SWW Merger: Background and Suggested Talking Points

Posted on: March 5th, 2014 by Jennifer Boulanger

SWW Merger

In January 2013, DCPS Chancellor Henderson made the decision to merge the city’s leading academic public high school, School Without Walls High School (SWW), with Francis Stevens Elementary Campus (FS), a preschool through grade 8 neighborhood school that had been slated for closure.

The following provides some background on the merger and the current status. Also included below are suggested talking points to use when communicating with DCPS, Mayor Gray and his administration, as well as the media.

Background

The merger decision was made without any input from the SWW community.

The response from SWW was swift, strong and unified: merging a selective admissions high school with a neighborhood school a mile away made little sense, provided no tangible benefit to the high school, and risked causing harm to the high school.

In response to the reaction from the SWW community, the Chancellor’s Chief of Schools announced in May 2013 that no high school students would take classes at FS in 2013-14, and he requested that a panel of parents and faculty representing the two campuses meet to discuss the implications of the merger and to make recommendations to DCPS. A 12-person working group selected by DCPS, and headed by a reputable former DCPS principal met from July through October to consider the merger decision.

The working group unanimously recommended:

  • No high school students should take classes at the elementary campus. In the best scenario, FS can only accommodate up to 100 SWW students. The available space at FS is too small and too far away to enable a logical use of the space without isolating SWW students forced to take classes there from teachers, resources, clubs and activities, and campus culture. It would also require schedules to be dictated by geography, rather than the needs of students. Logistical and safety considerations were never considered by DCPS prior to the decision and have not been addressed since. The working group could find no logical, safe, or efficient way to send SWW students there without sacrificing the educational integrity of the high school program.
  • Each campus deserves full-time, dedicated leadership, and the shared administrative functions that were being implemented needed further consideration, given problems that were emerging.
  • The budgets of the two schools should remain separate, so that FS would not continue to lose Title I funding and both schools could operate with rational, transparent budgets.
  • Increased enrollment at SWW should be done in a thoughtful way to best serve students.

These recommendations were overwhelmingly supported by School Without Walls parents, students and faculty.

After a month with no formal response from DCPS to the recommendations, and after an HSA meeting where Chief of Schools John Davis made clear that he still would like to have SWW High School students take classes at FS, the SWW community stepped up. In emails to the Mayor and Chancellor, parents made clear that DCPS should respect the recommendations of the working group.

On December 20, 2013 DCPS Chief of Schools John Davis sent a letter to the SWW community that no students would attend classes at FS for the 2014-2015 school year. The letter also acknowledged that sharing a principal was a challenge. Yet this letter left the long- term status of the merger unresolved.

In February 2014, the school received news that the 2014-15 budgets for the two schools will be merged. This happened because Principal Rich Trogisch asked DCPS for a merged budget, and DCPS agreed. This decision was made against the recommendation of the working group, without consulting the SWW LSAT or any stakeholders, and without any discussion.

Meanwhile, to further complicate the situation and bring even more confusion as to the logic of the merger with SWW, it has been announced that: 1) FS will undergo substantial physical renovations beginning in 2015, requiring some amount of displacement of students who attend classes there; and that 2) two additional Special Education programs will be added to the FS campus starting in 2014 (a program for intellectually delayed middle school students and a private program for K-2 autistic children), raising the question of how one building would properly serve the needs of multiple and varied school populations.

Talking Points

These are some possible points you may want to use in your communications.

  • The SWW community believes that Kaya Henderson and DCPS should respect and embrace the recommendations of the parent-faculty task force it created. DCPS established a task force to explore how to make the merger work, and the task force largely concluded that the merger would not work.
  • Parents and faculty need more finality than the one-year delay offered by DCPS. The lack of finality of the merger has created a great deal of anxiety at SWW and runs the risk of damaging the strength of this very successful high school. Prospective parents will be discouraged from considering a school with such an uncertain future and turmoil among the existing parents.
  • The community calls for a permanent decision that no SWW High School student should have to attend classes at FS. DCPS has left the status of the merger vague and in limbo by deciding only that high school students would not attend classes at FS in 2014-15. The task force found no practical way to have high school students attend classes at FS, and no one within DCPS has offered any viable solution. If DCPS cannot identify a workable plan soon – before the end of this school year – it should drop the idea.
  • The community calls for a full-time principal located at, dedicated to and advocating for the best interests of School Without Walls High School. The task force found that sharing a principal was proving to be problematic and that the division of authority between the principal and each campus’ associate principal remain unclear. Chief of Schools John Davis acknowledged this problem in his December 2013 letter and promised to respond. Two months later, DCPS has done nothing. The SWW community has no confidence that DCPS can or will fix this problem, which means that the best solution is to give each campus its own full-time principal.
  • The community calls for a separate budget for the high school, to provide a clear and transparent approach to the financial affairs of the high school. Merging the budgets only creates problems – reduced transparency and concerns that funds for one school are being used to support another. If SWW High School and FS largely operate as two independent schools, they should each have their own budgets.
  • The community calls for a thoughtful approach to the size of SWW High School that enables the school to be a successful learning environment for students who qualify for and want to attend, and that does not cause harm to comprehensive high schools in the city by siphoning off all the best students. DCPS has indicated that it wants SWW to be larger but has done no work to explore a thoughtful way to expand enrollment
  • The community demands recognition for SWW as one of the city’s most successful high schools – based on performance on standardized tests, SAT and ACT scores, college acceptances, and more.
  • SWW exists to serve our students and deserves to be treated as an asset to the city. This is our children’s education and they deserve better from DCPS.

Also see: Chronology of the Merger

 

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