D.C. Public Schools decided to close all schools early this morning in order to allow for a comprehensive structural inspection after Tuesday's 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Virginia.
Nearly 750 D.C. students were left looking for new schools after three charter schools closed and two eliminated their high school programs.
Charter school advocates defend the closures and say test scores at charters are still higher than they are in traditional D.C. public schools, in part because of their tough-love approach. But parents say in the short term, these school closure decisions leave their families hanging.
School's closure a 'rush, rush thing'
Lena Burrell is chopping chicken and vegetables for dinner in her Northeast apartment. She's the primary caregiver for her 9-year-old grandson Cherokee, who's a picky eater. He doesn't like any change in his routine.
"If anything is out of place he would get frustrated, he will get angry," his grandmother says. "He may throw things. He will have a meltdown."
Cherokee has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Burrell says the teachers at Cherokee's school, SAIL Public Charter School in Northwest D.C., understood his needs.
In June, she got a surprising phone call: an automated message telling her the school was closing at the end of the year. She says she had no idea.
"This was a rush, rush, rush thing," she says. "Which is very difficult... for parents of children with challenges." (The D.C. Charter School Board approve SAIL's request to relinquish its charter June 14.)
It was almost impossible for Burrell to get information from the charter school. "Lost is probably the best word. Where do we go from here? What do we do?" she says.
SAIL had financial problems for several years. It didn't have money to even complete the 2010 school year, until the charter school board and city stepped in with funds.
"School closure is really the end of a process," says Darren Woodruff, a D.C. Public Charter school board member. "We don't, as a board, just wake up in the morning and say, 'we don't like School X.' It's the unfortunate end outcome of a lot of series of factors."
Sometimes a school is shut down or asked to close because of decreasing enrollment or poor academic results. But a majority of the time, according to Woodruff, the reason is financial. Still, he stresses the percentage of schools that close is small compared to the total number of charter schools in the city.
But what happens to these students?
Charter schools board says it tries to work with parents
In May 2009, the charter school board voted to close down The MEI Futures Academy, a residential school for pregnant and parenting teenagers in Northeast D.C. The school had no curriculum, truancy was a chronic problem, and special education students were not being properly served.
A year later, WAMU tried to locate several of the school's students for interviews during a series on pregnant teens. No one was able to tell us where they were.
"That is a particularly tough population, says Woodruff. "A lot of those students were living at the facility. So we didn't have the traditional parent of the student where we could go to. So in that case, unfortunately, a lot of those students disappeared."
Woodruff calls MEI and its students that fell through the cracks "an anomaly," and reads out statistics on the placements of students from charter schools that shut down this year: William E. Doar has found placements for 64 of the 128 high school students stranded by its secondary program's closure, and 53 percent of Thea Bowman school students have found new placements after that school's closure. SAIL has placed 128 of its 229 students in other schools.
He says these statistics are "a contrast" to the MEI charter school closing.
But in the cases he's cited, that still leaves around 50 percent of students without placements with just 10 days left before the start of school.
"It depends on how you look at it," says Woodruff.
Whether you see the glass as half full or half empty, it's clear a charter school closing has implications not just for parents and students but for the wider D.C. school system as well.
DCPS left scrambling to pick up abandoned students
Nathaniel Beers, head of special education for D.C.'s traditional public schools, has been working closely with parents from SAIL for the past two months, because approximately 60 percent of the school's student population has special needs.
Beers says they have to go through a child's data to find out what his or her needs are. Then they need to make sure there is staff available to meet those needs: regular teachers, as well as specialists who provide speech therapy, physical therapy, and behavioral support.
One particularly tricky element is the financial piece, because money doesn't follow these students for an entire year.
"The way schools are budgeted for is based on what your enrollment is the previous year and what changes we saw coming," Beers says. "When we find out in June that a charter school is closing, that wasn't part of our projection. There are no additional finances that come into D.C. Public Schools that allow us to build additional capacity."
The difference in cost for each of these students can be significant.
"If you take the base formula of about $8,000 [for a non-special needs student]," Beers says, "For a special ed student, depending on how much special education they need, that can go up to as high as $35,000."
A hunt through more than a dozen schools
Marcus Clark is a single father raising his 15-year-old son Malik. Marcus Clark volunteered as a coach at Ideal Academy Public Charter School, where his son was enrolled as a freshman. So when Clark received a letter in May saying the high school would be closing because of poor academics and financial difficulties, he was taken aback.
"Not letting the parents know that you might have some difficulties throughout the school year, that was what's most troubling," Clark says. "Because that's not a decision that's made overnight."
Clark contacted 13 schools to inquire whether they could accommodate Malik, and was even considering moving to Montgomery County. Because IDEAL closed so late, other charter schools were already full.
Clark finally found another charter school, but he faults the charter school board for not doing more to help.
Woodruff says the board's responsibility is to approve high quality charter schools and close poorly performing ones. He doesn't see these school closings and their aftermath as a failing of the charter school board, but a failing of the individual schools.
Woodruff says the board hosts an enrollment fair and public meetings, and has five staff members work with these families.
He adds, though, that they will have a new system in place for this academic year. "Our intention as a board, is that if there are any schools red flagged for revocation, we will make that determination by January," Woodruff says.
The board believes school closings will become less frequent as it attracts better charters and existing ones improve. And DCPS says it is working to regain the trust of parents returning their children to traditional schools.
But those are long term plans. Many families are looking only as far as the first day of school.
Lena Burrell prays that nine year old Cherokee will bond with his teacher, that she'll be patient with him, and that other children will be kind.
"It's a leap of faith. Totally. Completely," she says. "That's what keeps us going. Faith."
She'll know soon enough whether her faith will be rewarded; her grandson starts at Barnard Elementary School in Northwest D.C. Monday.View D.C. Charter School Closures 2011 in a larger map