The residents of Ward 7’s River Terrace have been wondering for months what will become of their neighborhood elementary school building, shuttered last spring because of low enrollment.
Chancellor Kaya Henderson offered them a choice Wednesday night at a standing-room-only community meeting, held in the old school’s auditorium.
Renovate River Terrace Elementary from top to bottom and turn it into a school for special-needs students from across the city. Or give the building up, allowing the city to put it out for offers from charter schools, or — if charters aren’t interested — private developers.
The news came nearly two years after River Terrace residents made an impassioned plea to save their school, arguing that it played a central role in the life of the community.
Henderson said she was moved by that testimony, but simply hadn’t been able to justify operating a school with fewer than 150 kids enrolled. A citywide special-needs school at River Terrace wouldn’t be the same as a neighborhood elementary, she said Wednesday, but it could still be a neighborhood hub.
“I didn’t want to just walk away from this school and leave it as we have done in other communities,” she said.
Residents offered mixed reactions. Some stepped to the microphone to lambast Henderson for closing the school in the first place. Others exhorted their neighbors to support the proposed school as a compromise far better than allowing the building to slip out of public ownership.
“We have all kinds of various opinions about what this school should have been,” said Lawrence Johnson, a 60-year resident of the neighborhood who attended River Terrace as a kid, and whose mother and sister taught there. “I just want there to be something here, and as soon as possible.”
Still others said they liked the proposal, but found it hard to trust Henderson after her decision to close River Terrace.
“We definitely want to keep this as an educational resource — our community is pretty much behind that,” said parent and activist Diana Onley-Campbell. “But I’m wary.”
If the community agrees to the proposal, a renovated River Terrace could open a year from now in Fall 2013. Nathaniel Beers, chief of special education for DCPS, said it was too early to know how much the work would cost. The money, he said, would come from pooling capital dollars set aside for building facilities for students with disabilities.
Students would come from Mamie D. Lee (in Ward 5) and Sharpe Health (in Ward 4). Together they serve about 200 children in grades pre-K to 12 with severe disabilities. Both need renovation and modernization that, for one reason or another, is difficult to do, Henderson said.
Kamili Anderson, Ward 4 representative to the State Board of Education, said she had no idea that this proposal was being considered. What, she asked, will happen in the Northwest communities that are home to Sharpe and Lee?
Henderson said her staff had met with representatives from each school, but hadn’t done broader outreach because they weren’t sure River Terrace would embrace the proposal.
A small group of community members will meet with DCPS to decide whether to renovate River Terrace or let it go.
Cinque Culver, who helped organize opposition to the school’s closure, and whose family has lived in the neighborhood for a half-century, said it’s hard to let go of hopes that the school would reopen as it was.
“It’s melancholy,” he said of the mood among meeting-goers Wednesday.
Still, Culver said he supports Henderson’s proposal and appreciated her willingness to ask the community for input. “It’s a change in the tenor of the conversation,” he said.