D.C.’s Shining Stars Montessori Academy relocates again days before start of school

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted parent Allison Winter. This version has been corrected.

The D.C. Public Charter School board voted this week to approve the relocation of Shining Stars Montessori Academy to 6015 Chillum Pl. NE, near the Maryland border — forcing anxious parents to map yet another new route to school just a week before classes begin.

Shining Stars had been searching for a new location since the previous school year, when the lease on its U Street corridor space expired. But the school was unable to close on two other relocation deals officials had considered. First, they had pursued a building at 1246 Taylor St., in Petworth. When that became unavailable, they looked into the International Union of Operating Engineers’ building at 2461 Wisconsin Ave. NW. That location would have made Shining Stars the only charter school in Ward 3.

Finding a permanent roof is a regular struggle for charter schools because they must hunt down a facility to use. Meanwhile, many vacant public school buildings sit unused, said John McKoy, chairman of the D.C. charter school board. That mismatch is an ongoing problem.

“It’s normally a little more rational than what has been happening, but they’ve had a series of fluke-y events — it’s bizarre,” McKoy said. “This shouldn’t happen again. More broadly, can we find a process whereby a charter looking for space can cut a deal to lease a vacant D.C. public school space?”

By this week, Shining Stars parent Brooke McClintock said, her 3-year-old son was very confused.

“He’s been involved twice with me saying, ‘This is your new school — oh, wait, no, this is your new school — oh, wait, no,” McClintock said. “As a parent, you try to create as much stability as possible, and I wish I would have never said anything to him.”

On Friday, McClintock had taken a dry run to school with her son, visiting the Wisconsin Avenue building, looking at the nearby playground and sketching out the new commute. When McClintock saw rumors appear online at DCUrbanMom.com that day, she refused to believe them. Then, an e-mail newsletter informed her on Monday that the location had indeed changed again.

Many parents had begun referring to the charter school as “homeless.”

Kamina Newsome, the school’s director of operations, said that she and staff members shared every frustration parents felt. The decision to sign a two-year sublease from Sela Public Charter School on Chillum Place came down to making sure school started on time, Newsome said, and putting the school in a safer position to thoroughly explore its options before signing a long-term lease. Shining Stars is set to occupy 12,000 square feet of the lower level of Sela’s building.

Newsome said officials still hoped to eventually move the school into the Ward 3 building, and was in talks with a buyer who would take over the building from the union and offer the Montessori school a 10-year contract.

“We love the school, we want the school to prosper, and sometimes you do what you have to do to make sure we survive and have a home,” she said. “Parents want information, and we’re giving it to them as we have it. It adds stress.”

Newsome said that 124 students were scheduled to begin Monday and that moving trucks had already begun bringing boxes from the school’s original location near the U Street corridor. A parent orientation is scheduled Thursday to explain the drop-off routine and explore the possibility of a shuttle bus option, Newsome said.

Officials said that most students live in Ward 1 and Ward 4, but that the school includes families from all over the city. Many parents were attracted to the Montessori learning style and Shining Stars’ ability to enroll children born later in the year for its pre-K program.

Families that had been buried in the waiting list were surprised to learn last week that they suddenly had a spot, indicating that many families were leaving rather than making the switch.

“We were number 86, then last Thursday we jumped to 18, and on Friday we had a spot,” said one parent, Allison Winter.

Because of the drama of all the relocations, many parents have opted to switch their children to different schools, including Wayan Vota.

“It came down to, ‘Do we want to spend our time in a car or spend our time with our kids?’ ” Vota said. He said his family had been with Shining Stars since the beginning, but he decided to pull his two daughters out and put them in a nearby public school when he learned the Petworth option had disappeared. He likened the final relocation announcement to a “toothbrush move” where the school had to grab and go.

“It’s very painful. It feels like we’re being torn away from a family,” Vota said of leaving Shining Stars. “We know the teachers and students by name, we have play dates all the time and we go to each other’s birthday parties.”

McClintock, who lives in Columbia Heights, said that instead of a short bus ride to send her son to school and then hopping on a bus to her job downtown, she plans to drive her son to school and then pay $20 a day to park downtown. She planned to stick with the school, for now.

“What happens inside the classroom is just incredible,” she said. “I think us parents just hope we can put our grown-up pants on and just move forward and not wallow in this struggle we’ve encountered here over the summer.”

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