Closing the Doors?

The latest educational brouhaha in our nation’s capitol is all about the schoolhouse doors.  Or in this case, about closing some of them.  As part of her effort to overall DCPS, Chancellor Michelle Rhee is advocating the closure of 23 schools in Washington, DC.  The reason — underutilization and enrollment decline.  The full story can be found at the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/14/AR2008011401232.html

As to be expected, more than 60 people spoke at a marathon public hearing on the subject.  Community leaders protested outside.  Young students urged the city not to close their school.  Strong rhetoric on both sides.  It was an advocacy communications dream scenario, regardless of which side you are rooting for.

So who won in the first of what will be several educational cage matches?  Those individuals fighting under the Save Our Schools banner deserve some plaudits.  They managed to take an issue like budgetary savings and make it personal.  This was not about the $23 million savings that come from closing the schools (although some dispute that number).  This was about the kids who are to be affected.  The crayon-drawn signs.  The young students making very personal pleas (in English and Spanish, no less).  This isn’t about Excel spreadsheets, this is about the average fourth-grader in the district. 

Eduflack will overlook the issue of these young kids being taken out of school to be used as a rhetorical device.  And we overlook it because it was effective.  We are used to seeing Willy Wilson and Marion Barry fight the fight.  This is about the new generation.  Save Our Schools gave voice to the students by letting the students be the voice.  It was effective yesterday, and it can remain effective if they focus on such outcomes, and not on the process.

Which takes us to Chancellor Rhee.  She rode tall in the saddle, listening to 59 other people before she finally got her say.  Much of what she said focused on the process — utilization measures, dollar savings, and budgets.  All of that is important to holding the support of the Mayor and the City Council, absolutely.  But it is a non-starter with those audiences that will be affected.  Parents and community leaders don’t care about enrollment declines.  They want to protect their school.  As we’ve said before, no matter how poorly DCPS may be doing, most will believe that their neighborhood school is still doing an effective job?

If not the process, what should Rhee be focusing on?  That’s simple.  Let’s talk about the future.  She did some of that, giving voice to a student whose “wish list” include Spanish teachers, music teachers, and a librarian.  That’s her ace card.  She needs to speak for all her students.  This isn’t about closing a school, this is about ensuring DCPS’ other schools have the resources to provide the curriculum, the technology, and the “coolness” that we need to keep kids in school, engaged, and on the right track.  This is about what we get, not what we are giving up.  This is about outcomes, not inputs.

No, it’s not an easy sell.  The opposition is always poised to defend and protect their schools and their teachers.  Rhee’s job is to build a strong school district with good teachers and achieving students.  At some point, what your teaching and who is doing the teaching should rise above where you are teaching.

The chancellor and the mayor have a lot invested in these reforms.  Once they get through this, they’ll have to battle the union over firing rights, and that may well be an even tougher battle.  Now is the time for Rhee to demonstrate she has heard everything spoken to her during her honeymoon period, and that she understands the needs, desires, hopes, and dreams of DC parents and neighborhoods. 

3 thoughts on “Closing the Doors?

  1. Its very moving to see that student’s are pleaing for teachers and how important their education really means to them. Especially foreign language. It is great to start young learning a new language. The kids are more open-minded and more able to adapt to learning new things.

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