Fillmore Program at Risk Again of Closure This Year

Photo by Brian Kapur/Current file photo
Students from five Northwest schools are bused to Fillmore Arts Center for arts programs.
Students from five Northwest schools are bused to Fillmore Arts Center for arts programs.

By Cuneyt Dil
Current Correspondent

The D.C. Public Schools system plans to close the Fillmore Arts Center at the end of this school year, Chief of Schools John Davis said Monday night.

The arts program, housed at Hardy Middle School on Wisconsin Avenue NW, provides weekly instruction to about 1,700 students bussed in from Hyde-Addison, Key, Reed, Ross and Stoddert elementary schools. The school system originally intended to shut down the center last year, saying the city spends double the amount per pupil at Fillmore compared to other schools’ arts programs, but gave a one-year reprieve after community backlash.

That debate is now set to repeat itself. Parents of students who attend Fillmore continue to make the case for retaining the arts program, which they say provides superior instruction to what each of the schools could provide on their own for arts curriculum. Parents also note that some of their elementary schools are too tight on space to allow for in-house arts programs.

In phasing out Fillmore, the school system argues that the model is outdated in an age when the District mandates arts education at every school. Davis, who will become interim schools chancellor when Kaya Henderson ends her tenure at the end of the week, described it as an issue of equity.

Speaking to a group of parents Monday night at a meeting of the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network, Davis said there will be “community engagement” in the coming months on the future of Fillmore and arts education at the five Northwest schools. Facing criticism from Fillmore teachers at the meeting for not visiting the arts program in person, he pledged to do so soon.

In a brief interview after the event, Davis suggested that the centralized model for Fillmore, which started in 1974, isn’t necessary now. “In the past, we didn’t have art, music, P.E. across the board” in schools, he said. “Now, we actually do. I think we’re in a much better place than when Fillmore was needed.”

D.C. Public Schools lists Fillmore as a “highlight” of its arts education offerings on its website. Students are bused once a week to the arts center, participating in dance, music, theater, and visual and digital arts instruction.

To fund Fillmore, the five schools divert their arts instruction funding and the school system adds $600,000, for an operating budget of roughly $1.6 million. Last spring, D.C. Public Schools wrote to the community that the city spends $1,149 per student to operate Fillmore; in comparison, $458 is spent per student across all elementary schools “to support art and music instruction.”

John Claud, chair of Friends of Fillmore and a Stoddert parent, takes issue with the school system’s equity argument. Claud said in March that the city chose a costlier bus service option that increased the price tag of running the program.

“There’s no appreciation for how great Fillmore is,” he said in an interview.

At Monday’s meeting, he pressed Davis on the reasoning to close Fillmore, but Davis reiterated, “I don’t have any other issue besides equity.”

Now that the D.C. Public Schools has guaranteed arts programming for each elementary school, Davis said, “you have to ask the question, Do we still need to have [Fillmore] or not?”

Meanwhile, Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, countered that in-house arts programs at schools don’t necessarily function as well as D.C. Public Schools thinks.

“I’ve been in many places around the city, and the arts program that’s supposed to be everywhere isn’t actually great at all,” Wattenberg told Davis. “And I think it’s really sad that we’re going to lose this [Fillmore] model.”

This article appears in the Sept. 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.