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Washington Met, an alternative school serving 157 middle and high schoolers, is struggling. The school has plenty of student parents but no daycare. There’s a library but no librarian or computers. While other alternative schools offer supplemental programs in culinary arts or barbering, Washington Met’s plans for things like that never actualized. DC Public Schools’ proposed solution for a deteriorating facility with poor academic performance was to close it.
Student Lyric Johnson, 16, spent this month and the last repeating these facts and reminding the adults making decisions about the ways they had failed her and her classmates. Maybe if everyone knew, the thinking went, then the Bowser administration wouldn’t shutter the school for under-enrollment and low test scores. Perhaps officials would change their minds and decide to keep the school open for at least another year, and invest enough money and resources so students could succeed.
Johnson and some of her classmates attended community forums after school and on weekends; conducted countless media interviews, published in print and broadcasted on local television and radio; and visited the Wilson Building to deliver a petition to the mayor’s office. Their message was simple: DCPS cannot close Washington Met. Not now. The students and their adult advocates campaigned nonstop since news of the closure broke just before Thanksgiving.
D.C. is a hotbed of protests, with rallies for some social cause taking place any given week, but fighting for their school was many of these students’ first go at organized activism. Ultimately, they didn’t get the outcome they desired. On Thursday, Jan. 23, DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee announced that Washington Met would close at the end of the school year, and Mayor Muriel Bowser signed off on the decision. It will be the first DCPS closure since 2013.
“I have never really fought as hard for something,” Johnson told City Paper the day after the final decision came out, during her lunch break. “It’s tiring. It’s frustrating.”
As she reflected on the events of the last couple weeks, she started to sound like a veteran activist. “You’re not always going to get everything you want. Sometimes things are unfair, but that’s just how life is.”
When Johnson learned of the decision on Thursday, she and a few dozen of her classmates walked out of school in protest. Idalis Sosa, a Howard University student who volunteers at Washington Met, led the march from the school to her own campus, where the group spent the afternoon rallying at the flagpole.
“School closures disproportionately happen to black and brown communities. This is a researched fact,” read a sign one student carried. Ninety-five percent of Washington Met students are black.
“15 percent of our students are homeless and are being removed from the only home they know,” read another sign. Washington Met serves many students considered to be “at-risk” and who were sent there because they struggled in more traditional classroom environments.
“What’s your school chant,” Sosa asked the students. “We don’t have a chant,” replied one.
“We didn’t have an assembly all year,” school counselor Brian Wheeler says, as a way of explaining. He’s acted as a chaperone to the minors who’ve become more civically engaged over the past couple weeks.
On Thursday, Sosa winged it and started to chant, “They want to close our schools, but we won’t let it happen.” Just a few of the students join her. Another student started a chant of his own: “White people are trying to close our school.”
“I can’t lose my voice,” said 18-year-old Na’Asia Hawkins, “I got to go home to a baby.” Hawkins, like Johnson, had taken every opportunity to protest her school’s closure because Washington Met accepted her after she became a teen parent when her previous high school didn’t.
The day’s protest underscores how challenging it was to organize all along. The students have competing priorities, perhaps more than most kids their ages. But students did receive support from some of the staff at Washington Met, like Wheeler, and the Washington Teachers’ Union, which started the petition to keep Washington Met open and gathered more than 1,500 signatures. Students delivered the petition to lawmakers in mid-January.
It was also challenging to organize because, Wheeler explains, students sometimes faulted one another for the school’s failings on paper.
“The split in the school is the middle school versus the high school, which is why there’s an issue with the organizing right now,” says Wheeler, referring to Sosa’s failed efforts to get the students chanting that devolved when students instead started to argue with one another.
“What they can’t really articulate right now is they blame each other,” he continues. “Because they have no one else to blame. They can’t blame any of the leaders because they never show up … So they get to fight each other, which is—I feel like that happens all over the city. They just push different populations to different segments, and let them fight it out.”
Was it all worth it? That’s the inevitable question activists of every stripe ask themselves, particularly when the outcome they fought against happens anyway.
Washington Met was. “This is literally a second chance for kids that really want to do well but were just misunderstood at first,” says DuLane McGill, 16. But now students like McGill are preparing to transfer to another school, yet again.
“It’s basically stay home until they place me in another school,” McGill says. “But I don’t want to have to keep going through that process over and over again. It gets to the point where it gets tiring. I’ve been through the process three times already … I want to at least graduate with my friends.”
While the students weren’t able to change the Bowser administration’s mind, they did persuade others to act. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White asked DCPS to delay the school closure after hearing from students and teachers. White, in his letter, cited the students’ activism as a reason he felt compelled to write DCPS.
They also caught the attention of students outside Washington Met. “Here too, did Dr. Ferebee shut down high schools, and I think D.C. can learn a lot from the catastrophic results that came from it,” writes Elad Nichols-Kaufman, a junior at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. He emailed City Paper after learning from our coverage of the Washington Met students that Ferebee intended to close a school in D.C. just as he did while serving as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools.
“The students, I thought, did a great job of exercising their voice,” Ferebee said Thursday when asked to further explain his decision. “In light of what I heard, there was confirmation that what they’re seeking, we really can do that in other places and do a better job than I think what we’ve seen at Washington Met.”
“The reality is student data doesn’t indicate that that’s a good place for them and so it’s hard to make the argument that it’s a good place when, again, I go back to the attendance rate and the satisfaction,” he continued. “While we hear something different from students—in terms of it’s just a familiar place, some students like it because it’s small—those are things that we can work through with students in other places.”
Travius Butler, 17, is disappointed, but not discouraged. In fact, he has plans to visit the Wilson Building on Feb. 19 to testify before the Council Committee on Education. Activism exhausted Butler; he recalls having to miss school the day after the second community meeting on his school’s closure, which ended late. But the experience was advantageous. Butler used to skip class in his old high school because of social anxiety. Now, his perspective has changed.
“It’s one step closer to bringing my school together,” says Butler. “One small step for us.”