Guest Host: Marc Fisher

On Tuesday, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson released a list of local schools slated for closure due to low enrollment and under-performance. Most observers agree that the school system needs to focus its resources on a smaller number of schools. But school closures often provoke outcry in affected communities. We talk with Chancellor Henderson about the process and concerns raised by parents and community leaders.


  • Kaya Henderson Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools

List Of DCPS Schools That Will Be Closed:

(1) Francis Stevens Education Campus
(2) Garrison ES
(3) MacFarland MS
(4) Sharpe Health School
(5) Mamie D Lee School
(6) CHOICE at Hamilton
(7) Marshall ES
(8) Spingarn HS
(9) Spingarn STAY
(10) Prospect Learning Campus
(11) Shaw at Garnet Patterson
(12) Davis ES
(13) Kenilworth ES
(14) Ron Brown MS
(15) Smothers ES
(16) Winston Education Campus
(17) Ferebee Hope ES
(18) Johnson MS
(19) Malcolm X ES
(20) MC Terrell-McGogney ES

Video: Inside The Studio

After the show, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson answered listener emails about accommodating students with disabilities, where to find school budgets and more. Henderson responded to a question about whether DCPS will reinvest savings to improve learning outcomes under the consolidation proposal. “That’s exactly the point of the proposal,” Henderson said. “We actually want to use the savings from subsidizing small schools to be able to create schools that have the budget to focus on teaching and learning.”

Henderson discussed the effect that fewer public schools might have on enrollment in the city’s charter schools. “My hope is that this is an opportunity for smart growth,” she said. “There has been no strategic plan around where charters are situated, around complementing the traditional public school system. In fact, we’ve been set up to compete.”


  • 12:06:42

    MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. Later this hour: power, sexism and politics. As the scandal engulfing former CIA Director David Petraeus expands, we'll explore whether men and women are held to different standards. But first, D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Yesterday, she announced an ambitious plan to close 20 under-enrolled schools across the District. That's one-sixth of the buildings currently operated by the system.

  • 12:07:29

    MR. MARC FISHERIf the plan is implemented in full, 3,000 D.C. public school students will attend a different school next year. The case for all these closings rests on basic math. For years, the number of school-age kids in the District has declined while the number of buildings in the school system has remained roughly the same. But the question of which schools close almost inevitably raises thorny issues of politics, fairness and the quality of life in neighborhoods across the city as schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson will join us momentarily.

  • 12:08:05

    MR. MARC FISHERBut if you'd like to call in, the number is 1-800-433-8850, and the email is What do you think of these proposed school closings? Are you affected by them? Does the system need to be right-sized? Let us know your thoughts at 1-800-433-8850. And this was a long time coming. It's actually the second wave of school closings. It was Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor, who closed down a number of buildings just four or five years ago, and that was a very controversial series of moves.

  • 12:08:46

    MR. MARC FISHERShe held hearings across the city at which she was threatened and yelled at by a great many people. And in the end, the school system did shut down a number of buildings at the same time as then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Rhee were modernizing buildings. A total of about 45 out of the 120 or so school buildings across the city were being modernized at a cost of more than $1.3 billion over the last five years.

  • 12:09:18

    MR. MARC FISHERBut -- and so the goal here that Chancellor Henderson has announced is to have more kids in fewer schools. And you might say, well, you know, larger schools is not exactly what's been the goal in the school reform movement in recent years. In fact, the opposite has actually occurred. We're now joined by Chancellor Henderson who's on the phone with us. Chancellor, welcome.

  • 12:09:48

    MS. KAYA HENDERSONThank you so much.

  • 12:09:49

    FISHERGood to have you with us, so 20 schools means 20 different new headaches and 20 different sets of angry parents getting ready to jump at you. And you've actually invited this in the form of a number of meetings across the city. What do you think those parents will be saying, and how do you calm them down?

  • 12:10:08

    HENDERSONWell, I think that parents are rightly concerned about the transitions that their young people are going to have to make. And as a parent, I understand that. But I also know that parents are really interested in ensuring that their young people have the full complements of academic offerings that their children deserve. And when we look out and see how we're investing our money, especially in some of these smaller schools, we're actually spending more money on things that are not directly tied to instruction. So we want to get as many dollars as -- closer to the classroom as we possibly can.

  • 12:10:48

    FISHERWell, talk a little bit about this -- a parent contradiction between large and small. In other words, we hear -- we've heard for years that one of the great goals in school reform was smaller class size, more intimate connections between teachers and students, smaller buildings with smaller numbers of kids in them. And now you're saying that we have too many big buildings in the District that have too few kids in them and that it makes both economic and educational sense to have more kids in a building.

  • 12:11:16

    HENDERSONYes. Well, you know, we -- absolutely. The goals that you laid out in terms of the connections that young people are able to make with caring adults in their buildings, the opportunities for us to work with small groups of young people, those are all absolutely true. But, in fact, there becomes a point at which it -- the budget simply can't sustain -- you can't run a school with 150 children in it. We don't -- because we are funded by the number people we have, you don't actually have enough of a budget to provide all of the things that you would want to -- your classrooms.

  • 12:11:57

    FISHERRight. Now, one of the big issues across the city obviously is one of equity and fairness, and this is a very sensitive city both racially and politically. Is there -- Chancellor Henderson? I think we've lost her on the phone. But we'll hope to have her in the studio shortly. In the meantime, let's turn to Sidney in Washington, D.C. Sidney, you're on the air.

  • 12:12:22

    SIDNEYThank you. I have a number of concerns around this issue, one of which is, oh my goodness, 3,000 children jerked out of their schools and transported somewhere else. That -- it's a little bit shocking. My big question -- I think one of my big questions is I'm concerned that these closings seem to be clustered in some wards.

  • 12:12:44

    SIDNEYAnd some wards that also have small schools seem to be exempt from closing. I'm concerned that some of the buildings that are being closed are buildings that have had millions of dollars of renovation done on them recently. I'm also concerned about teachers' jobs, and I'm concerned about the savings and where those will go.

  • 12:13:03

    FISHEROK. Let's give Chancellor Henderson a chance to respond. You're not closing down any newly modernized school buildings. You're actually looking to shut down some of the oldest and most decrepit buildings in the system, I would imagine.

  • 12:13:17

    HENDERSONAbsolutely. We have modernized about 50 -- about 47 of our buildings, which still leaves 50-some that have not been touched. And in many of our modernized buildings, they're not at full capacity. So we want to get more of our young people into modernized buildings sooner. So this will help with that.

  • 12:13:37

    FISHERAnd her other -- the caller's other question was about staff reductions. Do -- when you close 20 schools and move 3,000 children, are you actually reducing the number of teachers?

  • 12:13:49

    HENDERSONWell, usually, what happens is the teachers -- we do our best to ensure that teachers follow their students. In schools that will now have larger student population, they, of course, need to add teachers. And so we have the principal at the receiving school interview all of the teachers at the consolidating school because we want to try to maintain as many of those adult connections as possible.

  • 12:14:14

    HENDERSONNow, of course, we'll need fewer principals given that we'll have fewer schools. But I actually believe that we're at -- we're a system whose size is such that, through natural attrition, we are able to deal with some of these issues.

  • 12:14:30

    FISHERAnd talking about size, you're talking about a public school system in a city of six, 700,000 people that once had 150,000 children in it and now only has 45,000 teachers.

  • 12:14:42


  • 12:14:43

    FISHERSo you're down to about a third of the peak. And yet you have almost the same number of buildings in operation that you did back when you had all those kids.

  • 12:14:50

    HENDERSONThat is absolutely right. And it means that we're spending our money on buildings and on staffing situations that are not about classrooms. In our under-utilized buildings, in some cases, we spent as little as 30 to 40 percent on -- of our budget on teachers, whereas in our better-utilized and larger-sized buildings, we actually spent somewhere in the 60 to 70 percent range of our budget on teachers.

  • 12:15:16

    HENDERSONOne of the other little known facts that I'm sorry I couldn't finish when we got cut off is that in our larger buildings, we actually have the opportunity to create smaller class sizes because there are multiple teachers on a grade level. If you only have one first-grade class, once you hit 22, 23, 24, four more kids come in, you know, there are not enough children to have two classrooms.

  • 12:15:36

    HENDERSONAnd so you have larger class sizes. And so when schools reach a certain threshold, 350-ish at the elementary school level, 450 at middle, 600 at high school, you actually have the ability to do more flexible grouping. You have teachers who are able to work together because they're on a team and are not isolated teaching one grade.

  • 12:15:58

    FISHERDuring the last round of school closings, before you were transferred, when Michelle Rhee was still in that position, there were a lot of meetings of the kind that you're about to hold. And people came to them stocked and ready to attack. And one of the things that they were really angry about was, in this city that has always been divided by race and class and geography, closings tend to be largely -- well, in this case, exclusively east of the park, east of Rock Creek Park. And why is that? And is there an equity issue there?

  • 12:16:33

    HENDERSONI think there are a couple of issues to consider. Many of the schools that are west of the park are actually very small buildings that are full to capacity. If that was the case in other wards, that would be fine. We wouldn't look to close or consolidate any schools that are full. And I think what has happened over time is the greatest population of school-age children used to live in Ward 7 and 8, which is why we have, in some neighborhoods, a school on every block, nearly.

  • 12:17:07

    HENDERSONThat is not the case now. And so this is not about, you know, mapping -- you know, looking at the map and just trying to consolidate schools in an equal way. This is really about maximizing our resources and looking at places where we are spending on the wrong things and pushing consolidation so that we can get the most out of our resources.

  • 12:17:33

    FISHERWell, let's talk about the Ward 3 schools, which have had for many years a reputation for being of higher quality or somehow more desirable than in much of the rest of the city. And we've had this phenomenon for decades where many middle-class parents around the city have sought to have their children attend out-of-boundary schools in Ward 3. And that was relatively easy to do for many years because many Ward 3 parents, in most cases white parents, were sending their kids to private or parochial schools.

  • 12:18:03

    HENDERSONAnd so there were lots of open spaces in those schools. Now, we're seeing a trend where more and more people who live in more affluent parts of the city are coming back to the public school system, and they want those spaces in their neighborhood schools. Who gets those spaces and why?

  • 12:18:16

    HENDERSONWell, this is the issue, I think, the issue de jure. I'm -- first of all, I'm pleased that parents, who otherwise would not have considered the DCPS, now actually see what we're doing with their young people and choose us. We want to be the district of choice not in just Ward 3, but across the city. If children from out-of-boundary situations are currently in schools, we will not displace any of them. But part of the problem is that neighborhood children have the first right to schools.

  • 12:18:51

    HENDERSONIt's our job to figure out how we make our other schools in other neighborhoods as attractive as some of the Ward 3 schools. This is one of the reasons why we're building two brand-new, state-of-the-art middle schools in Ward 5. We'll open this August the McKinley Technology Middle School, which will be a STEM middle school. And we will open, the following year, the Brookland Arts and World Languages Middle school. So we want to ensure that there are high quality options in other places, and we're making those investments.

  • 12:19:24

    HENDERSONIt's also why we're building a brand-new Ballou in H.D. Woodson. But there's also the issue of boundaries which have not been changed since the '70s, and so some of our schools have tremendous boundaries that actually don't make sense. Take Winston, for example. And we're at a point now where Winston is bursting at the seams.

  • 12:19:45

    FISHERThis being the only general high school west of Rock Creek Park?

  • 12:19:47

    HENDERSONYes, sir, and the largest high school. And so we will -- in phase two of this consolidation and re-organization plan, which will start this spring, we will take a look at the boundaries and feeder patterns and make proposals to change them so that things actually balance out a little bit.

  • 12:20:05

    FISHERSetting yourself up for yet another round of controversy, but that's the nature to me. If you'd like to join our conversation with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, you may do so at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at Let us know what you think of the proposed school closings. What -- are you affected by them, and what do you plan to do about them?

  • 12:20:27

    FISHERWe have an email from Robin, who asks in Bethesda. She says, "The closing plan proposes to move students from two middle schools into high schools. This would put vulnerable 12-year-olds into schools that undoubtedly include some 18- and 19-year-old students who are immature enough to be bullies. Aren't there other schools that would be more appropriate to receive these middle school students?"

  • 12:20:48

    HENDERSONWell, I think middle schools are something that school districts all across the nation struggle with. But, in fact, just a few years ago, we had a -- what I would consider a very successful consolidation of Lincoln Middle School and Bell High School into the Columbia Heights Education Campus. Columbia Heights Education Campus is one of our few high schools that made adequate yearly progress as measured by No Child Left Behind. If you go there, there is a wonderful culture and spirit.

  • 12:21:20

    HENDERSONAnd, in fact, there are opportunities for the young people who are advanced to take advantage of high school opportunities. There are mentoring opportunities for the high schoolers to work with the middle schoolers, and part of doing that successfully is ensuring that the staff has a clear idea of how to run a 6 to 12 school. It also means that the physical space is actually configured in such a way that these folks are not interacting all day every day. And so there is a successful model not just here in D.C., but they're in a lot of places. And we're excited to...

  • 12:21:55

    FISHERIt's Cardozo and Roosevelt High Schools that would become combination middle and high schools. OK.

  • 12:22:00

    HENDERSONYeah. In fact, at Roosevelt, we heard a lot from the community that since Roosevelt was being renovated, it was an opportunity to get the children, the middle schoolers from MacFarland into a modernized building. And we thought was a great idea, which is why we proposed it.

  • 12:22:15

    FISHERLet's hear from Alicia in Washington. Alicia, it's your turn.

  • 12:22:20

    ALICIA RUCKERHi. This is Alicia Rucker, Washington, D.C.

  • 12:22:21

    FISHERAlicia. Sorry.

  • 12:22:23

    RUCKERAnd the question that I have for the chancellor is children were crying yesterday at Ron Brown Middle School, and that's very traumatic for children to find out that their school is now dead. Dead school walking is what we call it. So why -- if there are no schools in Ward 3 being closed, how do we expect that our children will continue to have walkability in their schools?

  • 12:22:47

    RUCKERAnd why do our children in Ward 7 and 8 continue to be disproportionately affected? Why can't we create a reverse magnet program, drawing children from all wards of the city into our school? There's a Deanwood subway station right next to Ron Brown Middle School where we could make that happen for real.

  • 12:23:07

    FISHEROK. Let's hear the chancellor's response.

  • 12:23:09

    HENDERSONSo we are -- in fact, this is the reason why we want to engage the community to understand how to make our proposal even stronger. The truth of the matter is, at Ron Brown, there are under 300 children, and it makes it very difficult, from a budget perspective, to continue to subsidize a school when they don't have the full complement of students.

  • 12:23:32

    HENDERSONI do believe that we can talk about and explore reverse magnets, but I think we cannot ignore the fact that there are a preponderance of charter schools in Ward 7 and 8 that have significantly reduced the number of children going to DCPS schools. In fact, in Ward 7, more than 51 percent of the children, the public school children, go to charter schools. So I understand...

  • 12:23:58

    FISHERIs that reflective of the citywide numbers?

  • 12:24:00

    HENDERSONIt's not. In each ward, it's slightly different, but in Wards 1, 5 and -- 1, 5, 6 and 7, I think, there are more children in public charter schools than there are in DCPS schools.

  • 12:24:16

    FISHERAnd overall in the city, what -- of all the school-age children in Washington, what percentage of them attend D.C. -- regular D.C. public schools?

  • 12:24:24

    HENDERSONWe are just over -- we're about 57 percent, I think.

  • 12:24:29

    FISHERAnd the rest are divided among charter...

  • 12:24:30

    HENDERSONSixty, 60-ish percent.

  • 12:24:32

    FISHERThe rest are divided among charters, private and parochial schools.

  • 12:24:34

    HENDERSONYes. Well, actually, I was just thinking about the DCPS charter number.

  • 12:24:39

    FISHERRight. So 57 percent of those who go to a public school attend a regular DCPS school rather than a charter school.

  • 12:24:46


  • 12:24:46

    FISHEROK. And what -- is that -- does that process in which the charter schools have gone from zero to nearly -- well, to more than four in 10 students in the city, does that get promoted further by these closings? Because you're going to be making some of these buildings available to charter schools.

  • 12:25:05


  • 12:25:05

    FISHERDoes that encourage that growth so that you might actually end up having a minority of the students in the city?

  • 12:25:11

    HENDERSONSo my hope is that this is an opportunity for smart growth. We have had the proliferation of charters unchecked for the last 15 years. There has been no strategic plan around where charters are situated around complementing the traditional public school system. In fact, we've been set up to compete. And so when there is a competition, I think, you know, you see things like the need to decrease the number of school buildings because families are voting with their feet. If I'm going to be competitive, I need to be able to offer, in my school, some of the things that our charter partners are offering.

  • 12:25:48

    HENDERSONAnd this proposal will help us do that. But we will recruit our families. I actually believe -- in fact, I came to be the chancellor of a traditional public school system with strong neighborhood options. And, in fact, I've been in conversations with some of our charter partners who are interested in serving our neighborhood students, are doing a better job than I am, and we want to look for opportunities to partner and to complement one another instead of competing.

  • 12:26:17

    FISHERWe have an email from Daniel, who says that "During the last round of school closures, we lost thousands of students from DCPS. What plans does the chancellor have to curb student and parent attrition this time around?" Is that the case?

  • 12:26:29

    HENDERSONI'm not sure exactly what the loss was, but we saw an initial loss. But really in 2009 is actually when enrollment started to go up for the first time in 10 years or so. So I don't think that it is an irreversible issue. In fact, one of the things that we saw with the 2008 closures is that if you move one entire school into another entire school, you have a better chance of keeping more of your students and families.

  • 12:26:54

    HENDERSONAnd so we've tried to prioritize that. We will also work with our families through the transition to keep as many of them as we want. These are our children, our families, and we will prove to them that we can serve them well in the new situation.

  • 12:27:10

    FISHERHere's a call from Anne in Washington. Anne, you're on the air.

  • 12:27:14

    ANNEI'm glad to hear you say that you're going to work to keep the public school students. I'm a retired teacher. I worked at Tubman. And during the last school closings, it didn't seem like there was any effort to tell the students on Meyer about how great Tubman was until the last day of school when, you know, probably over 50 percent of the parents had already decided what they were going to do, and most of them went to charter students.

  • 12:27:43

    ANNEI think we got maybe two or three students per classroom from Meyer. So I hope when you have your first parent meeting with each school, you'll take the principal from the receiving school and maybe the parent representative so they can tell that -- the parents from the school that's going to be closed, it's just a really good school. You should support it. You should send your kids there. I mean, this is why we like it.

  • 12:28:09

    HENDERSONAbsolutely. Thank you so much, Anne. That is a great point.

  • 12:28:12

    FISHERAnd, chancellor, among these properties that are closing, you -- some of them are going to be converted to other uses. Some of them are going to be held in case come -- time comes when you do need more space. But are any of these properties you think going to be especially alluring to developers? And does -- is there an opportunity for the system to make some money off this?

  • 12:28:33

    HENDERSONWell, I'm sure that a number of our properties will be alluring to developers, but I'm not -- my name is not Donald Trump. I'm not in the real estate business. I'm in the schools business. And if we do our job well over the next five years, I will have use for every one of those buildings sometime in the next 10 to 20. So our expectation is that we will keep as many of these buildings in our portfolio as possible.

  • 12:28:58

    HENDERSONWe'll work with the community to figure out short-term leasing options. If we don't project that we need the building for three to five years, we'll look for a group of nonprofits who might want to co-locate in a building, or we will work with a charter school that might be complementary to what we're doing in a particular neighborhood, or we'll work with Parks and Rec or the Office of the Aging to provide other community services.

  • 12:29:23

    HENDERSONMy commitment in this process, which is not something that happened in 2008, is that we won't leave buildings empty in communities. This is not about divesting from communities. I understand the school's place in a community, and I want to make sure that even if we don't have enough children right now to run a school, that we will find a use that the community wants for that building.

  • 12:29:46

    FISHERKaya Henderson is the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School System. Thank you very much for being here. The full list of closings is available on our site,, as well as we'll have some additional answers from Chancellor Henderson to some of your emailed questions on the site as well. But when we come back after a short break, we'll take a look at the scandal engulfing former CIA Director David Petraeus and questions of power, sexism and politics. That's coming up next on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher. Stay tuned.

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