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Susan Gushue and the other parents fought like hell to preserve the Montessori program at Woodridge Elementary School back in April. Emotions ran high when the school board of trustees sank the program by a 5-4 vote. Still, before the ink was even dry on the morning papers announcing the decision, Gushue was tapping out a letter to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) chief Gen. Julius Becton asking for a tour of Langdon Elementary, the school that would absorb the 300-student Montessori program.
“We had all decided, ‘Fine, we’ll do it. We’ll work with you,’” Gushue recalls.
Unfortunately, DCPS wasn’t looking for their help. Former Woodridge parent Marcia Timmel got that feeling right away when the surreal May 7 tour of Langdon began, conducted by DCPS facilities manager Gen. Charles Williams. “Chuck Williams showed up with his entourage looking for all the world like Marion Barry the Second,” Timmel says, recalling the moment Williams confidently popped out of his chauffeured car. True enough, Williams responded to their request for a tour, but he had no idea DCPS was administering its standardized tests that daymost classrooms, filled with pencil-gnawing tykes, were off limits.
Williams proved equally unprepared for parent questions about which rooms the Montessori program would occupy or whether Langdon’s unheated wing would be getting new boilers. Instead, he brushed off his questioners, assuring them, “Everything will be fine. I’m an expert in Montessorial schools.” The tour ended with a scene captured on tape by a WRC-TV news crew: Williams catching his ride to splitsville through a side door, leaving a knot of worried parents out front.
Williams’ kiss-off was just another brick in the wall of arrogance that Woodridge parents have encountered since sucking it up and trying to make the Langdon move successful. Woodridge parents first got insulting overtures of sympathy, and when they pressed, a series of off-the-cuff promises designed to shut them up. But DCPS’s pledges that Woodridge would operate as an independent school within Langdon or that it would at least get its own assistant principal never materialized.
“They think they can tell you, ‘I feel your pain,’ and everything will be all right,” says Gushue, who has three children making the move to Langdon. “Nobody is really paying attention to how badly these school closings went for parents.”
Against this tide, Gushue and her neighbor Sheila Galagan have led a ragtag band whose work has finally paid off. At the moment, they don’t have a new boiler for the wing housing most of the Montessori classrooms, the administrator DCPS promised to hire, nor the countless other amenities that would make the program whole. But despite DCPS efforts to shut them out, the parents brought enough pressure to make what opened on Sept. 22 at Langdon look a lot like a functioning Montessori school. They also left battle plans for the next batch of parents DCPS tries to roll over.
Woodridge was the child of a 1991 marriage of convenience: a mostly vacant 60-year-old building that seemed like a natural for a 20-year-old Montessori program looking for a home. The Montessori program had already lived several lives, with strong-willed teachers and parents battling DCPS to hire qualified Montessori-trained staff, purchase supplies, and secure adequate facilities.
The teachers and parents also managed to pull it off without compromising the method pioneered by Italian pedagogue Maria Montessori, which frees children to explore gadget-filled classrooms grouped with classmates of like ages, while teachers serve as traffic cops. Though Montessori classrooms seem a jumble of unrelated activity to the casual observersome students hovering over a map, one pouring beans into a jar, others readingthe children are working to master tailored, skill-specific tasks at their own pace under the teachers’ watchful guidance. Woodridge was alone in DCPS in offering the full Montessori lineup, pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, which supporters say produces independent-thinking young adults primed for the academic challenges that lie ahead.
But that singular status didn’t help Woodridge on March 18, when it ended up on the list of 16 schools Williams presented to the DCPS board of trustees as candidates for closing. Gushue, who was chair of Woodridge’s parent-teacher planning council, and Galagan, who is experienced in Montessori school design, marshaled forces to oppose the closing, unleashing a battery of calls and letters challenging Williams’ report on Woodridgeincluding embarrassing revelations that his physical review had used outdated information and that his emergency repair list for Langdon actually dwarfed Woodridge’s by about $2.6 million.
But losing the frustrating battle to keep Woodridge open was good practice for the parents, who soon found out that DCPS had little intention of including them in upcoming decisions. Instead of input, DCPS thought what the parents needed was a little TLC.
“[T]he parents in schools proposed for closing will go through a number of stages, beginning with denial and then bargaining, followed by depression,” read the minutes of a March 26 meeting. “It was the consensus of the group that the Trustees need a plan for dealing with these reactions and seeing that affected communities get to the renewal stage.”
In response, DCPS developed a complicated scheme to visit the 11 closed schools and hold sessions with a battalion of counselors. Galagan remembers the caravan of Volvos and Mercedes that dumped 15 DCPS central office administrators off at Woodridge on May 16. “There were more of them than of us,” Galagan says, adding that it began with a primer on group therapy and the administrators listing on a blackboard discussion categories such as “fears,” “concerns,” and “rumors.” “We made them put up a category that said, ‘Facts,’” Galagan says. Other materials for the session equipped parents with suggestions for coping, such as “developing a memory quilt and asking to display it in their receiving school; holding a candlelight vigil; taking something from the school, e.g. tile from an old bathroom and giving each family member a piece as a momento [sic].” The session was hardly a hit with parents who were convinced that a functioning Montessori program was critical to their children’s development.
The rest of the transition was no party either. A DCPS letter telling parents they would have two weeks to register their children at a school other than Langdon didn’t arrive until the middle of the second weekmost popular programs had already filled up. Parents who had resolved to make the switch to Langdon work, meanwhile, were getting a steady stream of promises that all was fine but nothing to grab onto. They lived on rumors, hearing from board of trustees chairman Bruce MacLaury in May that their program would be an independent “school within a school.” That idea soon unraveled, and DCPS administrators told Gushue that they would at least get a self-contained corner of the school to help foster the Montessori method. But within weeks, in early June, Gushue and Galagan learned from their contacts that there were no fewer than five pending floor plans on how to squeeze Montessori into Langdonincluding one that spread the program willy-nilly over the whole school. “It’s a joke nowthe level of frustration,” Gushue said in an interview at the time. “It’s a total brick wall when you talk to them.”
Later on, Becton himself would issue the bold pronouncement on a local radio show that the program would at least get its own assistant principalwith Montessori trainingor that he would dispatch a senior DCPS administrator to do the job. But the parents’ attempts to get assurances in writing haven’t paid off.
Williams’ top assistant, Suzanne Conrad, says DCPS hasn’t been trying to shut parents out. “It’s difficult to deal with a great group of people,” she says. “We worked very closely with one of the Montessori teachers on the transition.” She says that Williams’ office responded to all Woodridge parent entreaties, but Gushue and Galagan say that countless calls and letters to DCPS went unanswered.
One of the few letters that got a responsesigned by Gushue, Galagan, and fellow Woodridge parent Tom Womackwasn’t even addressed to DCPS. They sent it on May 27 to U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, a North Carolina Republican who was sitting on a DCPS request before the Appropriatios subcommittee for emergency funding of capital facilities projects. “We are alarmed because, as parents of children in schools that were recently closed by Mr. Becton and the Board of Trustees, we have witnessed firsthand the frighteningly low level of planning management and decision-making by Mr. Becton and his staff,” the parents wrote. The feisty letter outlined how DCPS would spend more upgrading Langdon than it would save by closing Woodridge. One day later, the trustees asked Becton in a meeting why the hell Taylor was calling with questions about Woodridge Elementary. Things seemed to begin moving after that.
“I think they would have left us out altogether if they could have,” says Gushue. “I think it was just us sticking our noses in it.”
The war room in Gushue’s 14th Street NE abode on a late August morning is also the main thoroughfare for a half-dozen youngsters marching from the kitchen to the noisy den upstairs and back again. Gushue, who has logged 10 years as a Montessori parent, and Galagan, who is entering her third, are stapling together a newsletter for parents with kids sticking with Montessori in the move to Langdon, and mulling over the reasons why the new school leadership doesn’t seem to want them around.
“I think what Becton wants to do is eliminate all differences, to get rid of innovative alternative programs,” says Galagan half-jokingly. “Fix up a few schools, raise test scores a few points, and then he’ll retire and say, ‘Look, I fixed it.’”
Their battle this morning is not with Becton, however, but rather with Langdon principal Barbara Campbell. They’ve been calling other Woodridge parents to inform them about a supposedly innocent mistake in which a key teacher was assigned to the wrong classa potentially large disruption to the Montessori method. In addition to not getting input at the top levels of the transition, Woodridge parents don’t think Campbell wants them around, either. Their concern began with a tip from a Woodridge parent who is one of Campbell’s teachers at Langdon, Audrienne Roberts Womack, wife of Tom Womack. Roberts Womack reported hearing Campbell say she didn’t want the Montessori program in “her” building. Woodridge PTA president June Battino recalls getting that message during a May open house for the Woodridge transfers. “She wouldn’t even come out of her office to greet us,” says Battino. “I had to go in and introduce myself.”
The initial open house went badly enough that DCPS ordered Campbell to hold another in Augustwhich she announced with a flier that read dryly, “Come to Another Open House.” Gushue was among the first to arrive for the second oneafter Campbell’s boss, that is. “It was just me and Gen. Becton,” Gushue says of the Aug. 23 affair. “I was so shocked to see him there. And he was so shocked to not see her there.” Becton made a quick phone call to Campbell’s house, and the principal arrived a few minutes later. The tour was uninspiring, however. Various classrooms were locked, as were the library and computer room. There were almost no parents of current Langdon studentswhom Gushue and other Woodridge veterans had hoped to meet.
The walk-through did serve one purpose: The parents found that in addition to items missing from the Montessori rooms, such as adequate storage space for the plethora of educational accessories the students use, many of the classrooms reserved for the traditional Langdon students were in terrible shape. Gushue fired off a new letter on Aug. 24 to the trustees, warning, “If school opens with such an obvious disparity in resources between the two programs, it can only foster resentment.”
Fortunately, the three-week delay in opening D.C. schoolsthanks to Williams’ having started a large-scale re-roofing project too late in the summeroffered time for the problems to be corrected. And a last-minute roof-repair effortwhich got Langdon shuttered temporarily by a D.C. Superior Court judge for potential fire-code violationsgave the principal time to thaw out as well. Veteran Montessori teacher John Feeley says the court order forced teachers to convene across the street one morning, inspiring a spontaneous icebreaker in which Campbell and the merging staffs shot the breeze in lieu of setting up their classrooms. “I was worried that wasn’t going to happen,” Feeley said four days before the Sept. 22 opening. “It’s been a very good week in that regardfor the staffs to get our heads together.”
Gushue and Galagan give grudging credit to the school system for coming through with the basics. They say they’re not surprised that many of their demands resulted in last-minute fixes, including rehabilitation of the dingy non-Montessori classrooms, because DCPS is plain tired of hearing from them. “By now, they know all eyes are on them,” says Gushue.
Indeed, a citywide spruce-up day held the Saturday before school opened featured most of the heavy hitterslike school trustee Maudine Cooper and control board member Joyce Ladnerpicking up leaves and trash at Langdon. Even Williams graced the retooled Langdon with an opening-day tour. He braved a barrage of questions and critiques from Gushue, Womack, and others with a straight face and, of course, promised that everything would turn out just fine. Maybe he’s right.CP