How are undocumented students in the District dealing with the effects of changing immigration policy?
The push to keep an alternative public school in D.C. open was narrowly defeated in D.C. Council, upholding a decision by Chancellor Lewis Ferebee to close the campus.
But students who fought to keep Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy open say they feel more supported there than elsewhere in the city.
So, what’s next for Washington Met?
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5 and streaming live at kojoshow.org. Welcome. The push to keep an alternative public school open was narrowly defeated in the D.C. Council upholding a decision by Chancellor Lewis Ferebee to close the campus. Ferebee cited students' poor attendance, lagging achievement and the school's declining enrollment, but students who fought to keep Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy open say they feel more supported than elsewhere in the city.
KOJO NNAMDISo what is next for Washington Met? Joining me to have this conversation is Lewis Ferebee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. He joins us by phone. Chancellor Ferebee, thank you for joining us.
LEWIS FEREBEEThank you for having me, sir. It's good to be with you again.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Robert White. He is an At-Large Member of the D.C. Council. Councilmember White, thank you for joining us.
ROBERT WHITEThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Elizabeth Davis. She is President of the Washington Teachers Union. Ms. Davis, thank you for joining us.
ELIZABETH DAVISThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Lyric Johnson. She is a Student at Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy. Lyric Johnson, thank you for joining us.
LYRIC JOHNSONThank you.
NNAMDIChancellor Ferebee, you made this announcement back in November. First though, tell us about the school Washington Met. What makes it an alternative school?
FEREBEESo, again, thank you for having me. So Washington Metropolitan High School is an alternative setting in a sense that it serves students in a non-traditional way primarily academically. Students are utilizing a computer based platform for their instruction and assessment. It is also unique in that we are currently serving students that are over age that are looking to get on track with their peers. And those are primarily middle grade students that were over age. It is also a non-traditional environment in which students have flexibility in how they earn credits via the computer based platform.
FEREBEEAnd so students -- some there are there, because they want to accelerate their credits that they earn and potentially graduate early or they may have jobs that they're working outside of the school day or during the school day that we support them with. So it's non-traditional in how we support students. And then there's some supports that we provide that are unique to alternative settings.
NNAMDIWhat were the factors that went into your decision to close the school?
FEREBEESo there were a number of different factors that were considered in this decision making process. But I want to step back and just share with you and the community that there's immense responsibility to ensure that students are in a learning environment where they can succeed. And we obviously -- and I don't take this decision lightly. And we're confident that we can better serve students at other campuses.
FEREBEEAnd so the heart of this decision is we believe, again, that we can better serve students at other campuses. The data points that we reviewed were attendance data, academic outcomes from the school and also we give an annual perception survey to our students and families called our Panorama Survey. And that survey gives us an indication of how students and families are feeling as it relates to our goal of every student feeling loved, challenged and prepared.
FEREBEEEnrollment in the school was another consideration as enrollment in the school has been on decline. But more importantly I've also had the opportunity to visit the campus last year and this year and have been concerned about the teaching and learning environment of the school in my observations as well.
NNAMDICouncilmember Robert White, when did the plight of Washington Met first come to your attention? And what made you take up the cause to keep the school from closing?
WHITEWell, I heard about the potential closure of Washington Met in the news and was really disheartened. And before I could get a letter off to the mayor and the chancellor asking them not to close it, the final announcement was made. And so I knew I had to act because, you know, frankly I know what it's like to be a student, who's counted out and I know the potential of these students if they have the right supports. And so I wanted to make sure we fought for them because we're not talking about -- when we're talking about attendance and enrollment we're not talking about a school where the majority of the students have parents who say, "Okay, you know, time to go to school today."
WHITEWe're talking about a school where many of the students have lost their parents, where some of the students are in group homes. Some of the students are functionally homeless, where there are mental health needs, where more than anything they need a school whose priority is to care for them and to help them cross the finish line even if they have to take the long route.
WHITEAnd in a traditional school setting, you know, even a setting for older students that the classrooms just aren't built for the intensive needs of small numbers of students. They're built for the success of the entire student bodies. And so there has to be a school that is intended to wrap around students who have high needs, but also who can make it. And that's what Washington Met was.
WHITEI was their commencement speaker in 2013. I got to tell you. Their graduation was one of the most exciting things I've ever been to because this is -- a lot of these students weren't expected to cross the stage. And they did because they made sure they were there despite all the circumstances. And so I knew that the Council had an obligation to step in.
NNAMDILyric Johnson, you're a student at Washington Met and you've been actively campaigning to keep it open. Why is this school so important to you?
JOHNSONWell, this school is important to me, because I've been through a lot. And my three and half years of being at this school like a lot. And it's -- this school is just I don't -- even before I came to Wash Met, I didn't like school. Like I can openly admit and be, you know, open -- woman enough to say I didn't like school. But then I came here and it's like people push you. And you see people around you and you want to grow and you're just tired of doing things that aren't necessarily childish things. I just grew and blossomed into an amazing flower. And if you would have told me like three and a half years ago, like I would be doing this I'd be like, No. Like no. And -- yeah.
NNAMDISo how did you feel? How did you feel when you first learned that the school was closing?
JOHNSONWell, I was very confused because they told us right -- the week of Thanksgiving break. And it's like, wow, like you can't just come down here and just throw it on us. Like you're telling these teachers they might have to find another job and people have kids. And it's hard. And some of these teachers that are in our school are first year DCPS teachers and it may be hard for them to actually get another job without being in the system long enough.
JOHNSONBut I just felt hurt and like disappointed. And I'm just like, who wrote this up? Who came up with this? And it's just like even me actually being on the cabinet, I've spoken and I've said, you know, our building we have middle schools in here that the school is too small. They can't keep stuffing kids in here when it's a small building, a small environment. So I've made that vocal way before this proposal even came about. I've said that when I went to the budget meeting with the rest of the high school and on the cabinet. So I've spoken vocally about certain things.
NNAMDILiz Davis, what do you see as the role of Washington Met and other alternative schools? What role do you see them playing in the D.C. Public School System?
DAVISWell, Washington Met like other alternative schools provide unique services to middle and high school students, who have not found success in the traditional school environment. Simply put, Washington Met keeps kids in schools. Lyric alluded to that in her comments. It is the only alternative program for middle school students, 100 percent of whom are attend a school classified as economically disadvantaged. And over 30 percent of the students receive special education services.
DAVISSo if there was a place where adults and students work collaboratively, Washington Met is it, but the impact will be felt. The closure of this school will be felt way beyond the young people and the staff closing. Closing the school closes doors for future students such as Lyric. There are other students who accompanied her to the Wilson Building to share with council members the support they were getting from 1800 other D.C. citizens, who said the school should remain open.
DAVISBut what I don't understand, Kojo, is why closing schools has become what seems to be the first option or even an option when a school struggles. It looks like the adults are taking the easy way out in my view as an educator. Instead of rolling up our sleeves and solving the educational problems at Met we just close it. And that for me is not an option. We're about improving our public schools not keeping them as they are, but providing the resources to improve them in order to keep them open.
NNAMDILyric, Chancellor Ferebee cited poor enrollment, attendance, poor attendance, achievement and facilities among his reasons for closing the school. What do you say to that?
JOHNSONYou said facility? Like as in the building?
JOHNSONWell, like I said before many times it's not just like, okay, I'm saying -- before he even got in office it was chancellors before. DCPS before so it's -- this it's not like his fault or our fault that we're in the building or facility. But poor enrollment all those things, why would people -- first of all the school, you do one mandatory, in alternative academies you get one mandatory year and then you can leave. And go to whatever school you want to go to. But kids choose to stay there. Why would people -- if people didn't go to school across the street from their home what makes anybody think that they would come all the way up, you know, uptown?
NNAMDITo go to another school.
JOHNSONTo go to another school?
NNAMDIChancellor Ferebee, what do you say to students like Lyric and students at Washington Met, who have been fighting to keep their school open and don't want to go farther away?
FEREBEEWell, first of all, Kojo, I know Lyric very well. She's on my Chancellor Student Advisory Council and I appreciate her advocacy. She's been an active voice for Washington Metropolitan High School for some time. And she's right. She expressed interest to me directly around the facility. And we've talked on a number of occasions that, you know, the current Washington Metropolitan site is limited in the fact that it is in an old elementary school, which is not often conducive to high school students and the types of amenities that they would need on their campus.
FEREBEEShe has also asked the question as some of her peers have whether there could be additional opportunities for a career in technical education. So we've gone through a very robust engagement process with our community. And we've heard from over 200 students, educators, and families. And one of the areas that we heard is that, you know, students want access to resources that are not currently there, but exist at other campuses. For example, we offer career and technical education at Ballou STAY, Luke C. Moore, Roosevelt STAY that includes culinary arts, mass media, cosmetology, barbering. So much, you know, that we believe will better serve students based on the interest that they expressed to us.
FEREBEEIt's also important to go back I believe to this notion that we haven't properly invested. We actually ...
NNAMDII was about to ask that. Was consideration given to providing the school with more resources versus shutting it down?
FEREBEESo we have limitations because of the structure of the facility. And as Lyric indicated, you know, that's been in place for some time. And, you know, we try to work around that. However, in terms of resources we actually invest more per student at Washington Metropolitan than most of our campuses and more than all of our opportunity academies. We invest almost $30,000 per student, which is one of the highest numbers in the district. And it's twice the number of our other opportunity academies. So I just want to be clear that this is not a school where we haven't invested dollars.
NNAMDII want to talk about with Councilmember White for a second because, Robert White, we need to talk about the emergency legislation you introduced. What would it have done exactly?
WHITEThe emergency legislation I introduced would have kept the school open through the next school year. So not this school year, next school year. That would have given us time to work with the administration if they were willing to work with stakeholders to figure out exactly what the needs of these students are. And I think the needs of these students are to have a school like this, but it would have given us time to have that conversation, because despite what the chancellor is saying what I've seen -- the first time I visited the school in 2013, they had 280 students. Now they have about 150.
WHITESince the time I've visited they've lost their librarian, lost every sports team, lost every extracurricular activity, lost their art teacher, lost clinicians. And so, you know, this idea that we're investing enough I think is just not accurate. You know, and I sit on the Council so I see hundreds of contracts come through the Council for monetary increases, million dollar increases for buildings and parking lots, because these things cost more than we predicted.
WHITEAnd we don't even blink. We fund these increases. But we came to a hard stop when it came to a school with the highest needs. And, you know, we can't say, well, the facility was too small, because any other school if the facility is too small we find them another facility. So why is the answer so different here? Why is the response so different here? You know, I was saying I want the people to be very clear, we disinvested from this school years ago. We stopped providing this school the resources to succeed years ago. And now we're saying that we're closing the school, because of attendance, enrollment and outcomes. The same thing would have happened to any school that we did the same thing to.
NNAMDIWell, because the legislation you introduced was introduced on an emergency basis it needed what is called a super majority to win. That would normally be nine of the 13 members, but since Jack Evans is no longer on the Council it took a vote of just eight of the members. It would need eight of the members to do it and you fell one short of that. So what do you say to your fellow council members?
WHITEYou know, I say that this was a failure of government. There will be real consequences for this school closing. So, you know, even if these young people would go to other career and technical schools or other schools we can only do that if we have somewhere to catch them, right? We're losing the school that caught them. And so now these students were put out of other schools. They're going to be caught in hospitals, in the criminal justice system, you know, in social services not in a school. And so it's a failure.
WHITEAnd so I do want to commend Trayon White, Brianna Nadeau, Elissa Silverman, Mary Cheh, Charles Allen, Vince Gray who voted with me to keep this school. That's a majority of the Council, the entire State Board of Education, but, you know, I'm really disappointed. In my three years and three months in D.C. government I've never been more disappointed than I was on Tuesday.
NNAMDII'd like to bring some of the listeners in on this conversation. Here's Nathan in Anacostia. Nathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATHANThank you, Kojo, for having me on. And I want to say to Lyric despite what Chairman Mendelson said of not being proud of you guys, I want you to know that the city as a whole is proud of you guys and what you're doing. And we're behind you and everybody I talk to, all the students here at Anacostia, we're all behind you. And you should be proud of what you're doing.
NATHANSo my question is to Dr. Ferebee, so the teachers, the students, the community, the parents, all nine board of ed members and seven council members all think closing Met is a bad idea. What makes you think -- and I'm not saying it's your decision, because you serve at the pleasure of the mayor -- but what makes the mayor's office think that this is the right thing to do despite this overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
NNAMDIWell, that was essentially the first question I asked Chancellor Ferebee. So allow me to try to move the discussion a little forward. What's the alternative Chancellor Ferebee for these kids?
FEREBEEIt's a great question and I think it relates back to the comment from Councilmember Robert White, who I have tremendous respect for. But I disagree with the notion that this means that students aren't going to be successful and they're going to be in the court system or make bad choices. I just don't believe that. I believe that the students will be actually more successful and that's the root of the decision.
FEREBEEWe we've seen that success in the other opportunity academies, who have stronger outcomes than Washington Met and they have significantly less resources. And I want to emphasize that. They have half the resources that Washington Met has and they have better outcomes. So I know it can be done better and I know students can be served better in our other educational environment. What's fascinating is that of the 142 students there that we have accounted for we've talked with over half of them about this transition ...
NNAMDIWhen you say we you mean you personally?
FEREBEEYeah, so I have and our enrollment team, our counselors, our social workers, everybody. This has been a team approach. And they have career interests that we're going to support them with. And so the supports that students will receive will be intensive one to one. And we will support students through this school year, the summer and as they matriculate through high school. And so I want to be clear that these students will be more successful, because we're going to provide them a better learning environment.
NNAMDILiz Davis, in your opinion are D.C. Public Schools equipped to serve this population of students outside of the Washington Met environment?
DAVISThat's a huge question. Of course, yes we do, basically if we provide the resources wherever these students are. But what I do know, Kojo, is that many of these students are at Washington Met, because they were not able to function in their neighborhood schools. And I couldn't be more proud of the work that Lyric and other Met students have done to keep their school open.
DAVISOne thing I'm concerned about as an educator is the notion from two council members, who informed me that these students and middle schoolers that are in Washington Met now in the next five months will qualify to be in high school. That's disturbing to me as an educator. And based some of the past issues we've had around graduation rate inflation, this concerns me to hear that the school district has informed our legislators that these middle schoolers will be at high school level in the next five months. These are seventh and eighth graders from 80 to 85 seventh and eighth graders, who will be moved to high school level in five months.
DAVISThat is not an option and I would question that. But more importantly school closure is not accountability. It's failure in my opinion. It undermines the stability of communities. It makes students and schools more vulnerable. Research has shown us time and time over again that school closures is clear and students do not do better after entering their next schools. If we're research driven in this school district, we should take a look at what the research has shown and pay closer attention to the voices of students who are saying, the reason why I am at Washington Met, listen to some of those reasons. And understand that many of our neighborhood schools cannot provide those resources and services.
NNAMDILyric Johnson, you're raising your hand, and then Chancellor Ferebee, but you first.
JOHNSONAnd I think I've said this before and I'm pretty sure I have. Like they say, oh well these other schools have, -- no, Chancellor Ferebee just said something about we have half of the -- we don't have none of the things that these opportunities have. This Ballou STAY, Luke and Roose, we don't have anything. We have $5500 trailers sitting outside that was supposed to be used for cosmetology and barbering, you know, all these things that these other schools have, these better resources that they have been providing them.
JOHNSONThat's what I keep trying to express and explain that we don't have anything. We don't have -- like this whole -- it's just frustrating to me, because it's like, well, it's a full circle argument. Well, okay, we're going to close this school because it doesn't have any resources or anything. And we feel like students will be better.
JOHNSONBut how can -- how will we succeed? We can't succeed if we don't have anything to succeed for. And we talking about the school and grades and enrollment. Kids in DCPS cannot read. They take reading out. They probably have 16, 17, 18, 19 year olds in DCPS that can't read. We need to be focusing on that also. And in schools and we don't even have that.
NNAMDIChancellor Ferebee, what can you say to relieve Lyric's sense of frustration?
FEREBEEAgain, Lyric and I have talked a lot and she's expressed interest as her peers with having access to some of the career and technical education programs that she's mentioned. Like I said there's limitation in the physical space of the campus to replicate some of the programs that were referenced. And we believe a better investment is to ensure that more students have access to what's being offered in the campuses that have the space and the physical make up for those career and technical education programs versus trying to make another version that would not be at the same level at the same capacity at the current Washington Metropolitan campus.
FEREBEEAnd so it just -- just trying to put it, you know, a square in a circle. It's hard for us to replicate that in the campus makeup. And so we believe giving students the opportunity to open new doors at the other campuses will be most appropriate.
FEREBEEBut I also do want to go back to what Ms. Davis referenced about. You know, students getting to high school in five months. You know, we're clearly going to ensure that students are supported appropriately to transition to the next level. And if they're not ready we will adjust accordingly. But the work that we will do will extend beyond the next five months. Students will also engage in work over the summer. So I just want to make it really clear that this isn't, you know, a five month effort. And this will be a continuous effort throughout the school year, the summer and whatever we need to do next year as well.
NNAMDIHere is Ebony who self identifies as Chair of the Ward 7 Education Council. Ebony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EBONYHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. And I'm hoping to add to the conversation. Lyric, the young lady, I absolutely appreciate her comments earlier in the conversation about investment, because it's not a question of what we're paying for students now with this current chancellor or even this current Council. It is a question of investment over time. Unfortunately in Ward 7 and 8 we have seen disproportionate numbers of school closures. And what people fear is that the arguments around small schools' cost and what it takes to serve children like the children at Washington Met many of them who come from 7 and 8 are excuses to close more of our schools.
EBONYI think it's worth noting that we are currently in a budget cycle. And we're also currently looking at our facility's plan. So we should be asking ourselves as a city and that's everybody from the mayor to the chancellor to the Council what is our shared responsibility to make sure we are investing in our schools equitably. And because even though we see an increase overall, a lot of times that doesn't make it to 7 and 8. So we should say what will it take for us to make every school a school we should be proud of.
NNAMDIOkay. Let me put that question to Councilmember Robert White. Councilmember White, what would you tell Ebony? And does the Council have any other tools at its disposal? Any actions of last resort that could keep this school open?
WHITEThere are possible tools. There are ways to move bills through the Council that are not emergency and so would simply require a majority of the Council, which we have. You know, but one of my hesitations there and I haven't made a final decision is that I don't want to give false hope to the students of -- if it seems that the administration is so intent on closing this school that I worry about what impact that might have on them. But I think that there are other ways we can support these students.
WHITEWhat I really worry about is that how do we support the future of what would have been Met students, because we don't know who they are. And we don't have a way to know who they are. So in two years if a student falls through the cracks how is the Council going to know? So we have to provide many more supports in our schools. But how are going to know this really concentration of students who are slipping through the cracks but are still moving one foot in front of the other. How are we going to know who they are in order to support them?
NNAMDILiz Davis, it's no secret that more charter schools have closed in Washington than public schools. Washington Met, in fact, would be the first time a public school has been closed in the last seven years since 2013. So how would you compare the closing of these charter schools to many of them to a closing of one D.C. public school?
DAVISWell, Kojo, the district now has 123 charter school campuses serving more than 43,000 kids. Thirty-five schools have closed since 2012 under Scott Pearson. The public charter sector claims that this is a sign that the regulatory authority is ensuring that high quality schools operate in the city. And let's remember charter schools are based on a very different model than traditional public schools.
DAVISCharter schools fundamentally believe in winners and loser. Schools either win or they're closed. Traditional schools are based on a much different philosophy. The idea that every neighborhood should have a good school where parents want to send their kids and where teachers want to teach is what we believe in. And, of course, the members of the WTU know that we still have a long way to go to meet the goal, but we believe that closing schools is not a reform strategy. It's accepting failure. And we're not going to be a part of that trend.
NNAMDILyric, this has been quite a journey for you having this experience at being an activist. What do you think you've learned from all of this?
JOHNSONI learned that no matter how many times you do express how you feel or what needs to be heard or what needs to be said sometimes it just doesn't get through. And sometimes like even now I feel like -- Tuesday I was just hurt. Like I was just like, is anybody listening? Like is anybody really listening? Because I feel like it's just going in one ear and out the other, because all we asked for was some support.
JOHNSONAnd, again, Chancellor Ferebee go back to what he said about the facility and the makeup of the building, it's about a couple of abandoned DCPS buildings around the city. Just like Banniker last year, I want to go back and say when Councilmember Grosso -- Tuesday he was comparing apples and oranges when he said, well, it's like Banneker. And I'm like, what's the difference? The only difference is, oh, this is a big school that brings in a lot of money. That's the only difference. What does?
JOHNSONAnd now they're tearing an old building from the ground up just to give them another school. When I read the article and a student -- I don't remember his name. But I remember in the article quoting it said, "This isn't in a high school building. Like we just make with what we have." And I'm just thinking like this is their job because this is literally what we're saying. And I just don't like how they were trying to compare apples and oranges.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're almost out of time. Chancellor Ferebee, I'll let you have the last word. What and when can the kids from Washington Met expect over the next several months?
FEREBEESo they can continue to expect one and one engagement that we've had with them to help them plan for their transition. We're also going to have a community meeting in Ward 7 and 8 to provide additional information for families. We'll continue to have monthly check-ins with students and their mentors. We'll continue to have monthly support team meetings with students. We'll continue to have our enrollment specialists have touch points with students throughout the summer to ensure that they're having a smooth transition to their school.
FEREBEEAnd then we'll continue to support them in the school year as the school opens in August. Our entire administration is invested in ensuring that the students there are successful and we'll continue to support them accordingly. I want to be really clear about this strategy, Kojo, and that this is not a part of a DCPS strategy for school closure.
FEREBEEThe way I view this is this was an alternative school strategy for opportunity academy that was not working well. And we need to discontinue this strategy because we have better options for students. This does not represent a strategy for school closure. And I want to be really clear about that because there's been a lot of discussion today about school closure. Again, I thank Lyric for her advocacy. It's been a pleasure supporting her and I look forward to continuing to do so.
NNAMDII guess all I can say is we shall see. Lewis Ferebee is Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Lyric Johnson is a Student at Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy. Elizabeth Davis is President of the Washington Teachers Union. And Robert White is an At-Large D.C. Councilmember. Thank you all for joining us. Today's conversation on the closing of the Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
NNAMDIMark your calendars for the next Kojo in Your Community conversation about changing immigration policies and their impact on local students and families. It's on February 25th at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus. Learn how to get tickets and more at kojoshow.org. Coming up Friday on The Politics Hour, D.C. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman discuses public housing, golf course, and a possible ballot question on magic mushrooms. Plus Wanika Fisher, Assistant Majority Leader in the Maryland House of Delegates on her expectations for the new legislative session and her home district in Prince George's County. And it all starts tomorrow at noon on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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