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Parents all over the city have been scrambling to find some form of distraction for their kids while they wait out their schools’ roof repairs. It’s a huge hassle for the families, the supervising judge, and the appointed officials who were supposed to prevent this kind of frenzy. For everyone, that is, except the parents of kids at the District’s International Bilingual Charter School (IBCS). They could use the extra three weeks, because their kids’ school just vaporized.
Over the summer, all five teachers at the innovative “school within a school” were either transferred or terminated, leaving a school with 88 students suddenly robbed of the means to open its doors when the new academic year begins on Sept. 22.
“We thought the program was going to reopen,” says Athena Viscusi, mother of a second-grader and chairwoman of the parent-teacher group that helps manage IBCS. “Parents still have not been notified. There’s about a dozen of us who know what’s going on because we made it our business.”
The demise of IBCS fits the pattern of a school bureaucracy acting as clubfooted as ever despite the “we mean business” rhetoric of schools chief Gen. Julius Becton, whom the D.C. control board installed last November to fix the mess created by the previous administration.
And it’s a particularly embarrassing episode considering that Becton and board of trustees chairman Bruce MacLaury loudly pledged their commitment to charter schools at a House of Representatives hearing Sept. 4. “They are an essential component of reform, providing not only fertile ground for trying out ideas and innovations…but providing a healthy dose of competition as well,” MacLaury testified before the Appropriations subcommittee on D.C.
MacLaury’s words ring hollow to Viscusi, who says that even though former Superintendent Franklin Smith was no prize, he was still better than the new boss. “There’s a difference between [IBCS] being difficult to run and it being impossible to run,” she says. “It’s dead now, through neglect.”
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IBCS sprang to life in April 1995 when a group of parents and teachers responded to a call from Smith to start up teacher-run charter schools. They won a contract and opened that fall with 120 students in a wing of the Burdick Career Development Center in Northwest, offering instruction in English and Spanish for pre-kindergarten up to fifth grade. The school provided a much-needed alternative to the always packed bilingual program at Oyster Elementary School in Woodley Park, which routinely directs parents to its waiting list.
But early on the teachers discovered how hard it would be to run both a classroom and an officeespecially when they worked for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). In January 1996, teachers complained in a letter to Smith that they were hampered in hiring support staff because they lacked control over their own budget.
Then DCPS decided to close Burdick at the end of IBCS’s first year, forcing the infant program to move to the Sharpe Health Annex, another nearby D.C. public school. The troublesand internal conflicts between parents and teachers over how to deal with themled to quick turnover of both staff and students, dropping enrollment to 95 when the school reopened in September 1996. “People pulled out because it was rough,” Viscusi recalls.
Nevertheless, she and other parents made the move to Sharpe a successat least temporarily. “We spent Labor Day weekend, parents and teachers, painting, scraping, moving shelves, opening cartons of books,” Viscusi says. Then, by the end of the month, DCPS booted them again so it could fix the roof. The program moved back to Burdick and could not reinhabit Sharpe until December, when it encountered heating problems and a spate of thefts. (Last spring, thieves pilfered all eight of the school’s computers, a fax machine, a TV set, a color printer, and a tape recorder.)
Viscusi says that Smith’s grand idea of teachers running the show couldn’t succeed in a school system where competence and efficiency were precious resources. “The reality is that to push things throughlike a supply orderyou have to go down to [DCPS headquarters] and walk those papers through the system yourself. You can’t expect teachers to do all that,” she says. Indeed, the financial control board had underlined management reform as a priority when it installed Becton. Hoping that the former Army general could make a difference, Viscusi wrote a Dec. 12, 1996, letter welcoming him to tour IBCS, promising he’d find “a lean and mean operation, providing a quality service on a shoestring…in difficult circumstances.”
Although Becton never dropped by, he also didn’t send warning about the impending disaster. “I was…fully expecting to unpack boxes and paint classrooms over Labor Day weekend,” says Viscusi.
“We had spent the end of June working on a curriculum and our plan for the [coming] year,” says Jennifer Greenwood, a four-year DCPS veteran who took over as lead teacher last year. The summer quickly turned for the worse, however, when two IBCS teachers requested transfers shortly after the school year ended, one telling Greenwood that the operational headaches were outweighing the rewards. Greenwood says the wear and tear got to her, too: “I was tired of writing letters and making phone calls. But I was planning to go back.” That is, until early August, when she and two other teachers unexpectedly got their pink slips. Anne Brobby, who taught third and fourth grades, says her notice came in a July 24 letter informing her that all temporary teaching positions had been eliminated. Brobby, who says she has a “provisional” license, and Greenwood, who had submitted the paperwork for a permanent license, both contend that the blanket firing shouldn’t have applied to them.
Senior DCPS academic official Helena Jones confirms that teachers with provisional licenses should not have been terminated. But she also says that even if the teachers were wrongly fired, they should have battled the system again. “Why didn’t they just stay and fight for their charter?” she asks.
But Brobby and Greenwood say they didn’t relish the tasks of saving their jobs and opening school. After initial calls to DCPS predictably led nowhere, Greenwood recalls telling herself, “That’s it. I’m not going to fight it any more.” She and Brobby walked into the human resources office for the Prince George’s County Public Schools at the end of August. Both were offered contracts within 45 minutes and are presently teaching in the P.G. County system.
Meanwhile, a battery of calls by IBCS parents to school officials has produced little more than frustration. It was up to Viscusi to inform Cecelia Brady, the coordinator for teacher-led charters, about the crisis in late August. “She did not know the teachers had been terminated,” Viscusi says. “They act like personnel is some spaceship out there.”
For now, IBCS is a school without teachers. “Our children do not have a school to attend when schools open on Sept. 22,” Viscusi wrote in an angry Aug. 29 letter to Becton, pointing out that his administration had, only months earlier, promised six paid staff positions for IBCS during the coming school year.
“All they told me was, ‘Register at your neighborhood school,’” Viscusi groans. “I don’t want to go to my neighborhood school. If I did, I wouldn’t have gone out on this odyssey.” Lydia Curtis, whose daughter attended pre-K at IBCS last year, hasn’t yet found a public school offering a comparable education. “I feel like I’m being run off,” she says. “I don’t want to. I want to secure a good education for my child within the public school system.”
Says Viscusi, “Can you imagine if school had opened on time? It would have been insane.”CP