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McKinley Technology High School lost 15 staff members on Oct. 3 to controversial “reductions in force,” an effort by Chancellor Michelle Rhee to fix what she says is a budget deficit in District schools. The teachers were escorted out of the school by police, as if they posed a danger to their pupils. Students were angered, and hundreds of them left school to denounce the moves, garnering the attention of the media, teachers advocates, and the D.C. Council.
Over a week later, the episode still casts its shadow at McKinley. “The whole atmosphere totally changed,” according to senior Jessy Beach, an organizer of the protests. “You can sense the dreariness,” says Kyler Jackson, a sophomore. “Overall, it’s just very gloomy,” says senior Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini.
McKinley is one of the District’s highest-performing schools. Its Web site boasts of high Advanced Placement and D.C. test scores—the school has made Adequate Yearly Progress, a key federal benchmark, five years in a row. Incoming students must turn in an application, essay, and four recommendations to be considered for admission. Erika Landberg, program director at education nonprofit DC VOICE, likens McKinley to other DCPS gems like Duke Ellington, Benjamin Banneker, and School Without Walls. “Kids all across the city really try and get in that school,” she says.
So when students complain that Chancellor Rhee’s RIF process has damaged the school’s climate, it means something.
There’s been “a lot of chaos in the school” since the layoffs, says Beach. Last week, fire alarms went off sporadically, some students protested by not wearing school uniforms, and some weren’t going to class. “Ever since the RIFs, kids have felt betrayed, so they rebel or they don’t listen,” she says.
Classes have been affected, as well. “Right now, I have three classes that were switched around,” says sophomore Kahn Branch. He was enrolled in an SAT class before the RIFs, and was planning to take another next semester. But “that class is not offered anymore, so I was gonna be moved to JROTC,” he says. “But I decided not to take that so now I have to take African-American History.”
Branch isn’t the only one with a schedule in upheaval, but he’s a minority, according to DCPS spokesperson Jennifer Calloway. Shewrote in an email that of McKinley’s 710 students, “fewer than 100 students saw any change in their course schedules.” She says only two classes have been eliminated completely.
Interpretations of how the school has changed seem to vary by age. All of freshman Jamika Aceveda’s classes are the same. “I can’t base the school on the protests,” she says. “The vibe is still fun.” But seniors lost two popular guidance counselors, who were relied upon for help with the college admissions process.
Umez-Eroninisays that Principal David Pinder promised “that schedules wouldn’t be really affected, that he wouldn’t fire necessary teachers and necessary counselors.” Now he feels that promise was broken. Pinder directed questions to DCPS’s press operation.
One of those let go was Sheila Gill, a popular guidance counselor. Now seniors are concerned about their college admissions process. “We lost the person who dealt with our transcripts,” says Beach. Under the new reduced staff, seniors share a counselor with the freshmen. Beach says it’s harder to get appointments for help with college applications, since their counselor is also responsible for the ninth graders.
On the allegation of broken promises, Calloway says that “students were promised that the integrity of their schedules would remain.” She says that McKinley’s two counselors are buttressed by a full-time D.C. College Access Program representative, and two “college support teams” of three teachers each.
“We recognize that students are upset,” Calloway says. “The school administration has held student assemblies to hear their concerns and to address many of their questions.” She also says that “school officials are working closely with student government to build a positive climate going forward.”
Others in the McKinley community are unsatisfied with school administration. “There is an absolute lack of trust that has developed between the students, the principal, and many of the parents,” says Iris Toyer, McKinley parent and chairperson of advocacy group Parents United. “They will not look at the principal the same.”
Some students are moving on. School is “flowing like it never really happened,” Jamika Aceveda says of the layoffs.
Others are fighting it out. Says Umez-Eronini: “It ought not be like that, because, you know, we’re in high school,” he says. “It’s supposed to be one of the happier times of your life—you know, it’s my senior year. I really shouldn’t be waging some huge political injustice on my own behalf.”