The Last Morning At City Lights Public Charter School
The teacher's lounge has turned into a showroom. Everything wears a Post-It with a price in blue ink. The conference table is selling for $150. The fridge is going for $50. The microwave is a steal at $5. Today is the last day for the City Lights Public Charter School.
Everything must go. Including that microwave.
"This stuff needs a home," explains operations manager Nick Battle. "Everything is at a good deal."
In late January, City Lights, a school for at-risk youth, announced it was closing. There were problems with enrollment and with funding. Now, all the kids have moved on to other schools. All that's left are a few teachers, Battle, the school's principal, and the beloved cook to sort through what's trash, what should be donated to other schools, and what can be sold.
In the hallway by the entrance, there is a box of locks. In the main office, there are more boxes. One box contains extension cords and a modem. In a nearby classroom, empty binders are stacked in threes. Principal Brenda Richards arrived at 9:30 a.m.
There were donuts.
"There's no money for a goodbye party," Richards says, sitting in the main office (she doesn't seem to have an office anymore). It's close to 11 a.m. "That was it—donuts."
On a wall in the health clinic, there are tags from Barry Farm and Condon Terrace. In a classroom, the lesson plan for January 21 is still on the dry-erase board "DC Gov Beginning." In the music room, two huge cymbals and two keyboards are left. In the library, there are still plenty of books including Lolita and Ragtime. Someone needs to take those books before close of business.
Richards became principal at City Lights in March of 2007. She didn't intend to stay long; she'd finish the year and that would be it. But she says one day a female student stopped her in the hall. This student had come to the school refusing to speak to anyone, but had blossomed. She begged Richards to stay. Richards asked her why she wanted her to remain principal.
"Because nobody stays with us," Richards recalls the girl explaining. "People always leave us."
"You fall in love with these kids," Richards explains. "So many people have left them."
Richards says she's not coming back to the school after today. She's leaving a lot of goals still unfinished. She says the school needed to get a curriculum or finalize one, that they were working toward getting its teachers certified in special education. None of the schools 12 teachers had yet achieved that certification. But Richards still wants to talk about the girl from the hallway, the one who never spoke. She says that eventually the girl began speaking and got a job working at a movie theater. It was a small triumph.
The school was made for those small triumphs. "Our successes are different from people who are looking at SATs," Richards explains. "The whole idea is we would improve the students behaviorally, eomtionally, and socially and at the same time working with their academics." The kids enrolled at the school came from group homes, sometimes missed school because they were incarcerated, had mental-health issues like ADHD or bi-polar disorder. Successes that counted: a Black History Month presentation that went off without a hitch.
Battle says that several students were expected to graduate this year. One had gotten into Trinity. Several others were preparing for the SAT. At least one college recruiter had visited the school.
In its four years of existence, City Lights gave students one thing they needed most—stability. One student, Richards recalls, hadn't attended the same school for two-straight years until City Lights. Every year for 10 years he had a different school. Both Richards and Battle joke that students tended to camp out in their offices, sharing their personal problems. The students could keep them until late in the evening. "I knew my kids," Richards says.
But the school's downfall hinged on knowing its kids. The school expected more students than it actually received for the school year. Instead of 75, they hit close to 60. And some of those students were not special-education students which meant drops in city funding. They also had difficulty establishing that their kids were District residents—even the 10-to-12 kids who were wards of the city, Richards explains, adding that they got the runaround from social workers on getting that paperwork.
"There are challenges," Richards says. Mike DeBonis reported in City Desk a detailed accounting of the school's problems in January:
"Nona Richardson, a spokesperson for the Public Charter School Board, which oversees City Lights, says the school’s financial difficulties are 'related to enrollment.' LL is told According to PCSB statistics [PDF], City Lights enrolled 62 kids in fall 2007; only one senior graduated the following spring.
A recent PCSB review of the school was critical in a number of areas. City Lights, the board found, had 'no overarching curricular framework reflecting [its] academic and nonacademic goals.' It also found problems with staff turnover and an 'urgent need…for certified special education teachers. Currently, there are none on staff.' In addition, the school was found not to have 'sufficient systems to collect, record and analyze student academic data and gauge success in the academic and nonacademic goals' and that 'very little in terms of academic and behavioral curriculum policies and procedures are written down.'"
Richards says that despite the school's problems, it did provide a safety net for her students. "Without this kind of support, some of them will go back to the street," she says. "Sometimes, sir, it wasn't about the test, it was about staying alive, not being abused by your boyfriend, not doing illegal substances, it was about being cared for."