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Inside The Death Of A D.C. Public School

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Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson closed early 2013 due to low enrollment.
Andrew Katz-Moses
Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson closed early 2013 due to low enrollment.

Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson is located at 10th and V Streets, NW. DCPS created this school in 2008 by merging two struggling middle school programs, and hired a man named Brian Betts to become the school's new principal.

Under him, Shaw Middle became a symbol of the promise of education reform — a place that challenged conventional wisdom about urban schools, and inspired teachers and students alike to succeed. But in 2010, Betts was murdered, and critics say the school's unraveling in subsequent years says a lot about the larger problems within DCPS.

Alice Speck used to push her baby's stroller past Shaw Middle School.

"I met this man standing outside the school, greeting students, shaking hands with community members, and it was Principal Brian Betts."

She watched him, a Starbucks coffee cup in one hand, and offering hugs to those walking by. Speck was intrigued. Her son wasn't even crawling yet, but Betts invited her and other parents to talk about the school.

"We would have had no doubts of sending our children here," she says.

Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee recruited Brian Betts from Montgomery County in 2008. Under him, Shaw Middle School became the face of the urban education reform movement -- what was possible when smart, motivated adults did the right thing by poor, disenfranchised children. U.S. senators toured the halls, a Harvard professor conducted a national study there, and for journalists, it was a regular pit stop.

"He made us motivated, and want to go to school," says Kimberly Fields. "You really wanted to go! We were like a family."

Fields was one of a group of students who persuaded schools Chancellor Rhee to add a ninth grade so they could stay at their middle school. The next year Rhee granted them a 10th grade extension. Even though Shaw's test scores dropped under Betts, with just about 30 percent of children able to read and do math on grade level, he permeated the building with a tremendous sense of purpose. So when Fields heard Betts had been shot dead in his home, it was devastating.

"I started crying, and I couldn't believe I was crying... like, he's just my principal! It's not like he's in my family. But I was really sad about it."

Betts had met at least one of his attackers on a sex chat line. But for the students and teachers who knew him, the manner in which he died in April 2010 was less significant than the sudden loss of their principal.

Failing to save Shaw

So is this just a story of a star principal carrying a school? Or could DCPS have sustained Betts' vision for Shaw Middle School? Staff who worked there describes a series of missteps they say caused the school to fail.

After Betts died, the assistant principal was promoted to principal, and David DeMatthews, who previously worked at DCPS Central Office, became the new assistant principal at Shaw.

"A strength of Mr. Betts was his charisma, and the way he built relationships, but the school wasn't very structured," says DeMatthews.

He says part of the problem was that teachers were inexperienced — the vast majority had fewer than five years in the classroom. He says the new administration team that came in after Betts' death focused on supports for students, both socially and academically.

"We had an extra social worker, a mental health clinician," says DeMatthews. "We did some things in terms of making sure a curriculum was aligned better, making sure teachers were co-planning together, analyzing data for those students.

Fani Bettmann remembers those years differently. "Brian was a force of nature, it was invigorating to be a teacher under Brian's leadership."

She says Brian Betts gave teachers a lot of freedom, flexibility and a sense they were changing the world for their students. She says after he died, that spirit was crushed.

"The environment that year was extremely challenging, bordering on toxic some would say. Extremely successful, committed teachers were micro managed, and disciplined."

Her colleague Nick Curwen says Betts was a mentor. He says after his death, many teachers felt "abandoned" by DCPS Central Office.

"No one came in to help us, like how are we supposed to grieve when we're kind of shepherding and in charge of 200 and some odd students who are also grieving," says Curwen.

He says students, especially those who had been close to Betts, began to act out.

"I remember breaking up like knockdown fights, actually breaking my hand in the process."

Eventually Curwen left DCPS. But he says he thinks DCPS should have done more for students there.

"I think it is unfair we left some families and some students kind of on the line," says Curwen. "They deserve better. If Shaw was supposed to be this pinnacle of what education should look like in D.C., just because Brian died, doesn't mean that everyone should have walked away from it. I would like to see more consistency instead of let's change every year when we're not seeing what we want to see."

David DeMatthews, the assistant principal the year after Brian Betts died, says for the first time the school saw a small growth in test scores. But during the 2011 school year, the second after Betts' death, the school's budget was adjusted to reflect the decision to do away with the 9th and 10th grades it had added a few years earlier. Enrollment plummeted by approximately 50 percent. And since funding is based on the number of students in a school, the budget was slashed by $2 million dollars.

"We had two other assistant principals, they were cut, a special education coordinator was cut, multiple teachers, a number of people we had to let go," says DeMatthews.

And then at the end of the 2012 school year, Betts' successor was fired, and DeMatthews decided to leave.

"We weren't resourced appropriately to handle the students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, and knowing that there was going to be a new principal who was very inexperienced coming in, I didn't want to be in that position."

A death that killed a school

For a school to function well, students and teachers need stability, consistency and clear expectations. And with a revolving door of adults, Shaw was crumbling from within. He says education reform shouldn't just be about holding teacher and principals accountable.

"It should be in the central office as well," says DeMatthews. "I would want to know who in the school district is accountable for selecting people who are not capable of running a school in an effective manner.

"DCPS is excellent at branding things, all this hoopla but, I think, the Shaw story tells a story maybe of how maybe things haven't changed as much as people said they did or would."

During the 2012 school year, under a new principal, things became worse with at Shaw Middle School, with lower enrollment and increasing reports of violence.

Finally, at the beginning of this year, the current DCPS chancellor, Kaya Henderson, decided to close the school because of under enrollment. WAMU made repeated requests to speak with Henderson for this story over a period of two months, but she was not available, nor did she make any members of her staff available.

Alice Speck, the neighborhood parent who first met Brian Betts on her morning strolls, blames the lack of community outreach and the constant principal turnover for the school's failure.

Speck reads from a plaque close to where Principal Betts used to stand: "It says 'In Loving Memory of Principal Brian Keith Betts.' And this is a famous quote at the bottom that Brian said: 'there are two types of students, students who go to Shaw and students who wish they went to Shaw.'"

Now five years after Betts started at Shaw, there are neither. The school, which was a symbol of the promise of education, is shuttered.

[Music: "40 Holes & 40 Goals" by Bottom Side from The Element Man]

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