DCPS Turning Its Back on Academic Success

Posted on: April 29th, 2014 by Admin

SWWHS parent Donald O. Parsons pens an op-ed on the merger for The Northwest Current. The text is included as below or can be found on Page 9 of the April 16 issue.

Additional coverage can be found in the story by reporter Graham Vyse on Page 3 entitled:
A year later, School Without Walls merger still divides two campuses

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DCPS Turning Its Back on Academic Success
Viewpoint by Donald O. Parsons

School Without Walls is one of the undisputed success stories of the D.C. Public Schools system, providing a strong education to D.C. children in a system that has historically struggled at that task, especially at the middle school and high school levels. Unfortunately, academic success does not inoculate a school from political predation.

With the knowledge of no one at School Without Walls but the principal, Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced that it was to “merge” with a struggling elementary/middle school, Francis-Stevens. The merger process was unusual, even for D.C. Public Schools. School Without Walls and presumably Francis-Stevens were neither asked for input into the decision nor given forewarning of it. Even after the fact, school system officials have not explained why the parents and children of these schools were felt unworthy of consultation nor given a clear account of why officials felt the hasty merger was necessary.

The merger itself is an object of wonder. School Without Walls is a magnet high school with access by application, and Francis-Stevens is a neighborhood school available to all. The eighth-graders at Francis-Stevens will not be routinely promoted to Walls in the ninth grade. Unless they apply and are admitted, they will go off to the neighborhood high school or other schools of their choice. The merger, then, is a facilities merger, not an academic one.

Alas, a facilities merger is hard to conceive. The School Without Walls High School building is on the George Washington University campus in Foggy Bottom, a brisk 15-minute walk from the Francis-Stevens building, which is tucked into the edge of Rock Creek Park near the P Street Bridge. It’s a fine walk on a pleasant day, but that is not the usual measure of a unified campus.

Were the two schools next door to each other, the possible gains are evident — School Without Walls High School is popular and full; Francis-Stevens is not popular and largely empty. Pressed to imagine how such distant schools could “merge,” the principal of the newly unified schools can do no better than propose that the entire 11th grade be exiled on alternating days to Francis-Stevens each year (my daughter, now a freshman, could be subject to this in the 2015-2016 academic year).

Beyond the transparent lack of sense of such an arrangement, internal exile of a “grade” raises obvious logistical problems. High school classes are often composed of students from many grades. Teachers also teach more than one grade, which will require that they too must shift between campuses. The nearest Metro stop, which the high school students use heavily to access learning opportunities around the city, remains “Foggy Bottom/GWU”; for the exiles, it would now be a mile away, rather than two blocks. Will students and teachers have to make more than one half-hour round trip a day between the two schools? How will time between classes be lengthened to accommodate transit? And what of clubs, sports, tutoring, and teacher and counselor meetings that take place before and after school or at lunch?

To maintain the pretense that the merger was about something, D.C. Public Schools decided to assign the current principal of School Without Walls to Francis-Stevens as well. How likely is it that an urban high school principal has sufficient spare time to administer as well a programmatically unconnected elementary and middle school at a location a mile away?

A School Without Walls parents committee has now had time to consider the merger proposal at length and can find only disadvantages to Walls students. If there are advantages, D.C. Public Schools has yet to share them. High school students at Walls were apparently meant to facilitate the Francis-Stevens plan, not to benefit from it. So much for the returns to academic success in the D.C. public schools.

-Donald O. Parsons, a Foxhall Village resident, is a parent at School Without Walls High School.

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