The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to close Arts and Technology Academy, a large Northeast Washington elementary school, for failing to meet its academic achievement goals over the past 15 years.
The nearly 630-student charter school will be allowed to continue operating through the end of this school year, but students who would have returned in the fall — most of whom live in the immediate neighborhood between the Capitol Heights and Benning Road Metro stations — must then find a new school.
While ATA had met four of its seven goals — including high attendance, a respect for learning and an ability to communicate through the arts — the charter board and its staff said the school failed to demonstrate adequate achievement in math and reading.
ATA’s standardized test scores have fallen during the past five years, and in 2013, only 36 percent of students were proficient in math and 38 percent were proficient in reading. For the second year in a row, the charter board rated ATA as a Tier 3 school — or low-performing school.
Traditional schools in nearby areas of the city post lower math and reading proficiency rates than ATA, and the charter school’s leaders said they are hopeful that they will be able to strike a deal that would allow another charter operator to take over the school’s recently renovated building and retain its students in the fall.
But it’s not clear that any other charter operator would be willing to continue ATA’s commitment to arts education, including daily arts classes and annual theater performances that parents and teachers say play a critical role in motivating students to learn.
Kimberly Smith, chairwoman of ATA’s board of trustees, said there are very few charter school operators that share that commitment to the arts. “It’s very tough,” Smith said.
Charter schools in the District operate under agreements that expire after 15 years and must be renewed for the school to continue operating. The law requires the charter board to deny renewal if a school has failed to meet the goals set out it in its original agreement.
“Whether our charters have an arts focus or a cultural focus — and we definitely celebrate the diversity of our schools — at the end of the day, I think we have to see the academic growth that we want for all of our students,” said Darren Woodruff, vice chairman of the charter school board.
ATA’s board of trustees — as well as D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and dozens of parents and teachers — have pushed back against closing the school, arguing at a public hearing last month that ATA is a trusted community fixture that provides families in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods with much-needed exposure to dance, music, theater and visual art.
Representatives from local arts organizations that have partnered with ATA, including the Kennedy Center and the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, submitted letters of support for the school.
“ATA is not just a school, it is a building of hope for a deprived community,” Yolanda Corbett, a parent member of the school’s board, wrote in testimony prepared for the hearing. “It helps us to know that children can dream of greater things in the midst of poverty, depression and the many other daily downfalls that challenge our community.”
Despite ATA’s low math and reading test scores, its students are performing better than students at traditional schools nearby. And those test scores, ATA leaders argue, reflect only the performance of students in grades three through five — who account for about one-quarter of ATA’s total population.
About three-quarters of ATA students are in preschool through second grade. Several years ago, the school began an effort to strengthen those early-childhood grades.
In 2013, the early-childhood program reached all of its academic and attendance goals, according to the city’s charter school board. More than 70 percent of those younger students were proficient in reading, and 92 percent were proficient in math.
ATA’s recently overhauled board of trustees, recognizing last year that the school was in need of academic intervention, hired a new principal, Allison Artis, with experience leading a high-performing school. Artis previously led the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a Tier 1 charter school.
Smith, ATA’s board chair, said she was “incredibly disappointed” that the school’s positive trajectory did not sway the charter board’s closure decision.
“I believe we brought forth a solid position based on the history of the school and the progress we’ve made,” she said.
Woodruff said the improvements were too little, too late.
“Unfortunately for the school, unfortunately for us, the very effective team that we have assembled now at the school maybe didn’t get there early enough to show that growth over a longer period of time,” he said.