Henderson calls white enrollment growth good for D.C. schools
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told a roomful of African American community leaders and educators this week that growing white enrollment in city schools brings the system closer to what she called “the promise of a good public education.”
“There are white families that are choosing DCPS. That’s just life,” Henderson told the gathering, organized by the Ward 8 Education Council. The group was formed by D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to help parents advocate for their children.
Henderson’s unusually blunt statement came in a meeting Thursday night at M.C. Terrell Elementary in Southeast to address protests over her decision to close three parent resource centers. The centers were designed to support low-income parents in managing their children’s education. Henderson stood by the decision on budget grounds but apologized for communicating it poorly.
The discussion veered — briefly but intensely — into resentment over statements attributed to a Henderson deputy in aTuesday column by the Examiner’s Harry Jaffe. Abigail Smith, chief of transformation management, was quoted as saying that white enrollment in the 45,000-student system was approaching 10 percent — about double the share of a decade ago. Much of the increase is in schools in upper Northwest, Capitol Hill and Shaw. Smith called it “a big deal,” adding: “Communities supporting local schools, whatever the color, is a positive thing. Having more kids in our city engage a diverse population is a good thing.” On Friday she did not dispute the accuracy of the quote.
Absalom Jordan, chairman of the education council, said Smith’s remarks carried “racist overtones.”
“This statement spoke to the feeling of entitlement held by whites,” Jordan, a former D.C. Council candidate whose son attended Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, told Henderson. He said later he was expressing concern that growing white enrollment will narrow opportunities for African American children in wards 7 and 8 to vie for seats in high-quality schools in an annual lottery. Without concerted steps to widen opportunities, the disadvantaged will continue to lose ground, he said.
Henderson replied that the growing diversity was a positive development. She described herself as the beneficiary of diverse schools in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon.
“My family was in the projects for 47 years,” she said. “But the reason I’m here is that I got a good public education. What matters is that little brown girls like me get the same chance.”
Afterward, Henderson stood by Smith’s assertions about the uptick in white enrollment: “I do believe it’s a good thing. The great thing about getting an urban education is getting kids to interact with kids from all over the place. Increasingly, black parents are saying to me, ‘It’s okay, I want my kids to learn how to interact with white people.’ ”
While census data show the number of African Americans in the District fell in the last decade — to barely 50 percent in 2010 — D.C. public schools are about 73 percent black.