District to lease four more school buildings to charters

The District is making four more surplus school buildings available for long-term lease by public charter schools this fall.

This is the third group of buildings to become available since early 2013, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) first announced a list of 16 buildings the city intended to release for short- or long-term lease.

Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education, said the city is releasing the buildings over time in small batches so that the complex selection and negotiation process can be managed well and to give more charter schools a chance to compete for them.

Charter advocates have long criticized the city for sitting on buildings left empty when schools close or consolidate while new charters must scramble for space. Shining Stars Montessori Academy, for example, secured a building just days before school opened this year after last-minute problems with two other locations.

“What happened to Shining Stars is an extreme example of what is typical for charter schools, which is a fairly desperate struggle to get the buildings they need to open in or expand into,” said Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a pro-charter advocacy group.

The school buildings the city will make available are Fletcher-Johnson on Benning Road SE; Gibbs on 19th Street NE; Mamie D. Lee on Gallatin Street NE; and M.C. Terrell-McGogney on Wheeler Road SE.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that Fletcher-Johnson is envisioned as an “adult education hub” big enough to offer programs from a charter operator as well as D.C. public schools.

In September — before the city issues an official “request for offers” — city officials will host public hearings in each community so the needs and wishes of the neighborhoods will reflect the charter schools’ requests and the final selections. School officials hope it will be a “more thoughtful process” of matching buildings with community needs, Smith said.

On Monday, city officials toured a KIPP charter school that opened last year in the former Webb Elementary School in Northeast.

Lindsey Hoy, principal of KIPP DC’s Spring Academy, said part of the building had been burned but has been renovated. Officials walked through a gleaming gym, light-filled hallways and a new playground on Monday.

“This is a great example of what we can do when we get a building,” said Darren Woodruff, vice chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

On the first floor, first-graders were learning about subtracting zero. Upstairs, fifth- and sixth-graders were reading quietly and taking notes. “It’s good for the community,” Woodruff said. “You have the choice between an empty building and a school.”

KIPP has six campuses in the District, which house 15 schools. All but one of the campuses were D.C. public school buildings.

The deputy mayor maintains an inventory of surplus school buildings, a list that currently has 54 buildings. Half are listed as being leased to public charter schools, some are used for government office space, and others are leased to private schools, an art gallery and an education-related nonprofit organization. Six are listed as vacant.

Henderson said the city needs the flexibility to open or close schools depending on demand.

Under the city’s new school boundaries plan, which Gray approved last week, city officials will open three closed schools as middle schools, including Shaw and MacFarland in the central part of the city and Ron Brown east of the Anacostia River.

At the KIPP school, Hoy said the space gives them enough room to expand their program and to house a preschool, elementary and middle schools.

“We feel very lucky to have this space, and we’re just glad we can do this for more kids,” she said.

The first round of community meetings have been scheduled for next month:

Gibbs: Sept. 9 at Rosedale Recreation Center, 1701 Gales St. NE.

Fletcher-Johnson: Sept. 10 at Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library, 3935 Benning Rd. NE.

Mamie D. Lee: Sept. 11 at Lamond-Riggs Neighborhood Library, 5401 South Dakota Ave. NE.

M.C. Terrell-McGogney: Sept. 15 at  M.C. Terrell-McGogney, 3001 Wheeler Rd. SE.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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