Teachers at the Bethune-Woodson African-Centered School have done their share of packing this summer. After outgrowing its digs at Webb Elementary, in July the school moved to the vacant Rabaut building in Northeast Washington.
Bethune-Woodson, though, didn’t last long at Rabaut. Under orders from District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the teachers boxed up their supplies again and occupied Taft Junior High School. The plan was to make do at Taft while the school system renovated the Rabaut building, a former junior high school that housed central administrators until this summer.
Then came the kicker: Ackerman on Sept. 4 canceled the Rabaut plan and assigned Bethune-Woodson to Browne Junior High School, at 24th Street and Benning Road NE. Bethune-Woodson parents, who had already staged two protests over the school’s peregrinations, revolted. “We will never move to Browne,” declared parent Jesse Muhammad Sept. 10.
The dozen or so empty classrooms at Browne bear witness to a standoff between one of the District’s proudest schools and an increasingly self-confident DCPS administration. The conflict demonstrates how fiercely parents will lobby to influence a school system they distrust and how, they say, school leaders can punish those who question their judgment.
“The school system has lost excellent teachers, excellent principals, excellent parents, and excellent programs, because people with little knowledge of what worked in the city came in and by intimidation and fiat tried to rebuild,” says Susan Gushue, a parent activist who fears Bethune-Woodson may not survive its bout with central administration, like other innovative programs that have disbanded. “These were examples of parent- and teacher-initiated programs that worked for urban youths. They have been destroyed by neglect or intention, and nothing has been put in their place.”
Bethune-Woodson is the brainchild of Abena Walker, a pedagogue who had developed and for 25 years preached teaching methods inspired by legends of African village relations. “Ours is the only school of its kind in the D.C. Public School system and is a testament to the range of knowledge and educational expertise of [Walker],” according to a written statement read by parents Sept. 4. Ever since former DCPS Superintendent Franklin Smith in 1993 granted Walker supervision of the school, controversy has followed her.
A Washington Post reporter discovered in 1993 that Walker had unusual credentialsshe awarded herself a degree from the Pan African University, which she had also foundedand the same year Smith effectively demoted her from a school’s chief executive to coordinator, under the supervision of the principal of Webb Elementary School. (Walker would not comment for this story. All of her remarks are from her testimony in a Sept. 11 D.C. Superior Court hearing on the moving dispute.)
In 1994, Bethune-Woodson became more autonomous, and rather than report to the principal of Webb, Walker, like any principal, reported directly to DCPS central administration, according to Walker’s testimony. Walker’s change in status was accompanied by progress in the classroom. In 1997, for example, 76 percent of the students scored at a level of Basic or better on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, though 100 percent of the students’ family incomes were at or below the District’s poverty rate, according to results released by DCPS. The District’s average was slightly lower an average of 64 percent of first-to-10th-grade students who took the test scored Basic or above.
Academic results boosted enrollment. In less than five years at Webb, Bethune-Woodson had expanded from an elementary school program to a K-11 school and was bursting out of the building’s confines. When the school’s requests for a new building went unheeded, in 1996, the parents filed suit to force DCPS to provide one. “We were cramped,” Walker told the judge. “We had to combine classes; we lost our music room.”
The lawsuit languished as DCPS tried to appease the parents outside the courtroom. This past spring, DCPS Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks assigned the program to Rabaut. Parents who volunteered to move the school into the new building were alarmed when they found exposed electrical wires, leaks from pipes and air conditioning, and missing ceiling tiles. For a month they lobbied Brooks and Ackerman to repair the building. Nothing happened, so they invited the media to expose the problems.
The parent’s media play was a good ploy to influence a DCPS administration fed up with bad press. After parents escorted a WTTG Channel 5 news team through the building on Aug. 27, Ackerman told Channel 5’s Karen Gray Houston she would prepare Rabaut for the students’ occupation. “If we determine that [we] can’t, you know, we can’t have that building ready with the fire-code violations there, you know, and it’s not ready and safe for kids, we will move them into the swing space, and that’s where they’ll stay until that building is ready,” Ackerman said, according to a transcript.
But Brooks (and Ackerman) later told Walker that she had a “leadership problem because she could not control the parents,” according to a statement released by Bethune-Woodson parents. Within a matter of days, Brooks informed Walker by letter and telephone that Bethune-Woodson would be moved to Taft Elementary School. “We didn’t understand why we were put out [of Rabaut] at a day’s notice,” Walker told the court. “[Rabaut] was supposed to be our permanent site.”
Walker also found that her status had reverted to that of a coordinator who could only work in tandem with a principal at another school. Bethune-Woodson would no longer be granted its own building. “[Ackerman] is trying to say our school is not a school but a program,” parents protested Sept. 4.
Brooks claims that Walker’s status has not really changed. Between the parents’ Aug. 27 protest and the September decision to move Bethune-Woodson to Taft, Brooks claims she and her staff simply researched school district regulations and concluded that they prohibited Bethune-Woodson from operating independently. Parents saw that decision as retribution. “The eviction from Rabaut had nothing do with educational or safety concerns or love for our children,” declared Muhammad from a statement prepared by Bethune-Woodson parents and released on Sept. 10. “It has to do with a personal vendetta and retaliation against our director, Abena Walker, who was punished because her parents exposed to the public the fire-code violations at Rabaut.” Brooks denies any connection between the school’s status and the moving dispute.
The parents also feared that Taft was as unsafe as the Rabaut building they had been forced to vacate. According to parents, stickers pasted on the ceilings and walls warned of asbestos, and an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official had stated that the District had not followed federal regulations in documenting the building’s safety. Ackerman says she had the air tested at Taft and that EPA had given the building its approval, as had the city’s fire department.
But parents were reluctant to stay, and Brooks and Ackerman insisted the program be moved againthis time to Browne. By that time, the parents wanted to simply stay at Taft. “They are trying to break our backs,” Muhammad complained. He questioned why DCPS had moved Bethune-Woodson to a school parents consider too small for their students.
Brooks says she tried to accommodate the parents, to no avail. “I went over personally to talk to three parentswithout lawyers,” she says, noting that the parents and DCPS were still in litigation. The parents were accompanied by their attorney, however. “I went to hear what is it [they] wanted. But they would not meet [alone] with me.”
Instead, the parents returned to court. At a Sept. 11 hearing in D.C. Superior Court, attorneys for the parents asked Judge Judith Retchin to force DCPS to let them remain at Taft. Two parents testified to the success of their children who had failed to achieve at other schools. Walker recounted the school’s five-year odyssey through the school bureaucracy. Bethune-Woodson attorneys called the program “a crown jewel.” But in the end, Retchin could only congratulate the parents for their “wonderful” concern and dedication to their children’s education. She found no legal justification to intervene in the caseto do so, she said, would do more harm to the system than good.
The following Monday, only one of Bethune-Woodson’s 14 teachers showed up for work at Browne, and only 10 students reported for classes, according to Ackerman and Brooks. Parents enrolled their kids in other public schools. The African-inspired “village” that Walker had created was dispersed, dismantled.
Brooks claims that Bethune-Woodson African-Centered School offered no significant advances in academics. Though the school was able to help the students increase their Stanford 9 Achievement Test scores from 76 percent above Basic in 1997 to 78 percent above Basic in 1998, the increase was about average for the District, Brooks notes. “That program was about as effective as others,” she claims.
Retchin’s ruling legally validated Brooks’ decision. Order has been restored in DCPS, the regulations redeemed, decorum maintained. But one more group of enthusiastic parents is now alienated from the District’s schools and their leaders. And Brooks says DCPS is not to blame: “We certainly did not want to destroy that school.”CP