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Elementary Confusion

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In the name of economy and convenience, officials in the nation's capital have just closed one of the city's few decent public schools, rewarding instead two of its worst. Misinformation, misplaced values, and just plain stupidity lie behind a shortsighted and counterproductive decision.

The good school--now closed--is Richardson Elementary, in Northeast Washington. Students there are at or above national norms in reading, language arts, math, and science in nine of 14 measurements. Its neighbors, Shadd and Drew Elementary schools, are below average in every measurement, scoring as low as the 19th percentile in one.

Take language arts: Richardson's 3rd graders rank in the 73rd percentile on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills; Drew's students are in the 37th percentile, Shadd's in the 21st. In 6th grade science, the results are similar: Richardson, 46th percentile; Drew, 26th; and Shadd, 19th.

Those scores were earned by students like Latyeshia, a 2nd grader I've known for two years. She hadn't learned to read as a 1st grader and was determined to learn this year. Early in June, she read aloud to me from a book she'd never seen. "What's it like to read?" I asked her.

"It's neat. I can read signs and stuff like that, and books at home."

Latyeshia is not alone. Tiffaeny, Jonathan, Anthony, Bianca, and nearly every other 2nd grader at Richardson can and does read. Most of them were reading at the end of 1st grade (thus Latyeshia's embarrassment). That is no small feat in a city with well-documented educational problems. It's no small feat in a country whose president has set a national goal of having all children reading by the end of 3rd grade.

Richardson has been an exemplary public school in other ways. Thirty parents have earned high school equivalency diplomas in the last three years. Since adopting James P. Comer's School Development Program in 1994, attendance increased to 96 percent and vandalism all but disappeared.

While Richardson and its achievements have been recognized nationally, city school officials placed its neighbors, Shadd and Drew, on the list of "educationally challenged" schools. That's education-speak for "lousy."

But declining enrollments and a money shortage created a problem. All three schools were less than full; two elementary schools would be sufficient for the neighborhood. But which one should be closed?

That decision fell to the District of Columbia's new Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, appointed in November to run the city's troubled school system. Bruce MacLaury, who chairs the board, explained why Richardson had been chosen. "Geography. Look at the map," he smiled, pointing out that Richardson lies between the other two schools. "We're going to assign half of Richardson's students and teachers to Drew, and half to Shadd. That way we'll end up with two full schools."

If Mr. MacLaury expects Richardson's parents--some of whom fled Drew and Shadd--to send their children there, he's in for a shock. At least 10 percent of Richardson's parents (all low-income) have already enrolled their children in nonpublic schools. Two hundred parents have volunteered to work to create a charter school in the former Richardson.

In other words, one of the few American cities with declining student enrollment has just driven away students and committed parents. The district will also lose several dedicated veteran teachers, who are choosing to take early retirement rather than switch.

One of the few American cities with declining student enrollment has just driven away students and committed parents.

In fairness to Mr. MacLaury, a distinguished economist and former president of the Brookings Institution, misinformation seems to have influenced the board's decision. To prepare for the contentious process of closing schools, district bureaucrats gave him and the board lengthy and exhaustive analyses of the physical needs of schools under consideration. These analyses may have been exhaustive, but unfortunately they were also error-laden. Mr. MacLaury and the board were told, in a 33-page document, that Richardson did not have a working fire-alarm system, hot meals, music and art rooms, or an adequate hot-water heater. Wrong on all counts. In addition, Richardson also has a new heating system, installed last year at a cost of over $1 million. Shadd's and Drew's heating systems need either extensive repairs or replacement.

Economists are trained to ask, "What's the cost?" and Mr. MacLaury did. Using their own (error-laden) physical-analysis reports, district officials estimated that the cost of repairing Richardson would be 10 percent higher than comparable costs for Shadd and Drew.

But no one asked about the educational cost, and nobody prepared an educational analysis comparable to the analysis of physical needs, even though standardized-test scores are readily available. The genial Mr. MacLaury admitted that he had not seen a school-by-school comparison of test scores. "We had a list of each school's programs, but not their results."

Mr. MacLaury and other district officials take the public position that they are not closing Richardson's programs, but merely transferring those programs to other schools.

It doesn't work that way, and anyone who makes life-and-death decisions for neighborhood schools and children ought to know that. Teachers who have worked together for years are being split up, some teachers are leaving the system, and the dynamic principal who led Richardson's resurgence has already taken a new job--with a for-profit education company.

Nine-year-old Adrianna had a question for Mr. MacLaury and the board. "Why are you closing the good school and leaving the bad ones open? It's like you're punishing us for being good. Why should we work hard if you're going to punish us?"

She was asking about her school and her neighborhood, not herself, but Mr. MacLaury responded with personal advice when I posed her question to him: "Tell Adrianna to work hard so she can have a better life."

Richardson now stands lifeless, and former Principal Marlene Guy fears for the life of the neighborhood. "Parents kept the junkies and the dealers away, and nobody dared spray graffiti," she said. "That's already started changing, just since the announcement."

The board's decision was painful and difficult to make, Mr. MacLaury says, but in the end it voted, 7-1 with one abstention, to close Richardson. Did anyone on the board object? Did anyone say, "This is crazy. We're closing a good school. What are we doing?" No, that argument wasn't made, he said.

I had hoped that someone from the board would be on hand for the school's final day. Not to explain or perhaps apologize, but to hear Latyeshia read or to talk to Adrianna and other students. That did not happen, the day passed, slowly and tearfully, and Richardson Elementary School is no more.

"Any final thoughts?" I asked Mr. MacLaury. "In retrospect, we may have made a mistake," he said, "but we're not going to change our decision. And next time, we'll do better."


John Merrow's television documentary about Richardson Elementary School, "Elementary Confusion," will appear on PBS stations this month. His children attended District of Columbia public schools.

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