Low Funding, Enrollment Lead To School Closures

Principal Gary Washington, who has served at the helm of the school since 2010 and has worked in education for decades, says current students are still a little shell-shocked at the idea of going somewhere else next fall.

Spingarn is an example of a school where enrollment has fallen off in recent years. About 375 students, all of them African-American, currently attend the school, down from 450 last year.

Washington has been in public education long enough to know that enrollment fluctuates, but he says a crop of new charter schools in the area has permanently drawn some of his best students away. The school has also struggled with poor test scores, and the building itself is in need of remodeling. Washington thinks that Spingarn might have retained more students if it had been renovated.

Vulnerable students who may already be struggling to graduate can find the idea of trekking longer distances to unfamiliar schools overwhelming. For Washington, that's cause for concern. He says those at-risk students tend to be the ones who need the most structure, and asking them to attend a new school midway through their high-school years can be risky.

"We have to be very careful," he said. "Some of them we just won back, and now we have to win them back again."

He's planning on contacting the schools that the students will transfer to next year to help facilitate a smooth transition, but acknowledges the process will be tricky.

Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia Public Schools, said officials are doing everything they can to make the transition a smooth one.

"We hope to be able to retain as many students as we can," she said. "We're actively working to recruit and retain students."

She added that they make every effort to assign kids to schools near their homes.

The idea that students will be more likely to succeed if moved from poorly performing schools is debatable. First, they aren't always sent to schools that perform better, and even when they are, long-term improvement is somewhat limited, according to the Pew report.

Safety can also become an issue when students from different schools end up under the same roof, sharing the same turf. A middle school in Southeast Washington, D.C., that was considered for closure will remain open because moving the students to schools full of kids from rival neighborhoods could be dangerous.

"The safety concerns that could undermine our goal to offer a better program and environment for our students compelled us to keep Johnson open," the District of Columbia's closure plan said.

And some people argue that closures will send students fleeing to charter schools, which will further disadvantage public schools and the students who remain in them.

"It's difficult to compete when they're opening new schools," Washington said, adding that charter schools skim off his "highest achieving" students.

But Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter-school organization Friends of Choice in Urban Schools in Washington, D.C., says that charter schools could help fill some of the void left by the closed schools if the public school system would offer them more buildings for purchase or lease.

"If they would give us the buildings, high-performing charter schools would expand into those buildings and there would be more [schools] in those neighborhoods," Cane said.

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