Rhee Meets With Wilkinson Parents on Plan to Close Schools

Chancellor Departs From Hearing Format to Take Questions

Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, met with community members at Moten Elementary School in Southeast Washington at one of 23 hearings held Thursday night to hear testimony from the community regarding the Reorganization and Rightsizing Plan that will close 23 schools this year.

Rhee made a brief stop to Moten, which will be receiving students from Wilkinson Elementary next year, as she made her rounds to the various meetings being held around the District. She listened to testimony from parents and departed from the agenda to take questions from the audience.

Hannah M. Hawkins, founder of the Children of Mine Center, which has been feeding, clothing and providing recreation for children in Southeast D.C. since 1992, was the first to give her testimony about the Chancellor’s school closure proposal.

“Never look down on a child unless you’re picking them up,” Hawkins said. The native Washingtonian sent her five children to Moten Elementary and worries that all of the school closings will leave some children without a neighborhood school to attend. “Where will the children go? Does America truly value its children?” Hawkins asked.

A common theme throughout the testimonies was concern about whether Moten would be able to accommodate the number of new students coming from Wilkinson next year. Rhee assured attendees that she had done research on the size of each receiving school and that Moten could handle the number of new students. She even offered to take one parent on a tour of Moten next year once the merger with Wilkinson is complete to ensure that Moten can manage the influx of students while maintaining small class sizes.

Annette Bradshaw, a southeast resident, attended Moten when the school taught kindergarten through seventh grade. “It’s possible for Moten to hold that many students because they’ve done it before,” Bradshaw said.

Moten, which is currently pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, will become kindergarten through fifth grade with the inclusion of Wilkinson’s students next year.

Rhee emphasized that merging schools would free up money that could be used to fund programs for subjects such as art, music and physical education, which are being neglected due to a lack of funding. Resized schools will receive priority in obtaining new programs for their students, Rhee said.

Anita Miller-Tolliver, a parent of Moten Elementary students, suggested that D.C. Public Schools is funding charter schools while neglecting its public schools. “Put money back into D.C. Public Schools,” Miller-Tolliver said.

The issue of charter school funding was a recurring theme throughout the hearing. “Make a way, find a way to keep money in D.C. Public Schools,” said Rodessa Pugh, whose daughter attends Moten.

Rhee said that although DCPS has no control over charter schools, the system is mandated to ensure these schools are funded because they are educating D.C. students. She maintained her support for school choice but emphasized the importance of school funding following the students. If a child leaves DCPS to attend a charter school but chooses to come back to public schools, the money that went to the charter school should come back as well, Rhee said. She also said that instead of limiting charter schools her goal is to improve D.C. Public Schools.

Another concern voiced by community members was the fate of the closed school buildings. “I’m for Wilkinson kids coming here, but I’m against them closing the building. They are closing libraries in this area so put a library or recreational center there,” Pugh said.

Eddie Willson, a School Program Manager with Center for Inspired Teaching, works with teachers and parents at Moten Elementary. “There’s a buzz amongst teachers,” Willson said. “There’s a general feeling of uncertainty. No one’s positive about what’s going to happen next year.”

This uncertainty is causing anxiety among parents. “The parents are more upset than teachers. They are unsure of what change is going to bring,” he said.

Yet Willson is optimistic that the Wilkinson-Moten merger will be a smooth one due to their physical proximity. “The schools are so close. The kids are from the same neighborhood. A lot of Moten students have younger siblings at Wilkinson.”