DC Council Hearing on DCPS School Closings
November 15, 2012
Testimony by Suzanne Wells
Parent at Tyler Elementary School
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I have serious concerns about DCPS’s Consolidation and Reorganization Proposal, but before I get to those concerns, I would like to share a story about Tyler Elementary School where my daughter has attended for the past five years. It is fitting to talk about Tyler because DCPS chose to feature Tyler as the kind of school it would like to offer all students in its new video announcing the school closings.
In 2006, Tyler was a school that likely would have faced the prospect of closing today because only 233 students attended the school, and the building had not been renovated. At that time, Tyler arguably had the worst reputation of any school on Capitol Hill. Back in 2006, Tyler’s principal at that time started a Spanish Immersion program. The immersion program struggled at first, but it started to attract families from the neighborhood. In 2007, the enrollment climbed to 259. During 2007, a couple of exciting things were happening at the school. The school’s library was renovated, and a parent-led group secured several grants that resulted in the creation of an Outdoor Classroom at the school where previously there had been a fenced-in asphalt lot. Still, the enrollment took a dip in 2008, and went down to 237. By 2009, the enrollment took a solid turn up and was at 300. In 2010, the enrollment was 348. In 2011, DCPS did a Phase 1 modernization of the school, and the audited enrollment numbers put the school at 402 students. In 2012, primarily because a nearby charter school moved out of the area and many families chose not to follow the school to the new location, Tyler’s enrollment shot up to 472. In summary, in seven years, the school’s student population more than doubled.
Families don’t just come to Tyler for its Spanish Immersion program. Tyler also has a high-quality city-wide special education program primarily for students with autism that represents about 1/3 of the students at the school. DCPS also introduced an arts integration program at Tyler in 2010. All students at the school participate in arts integration activities, and it has enriched their learning opportunities.
DCPS is showcasing Tyler as the kind of school it wants for all students. Tyler didn’t come about because DCPS made a decision to close the school or turn it over to a charter operator or merge other schools with it. Tyler is the thriving school it is today because of many things DCPS did including: 1) hiring a strong principal who in turn has nurtured a strong group of teachers, 2) introducing innovative programming that attracted families and met the needs of the students, and 3) investing in the Phase 1 modernization. DCPS’s support for the school attracted neighborhood families who are committed to supporting the school. The change didn’t happen overnight, nor did it come about because of reforms; but rather it came about because of sensible, steady improvements made to the school. Rather than simply featuring Tyler in its promotional video, DCPS should be copying what it did at Tyler at schools like Garrison, Smothers, MC Terrell and others rather than proposing to close them.
Closing schools does not work. What does work is supporting struggling schools. Our city has the capacity to provide innovative programming that attracts families to their neighborhood public schools. Our city must support our neighborhood public schools so children can walk to school and not have to spend hours a day being transported to places far away from their homes. The more hyphenated public school names we have, the weaker will be our city and our public school system.
Before any DCPS schools are closed, I believe there must be a moratorium on opening new charter schools. Last year, the DC Public Charter School Board opened four new schools. If DC has too many public schools, why do we need to open new public charter schools? It appears the DC Public Charter School Board is the only government entity in this country that during these fiscally constrained times is allowed to grow at will without any constraints on its budget. The uncontrolled growth of the charter schools should be of serious concern to all DC taxpayers.
Closing 20 schools will not result in savings to cover the costs of modernizing the remaining schools because there will be large costs to the school system to support the receiving schools and maintaining the closed schools. Closing 20 schools will not ensure full enrollments because students will leave DCPS for good and go to charter schools closer to their homes. Closing 20 schools is not the only way to pay for art and music teachers and librarians; there are funds today in DCPS’s budget to cover the costs for these teachers. I challenge DCPS not to close 20 schools, but rather to learn from the Tyler experience and see how many more Tyler Elementary Schools it can create in the coming years.