they can stay within the school system and they can thrive,” she says.
But Ackerman has to put a positive spin on what could become an ominous trend. There are other people close to the system who are a little more open with their concerns. They’ve watched as parents and teachers at one high-performing school, Paul Junior High School, set out to convert the school to a charter; the process now seems well on its way. If Hearst is only the first school to follow in line, the worst-case predictions—that charters will drain the school system of the best and the brightest—may come true, perhaps more quickly than anyone thought possible.
“The worst thing that could come from this charter-school spin is that all activist parents would get out of DCPS and leave the system as a warehouse for residual students,” notes schools watchdog and DCPS parent Philip J. Blair Jr. “I fear that.”
Things are rarely calm at Hearst, and this morning is no different. Of course, stillness is hard to come by in a room full of 20
4-year-olds. They sit in a quasi-circle on the edge of a bright square of carpet in Carla Hillery’s pre-kindergarten class as the clock clicks past 9, squirming and chattering away until the room feels as if it might crack open.
The controversy this morning surrounds a new student, Anastassia, a towheaded girl dressed in a Barbie-pink sweat suit and bright gold earrings, who has, as two of the girls report, ignored their inquires about her name and origin. Hillery sits atop a small wooden chair at the edge of the carpet, already looking exhausted, and explains that Anastassia is not responding because Anastassia does not speak English.
That’s good enough for the kids. They’re used to this kind of thing. In most schools, “diversity” is a cliche that lives mostly in the printed handouts from the principal; it generally means that a handful of students don’t match the dominant skin color of the student body. At Hearst, there is no dominant skin color—not really. The school population is largely an even split between white and black kids, and there are reasonable numbers of Latino and Asian children. Like Ivan, Anastassia is Russian—which is more than the kids need to know. They hear her name and can think only of the animated movie with the same title. “I have that video,” gasps Julia.
Julia turns out to be Anastassia’s new best friend, charged with showing her around the large classroom during “choice time,” the part of the day when the kids get to scatter to different stations in the room. Holding Anastassia by the hand, Julia drags her from table to table, blabbering enthusiastically as she describes the stations for drawing, for reading, for playing with Play-Doh. Anastassia may not understand a word Julia says, but she seems pleased enough to have the company.
The two finally settle in at a table used to practice lettering. Anastassia picks up her backpack and pulls out a few books in her native language. “Nalle Puh” reads the title of one, atop a picture of the round little bear most of the kids in the room know as “Winnie-the-Pooh.” As Anastassia flips through the pages, reading them aloud in Russian, another girl, Gabrielle, sits down next to her. “I speak French, too,” she says, helpfully.
It’s a lovely picture, but it’s not the only reason that District parents drive their kids over hill and dale to get to Hearst. Parents say they’re drawn to the school because of its small size (170 students), its commitment to early-childhood education, and its strong support from parents who are happy to lavish their time, money, and endless energy on the school.
In 1990, DCPS designated Hearst a “demonstration center,” which meant that teachers and administrators would come from all over the system to learn about its program. The school’s curriculum emphasizes both academic and social learning, and includes class time for art, dance, and music. The “responsive classroom” technique, another hallmark of the Hearst program, combines group and solo activities, structured lessons and open-ended projects.
Those elements have combined to create a school that attracts people from all the various corners of the city, who latch on to Hearst not only as a place that educates their child, but as if Hearst itself were their own flesh and blood.
When that child—er, school—is in danger, parents react with ferocious protectiveness. Back in 1993, DCPS administrators first considered closing the school in an effort to cut costs for a financially strapped school system, but opted to shut down a couple of others instead. When the then-newly appointed D.C. Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, a board created to oversee management of public schools and included then-Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr., came back to try to shutter the school anew in 1997, parents activated a network of media manipulating, grass-roots organizing, and loud, sustained protest to send administrators scrambling in search of other targets. In the end, the board agreed to spare the school, but only by a single vote.
It’s not as if the system’s officials didn’t have their reasons for preying on Hearst. It served only a handful of District kids, a majority of whom were from out of its boundaries. And, more important, at least from the perspective of DCPS, Hearst occupied some very precious real estate in Cleveland Park, valued at $1.89 million in 1997.
But what looked like a honey pot of money to school officials was revealed as a hornets’ nest when they tried to put Hearst on the block. Hearst parents are very savvy defenders who can run circles around the system when the school comes under attack. The last threat even bred a mantra: “Don’t close it. Clone it.” Parents believe that they have constructed an educational model that is far more valuable than a one-time infusion of cash for the system. And the brushes with closing have left parents at the school suspicious and ready to start shooting the minute an unfriendly head peeks over the horizon.
“I know, as a former Hearst parent, there is always lurking in their minds: When is it going to happen again?” says Tonya Vidal Kinlow, a former Hearst PTA president and now an at-large member of the elected D.C. Board of Education. “It’s disruptive to the lives of the children and everyone else that’s there.”
And even after the DCPS officials decided that they couldn’t sell the place without taking a massive hit from its tiny band of adherents, they seemed to find other ways to get the people at Hearst angry. When then-Principal Hopkinson, new to the school in the fall of 1998, was tagged as being inaccessible and insensitive to student and parent concerns, the business of staffing the school became a tug of war between the parents and the administration. The administration stood by Hopkinson, even though it was clear she lacked the support she needed to run the school.
It got worse: When parents complained in December about an unidentified dust that lay on desks in one of the kindergarten rooms, for example, Hopkinson dismissed the concerns, say several parents. Days later, DCPS officials tested the substance and found that the dust came from lead paint and had significant toxic implications. That fiasco, along with several others, was enough to permanently damage Hopkinson in the eyes of many Hearst parents.
“I found [Hopkinson] condescending, demeaning, distant, unresponsive, inaccessible,” says former Hearst parent Mina Veazie, who has since moved her son to a charter school. (Hopkinson, now principal at Barnard Elementary, declined to comment, directing all questions to Ackerman. “I’m not working at Hearst any longer,” Hopkinson said.)
Parents say they got the runaround when they took their complaints to Hopkinson’s superiors, such as then-Assistant Superintendent Audrey Donaldson. (Donaldson has since left DCPS for the Chicago school system. She did not return a call for comment.) Finally, last spring, Ackerman made a personal visit to the school, to interview the principal and teachers. The next day, she granted a voluntary transfer to Hopkinson. Unfortunately for Ackerman, she also gave involuntary transfers to two popular teachers, Burns and Karen Dresden.
Parents were furious. They circulated a petition protesting Burns’ transfer, gathering the signatures of about 85 percent of parents. The effort did nothing to change Ackerman’s mind. “I felt like there needed to be an opportunity for that school to rebuild the climate,” says Ackerman now. “Certainly, it was so divided at that point, we needed to give people the opportunity to start over.”
But it didn’t end there. Aside from Dresden and Burns, four of the other nine classroom teachers also transferred to other DCPS schools or left the system altogether. Then another two asked to be transferred. Their requests were denied, they were told, because of a systemwide policy to cut off teacher transfers for the year.
As for Hearst, parents worried that the hemorrhage of teachers would be fatal for the school. A lack of experienced educators could kill the model program and dissuade many parents from staying, they feared, meaning the school district might be more likely to close Hearst. If DCPS wouldn’t protect Hearst, they reasoned, they’d do it themselves. That’s when the charter gambit became a weapon—and a potent one at that—in the parents’ battle to maintain custody of the school’s future.
In July, parents from the Hearst PTA submitted the application to convert the school to a charter. “We feel as if we were driven to this point,” says Andrea Carlson, who worked to compile the application, which was approved by about 50 parents.
Meanwhile, DCPS hired a new principal and teachers. The parents thought that, for the time being, the school had been saved. In August, they changed their application from a conversion request to a petition to create a new charter school. The revised application meant that parents could build a new school based on the Hearst education model, but would not have any claim to the Hearst building. Unlike conversion requests, the new application didn’t require eventual approval by two-thirds of the school’s parents and teachers. Only the ones who wanted to go would leave.
In September, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, one of the two boards in the city that reviews charter-school applications, gave first-stage approval to the Hearst parents’ application. The petitioning parents will resubmit the application in January and could open their charter as early as next fall. They may also defer for another year.
“I don’t think it’s something we can afford to drop, because the school is vulnerable, and we need to ensure [its] longevity,” says Carlson. “And the future is very unpredictable in DCPS.”
A day’s worth of rain has smeared the handmade sign posted in front of Hearst one September evening. But you can still make out the words: “Back to School Night.” The flaw only adds to the building’s schoolhouse charm. A large, red-brick structure with a wide red door, Hearst sits near the corner of 37th and Tilden Streets NW, behind the sprawling campus of the exclusive Sidwell Friends School. Large, comfortable single-family homes spread from the building on all sides.
Inside, the current Hearst principal, Betty Shamwell, starts the festivities with a greeting in broken Spanish, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and the parents and students who speak Spanish—and there are many. Shamwell stands on a small stage at the head of the “Big Room,” a large rectangular area used for meetings, as well as for the kids’ drama and dance classes. A former assistant principal at Bruce-Monroe Elementary school, Shamwell has had decades of experience in early-childhood education. She’s genuinely warm and friendly, with a smile that beams a welcome to everyone in attendance. Parents say she’s a good addition to the school, and they give her high marks for leadership and an ability to reach out to the small children who fill Hearst’s halls.
After Shamwell speaks, the teachers parade across the stage to introduce themselves, to hearty applause. PTA President Anne Herr gives a short speech and is followed by parent Lisa Greenman, who talks about the latest fundraising project. For many parents, everything at Hearst seems as it should be—for now, anyway. They’re content to wait it out and see if Hearst can survive in the system. The charter effort, in the minds of some, is an insurance policy they hope they won’t have to use, but will surely cash in if—and probably when—the school system makes another move on the embattled school. “My hope is that Hearst is not going to need to become a charter school,” Greenman says later. “If we were assured that the school would be permitted to thrive as part of DCPS, I think that’s where we would prefer to be.”
The parents’ commitment to the public form of education is more than rhetoric. There are parents, many of whom could afford private schools, who sought out Hearst because they wanted their kids to benefit from the publicness of public schools. To many of them, citizenship in the District includes a commitment to the school system in spite of its manifest deficiencies.
That’s why the charter option is seen as a last resort, to be kept behind glass that will be broken only if efforts to educate their children in an environment carefully crafted to produce excellence are monkeyed with. For many, the idea of turning Hearst into a charter goes against their philosophy of education.
“What I wanted was an administration that worked,” says Greenman. “I didn’t want to opt out of that….I wanted to see reform from within spreading out….I really think public schools should work for everyone.”
But when those two values come head to head—saving public education or saving Hearst—it’s not even a close call. “Although I was reluctant to see our community pursue [the charter option], I felt it was necessary to do so,” says Greenman. “I feel like there’s a need for a place like Hearst to exist, and I’m not confident that DCPS is supportive of that.”
The parents see a host of practical problems along the path to creating a charter school. They are not a naive bunch, and the sheer logistics of building a school almost from scratch are daunting. Many of them are putting as much as they can into the school as it is.
“I just see it as more hard work,” says parent Denise Nwaezeapu. “I view charter schools as more vulnerability than security.”
Getting first-stage clearance from the charter school board was a big accomplishment. But making Hearst a charter would translate into serious homework for parents already balancing jobs and child-rearing. By now, they believe that Hearst’s educational model is a moveable feast, but they would have to either find and hire a board of trustees and other staff or run the school themselves.
Fundraising would have to go beyond the already constant rounds of selling everything from gift wrap to sweat shirts. To create a school similar to Hearst in program and size, they would have to come up with the equivalent of the $900,000 yearly budget the school district sets aside for the school, which covers most costs specific to the school, like staff salaries, supplies, and textbooks.
According to the 1995 D.C. School Reform Act, which laid the groundwork for charter schools in the District, new schools are entitled to the same per pupil funding as regular public schools: a $5,500 base payment, with additional money allocated on the basis of age and special programs. Hearst parents hope to get about $6,500 per pupil, according to the application they filed, which would amount to about $1,235,000 for a 190-student population. Parents also say that additional funding from the PTA and school activities could tack on another $35,000 a year. They plan to apply for a start-up grant from the federal government, which could bring in another $100,000, according to an application they submitted this summer.
If all of it came through, it would add up to a significant amount, well over the yearly DCPS budget for Hearst. But DCPS also currently pays for significant overhead costs, including record-keeping, computers, and janitorial service, that are not included in the specific Hearst budget. If Hearst parents do create a charter school, they will have to cover those overhead fees, as well as start-up costs, like recruitment and training for new hires.
It’s a problem that all of the other 27 charter schools in the District faced when they started out, and many have gotten past the challenge by teaming up with big corporations or nonprofit groups. Hearst parents hope to get resources from the D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Greenfield, Mass.-based Northeast Foundation for Children, both national nonprofits that provide training and support in early education. But so far, they have no real commitments from any large organizations. Carlson says that parents had little time for outreach when they submitted the first application, but that they plan to expand their efforts in the next few months. “That’s certainly something that, in the next phase of planning, we’ll be concentrating on,” she says.
Hearst parents would also have to find a new home for their charter family. If DCPS closed the public school, as some think will happen, the parents could lease or buy its—very expensive—building, which would only add on to their yearly costs. If that building did not become available, they’d be on their own in finding new digs.
Ackerman says she has no intention of closing Hearst and says DCPS has invested in the school over the summer by hiring new staff and making some renovations to the building, like adding new windows.
But new windows aren’t the type of commitment some parents demand. They would prefer changes in Ackerman’s fundamental ideas for school-system reform, which some say are antithetical to Hearst’s concept. Ackerman’s attachment to Stanford 9 achievement tests and standards-based evaluations of schools, for example, has some parents worried that a unique program like Hearst’s might be squashed down into the DCPS box.
“I’m actually more passionate about [the charter effort] now,” says Hearst parent Karl Jentoft, who is married to Anne Herr. “I think Betty Shamwell is a very nice principal, and she’s done a great job of preventing a collapse of the school….But she’s on a one-year contract….
“Last year’s problems are over,” adds Jentoft. “I think there’s a whole set of new problems now. The program hasn’t recovered….You may be able to create a decent school called Hearst Elementary School, but it won’t be the same program. I’m pessimistic that [Ackerman is] flexible enough to include Hearst as it was.”
Ackerman says standardized tests are only the beginning of her ideas for reform, and that future types of evaluation, like writing tests, will accommodate more programs like Hearst’s. “How do you know how well you’re doing unless you can compare yourself?” she asks. “If you look at school districts that are really progressive, they’re already doing [standardized tests]. We’re just catching up from behind.”
But Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who represents the ward where Hearst is located, claims that if a school like Hearst has to leave the system to thrive, that could be a setback for larger school reform. “It can be detrimental to the public perception of school reform if a school feels it must become a charter school to survive,” she says. “I hope that’s not what’s happening here.”
Paul Junior High presents another clear and present threat to business as usual at DCPS. Hearst and Paul have almost nothing in common as educational institutions—not size, not look, not location, not student body. But the one thing they do share—a way of working for the kids who attend them—is the reason people at both schools are thinking of leaving the administration behind.
Housed in a massive three-story building in the middle of the Brightwood neighborhood in Northwest, Paul serves about 775 kids, most of them from the neighborhood, most of them black. The area around the school is largely residential, like Hearst’s. But the homes are narrow row houses or boxy, brick apartment buildings—nice homes that give a good neighborhood feel, but hardly as stately as their Cleveland Park counterparts.
The school has a sort of academic rags-to-riches story that rarely happens in DCPS. Back in the 1980s, Paul students performed poorly on standardized tests, their scores falling in the bottom half of all District students’, except in science. Enrollment also declined steadily in the late 1980s. In 1990, the school had a population of only about 450 students, less than two-thirds its capacity.
Paul’s academic savior, current Principal Cecile Middleton, came to the school in 1990. A longtime District educator, Middleton has experience as both a teacher and a school administrator. Parents and school advocates praise Middleton as a good leader and reform-minded educator. But Middleton is not vocal about the charter process, rarely talking to the press for fear of complicating her efforts. “I’m not a person who pushes me,” she says. “I’m a person who pushes children. I believe every child is due a good education.”
At Paul, Middleton initiated the kind of sweeping reform that many District schools will have to undergo in order for the system as a whole to prosper. She started by moving and renovating a rundown library and adding space for new classrooms, says Paul teacher Bill Kappenhagen. Middleton also revamped the school curriculum, cutting out classes like home economics to make room for a greater emphasis on basic education. She added a few extras to the idea of “basic,” making Spanish mandatory for Paul students and including class time for visual and performing arts. The new, revised Paul also has an extended schedule for structured clubs and other activities, as well as mentoring programs with community and other groups, like the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc.
Middleton’s efforts, according to parents, have turned the school around. Since 1990, both enrollment and test scores have gone up. Last year, more than 80 percent of Paul students scored at the basic level or better on the Stanford 9 test for reading; about half scored Basic or better on the math portion. Paul students go on to attend some of the best high schools in the city, like the School Without Walls and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Not everyone’s been supportive of Middleton’s reforms. School officials have “stymied” a number of Paul’s initiatives, notes Kappenhagen, either by direct intervention or by the sheer hassle they have created for coordination efforts. DCPS heads put the brakes on plans to send a couple of Paul teachers to a national conference for professional development. They also put a kink in a program with nearby Whittier Elementary, which used to send some of its highest-performing students to Paul to attend classes. “Because of the logistics of getting it straight with the District, we just gave up,” says Kappenhagen.
In 1997, Middleton and Paul teachers thought they could navigate the road of reform more deftly without a big, broken school system dragging behind them. That summer, they submitted an application to the D.C. Public Charter School Board to convert Paul to a charter school.
But the type of DCPS complications that had driven Paul teachers to seek a charter also stalled their efforts—at least temporarily. In the fall of 1997, DCPS officials had to delay the start of the school year to make repairs to school buildings, like Paul’s, that couldn’t meet fire-code standards without last-minute patch-ups. The delay meant that Paul teachers couldn’t meet up with parents in time to gather the signatures needed for a conversion by the October deadline, says Kappenhagen. So Middleton applied again the next year; again, the school opening was delayed and the teachers came up short of signatures.
Paul teachers decided to apply a third time, and this time, they got started in the spring. They scored the needed signatures and the board’s approval this September. Paul is scheduled to open as a charter school next fall.
Middleton and others like to say that their conversion is about improving the school system, not leaving it. They hope their charter status will allow them to be a research-and-development branch for the larger system. “Paul will always be a public school,” she says. “It’s just that it’ll be operating independently of the Board of Education.”
But to many, the move looks like an effort to get away from a school system that has little to offer Paul. “That’s really a vote of no confidence in the system,” says DCPS parent and school activist Susan Gushue. “What Paul is saying is, ‘We’re better off without the services that the larger system can give us.’ That’s really an indictment. People should take that very seriously.”
Paul’s not in the clear for a conversion just yet. The charter legislation says conversion charters should be able to remain in their buildings, but DCPS hasn’t come up with the same interpretation, says Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Last year, the elected school board passed a resolution that says it has to conduct reviews of all empty buildings to see if they should be used for alternative or special education. Ackerman says school officials have to give a once-over to the Paul building to see if it’s needed elsewhere in DCPS.
But Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), a local nonprofit, says DCPS already has plenty of empty space to work with without Paul’s building. “The irony here is that there are approximately 3 million square feet of empty space in DCPS,” says Cane. “So it’s very hard to make the argument that the [Paul] school building is needed for either of those purposes.”
Ackerman says DCPS and the Board of Education have not yet decided what to do about the Paul building. “We have to see what the community wants,” says Ackerman. “This has now triggered a process we’ll have to put in place that looks at the entire issue.”
Whatever the outcome, Paul teachers still hope to open as a charter next fall. When they do, they could very well be blazing the trail for others who want to take a similar route out of DCPS, their schools in tow. “I think all eyes are on us to see how we do,” says Kappenhagen. “If we’re successful and the District doesn’t improve drastically, we’ll see an influx [of interest in going charter].”
On their own, and even together, Hearst and Paul hardly seem like a threat to a behemoth organization like DCPS. After all, even when you add up the numbers, the schools account for fewer than 1,000 kids in a system with more than 70,000.
But these two are only part of a much larger charter-school movement, one of the largest in the country. In only three years, D.C. has been breeding ground for 30 charter schools. Twenty-seven of those are currently operating and enroll almost 7,000 students—most of whom came from DCPS schools, says FOCUS’s Cane. Cane estimates that another 1,500 students are on waiting lists to attend existing charter schools.
Parents and students at Hearst and Paul would not be the first to leave the school system bound for charters. But they would be the first to tote their successful school programs along with them. And some fear that Hearst and Paul could be leaders with long lines of followers. “I don’t see it as a slow death,” says Gushue. “I think one day we’ll wake up and find that half our schools are charter schools.”
Some charter-school advocates argue that such a proposition would offer “healthy competition” for DCPS. “I see a future where half of schools in the District are charter schools,” says Richard Wenning, a former DCPS administrator who now heads Wenning Associates, which provides administrative support to charter schools. “That’s very possible and very desirable.”
But some education watchdogs say it’s still too early to count on charters as a way to reform the school system. “We have not had enough charter schools in enough places to say that competition works, that it really improves schools,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a local group of parent and teacher advocates. “We’ve had competition from tons of successful private schools, and it did not lead principals to say, ‘What can I do to recapture these kids?’”
Board of Education member Vidal Kinlow says that the District may not be able to support a system in which half the schools are charters. “I don’t know that it would be very healthy for the public school system to have a 50-50 split,” she says. “It becomes almost impossible to maintain.”
Right now, the D.C. Public Charter School Board and the Board of Education’s subcommittee on charter schools, which Vidal Kinlow chairs, oversee the 27 charter schools currently operating. Each body can approve 10 new charters a year, for a total of 20. The D.C. School Reform Act has a five-year life span, but most charter-school advocates plan on pushing for an extension, says Vidal Kinlow. If the extension is granted and the growth of charter schools continues at its rapid pace, District officials will have to come up with a way to build a body to oversee all those charter schools.
“We’re going to need to look at how we create a more systematic oversight mechanism, which means creating another bureaucracy,” says Vidal Kinlow.
Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who chairs the council’s Committee on Education, remains hopeful, noting that the existence of charter schools has encouraged DCPS administrators to cede more control to parents and teachers. “I like the idea of giving more authority to these schools,” says Chavous. “I think public schools are headed in that direction. For some schools, we may not be moving in that direction fast enough.”
In the meantime, some worry that the supposed give-and-take relationship between charter and regular schools may be a little one-sided. Obviously, every time a student chooses a charter school over a regular public school, the system loses a portion of its funding.
Virginia Walden, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, a local nonprofit that provides school information to parents, says the difference shouldn’t matter, because the system then has one less child to educate.
But it’s not that easy. Since DCPS puts a portion of its per pupil revenue into systemwide expenses, the system comes up short when kids leave, says Mary Levy, director for the Public Education Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. School officials can eventually downsize those systemwide costs, on the basis of decreases in students, but the process isn’t an immediate one, says Levy. “[DCPS] can’t cut costs nearly as fast as enrollment declines,” she says.
That’s exactly the reason parents choose charter schools, say advocates: because more money goes directly to their kids. “DCPS is given more money every year, and we’re still talking about ‘reforming.’ Something’s not working,” says Walden. “[Charter schools] are taking less money and having more successes. They ought to get off the money kick. There needs to be another argument.”
There is: Public school advocates say the system’s greatest loss is not of money, but of parents, students, and teachers who are committed to education. “When parents make their choices and choose with their feet, you’re losing resources in a lot of different ways,” says Vidal Kinlow.
Mary Budd, publications director for Boston-based Advantage Schools Inc., which assists 16 charter schools around the country, including one in D.C., says she’s tired of this “skimming” argument. According to Budd, most charter schools develop in underserved areas, and cater to low-income and minority students—not the sort of cream-of-the-crop students charter-school foes have in mind.
That theory may usually be true, but in the cases of Hearst and Paul, the schools looking to leave the school system are among the system’s best. If other schools follow in line, the trend could become just the drain of resources some fear. “I don’t want to see parents who choose and who are active enough to choose a school like Hearst leaving the public school system,” says Rice-Thurston. “They have been strong advocates. It’s a small school, but it has powerful parents. They work for that school.”
Ivan Oliver doesn’t really like to talk about school. Of course, not many 6-year-olds do. He tells me a little about recess and about tunes he sings in music class, like “Jingle Bells” and “Frere Jacques,” but when I ask too much, he cuts me off. “Shhh. No talking,” he says. “Let’s be quiet.”
Ivan is swinging from a rope his father has managed to drape over a high, high tree limb in the family’s back yard. He’s got only a few minutes before he has to head off to school. He wants to enjoy them in peace.
Ivan’s parents say their son has had a hard time adjusting to the new Hearst. He misses Burns and can’t understand why she’s not his teacher anymore—or, at the very least, at the school. So far this year, says Ivan’s mom, her son has called his new teacher a “liar” and a “butt.”
Ivan’s still swinging out back. I push him a little more on the subject. He pauses, seeming pensive—more thoughtful than I thought a 6-year-old could be. “She’s a stranger,” he says of his new teacher. “She looks like a stranger to me.”
Ivan’s only 6. It can be hard to please a 6-year-old. Besides, he’ll eventually get over losing Burns. But his parents are also troubled. His father continues to write letters to school and government officials, asking that something be done about last year’s forced transfers. Ivan’s mother is hopeful about the new year, but admits she’s worried how Hearst will continue to thrive under a standards-focused Ackerman administration. “There are times when you wonder whether Ackerman wants to bring schools up to those [like Hearst] or bring [those] schools down to others,” she says as we walk Ivan to school one weekday morning.
When we arrive at the Hearst playground, Ivan runs off to join the students already lining up with their respective teachers. He has put on his round, plastic glasses, which are covered with corrective tape to help with his crossed eyes. I saw him exactly like this when I visited Hearst weeks before, but I didn’t know him at the time. Even so, this little boy with a mop of blond hair and weird glasses walked up to me and gave me a quick hug on the way into the building.
It’s hard not to get swept up into the Hearst family. It’s a warm, tight-knit community that you probably wouldn’t find at most schools, certainly not with the same mix of people. You can almost understand why parents get so gaga about saving the school, with or without DCPS.
“It seems DCPS wants all schools to look the same,” says PTA President Herr. “If that’s the case, they should embrace charter schools….I would really rather see a public school system that is responsive to the community. I think that would be a good outcome for everyone. But I don’t think we’re headed that way.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.