Along with building the school, which would include a medical clinic, KIPP DC is promising to renovate or rebuild Randall’s swimming pool, its playing fields and the recreation center. KIPP DC initially said it would operate the clinic in partnership with Georgetown University; MedStar Georgetown University Hospital officials said Tuesday that they are in preliminary talks about such a partnership, but no agreement has been finalized.
The nonprofit organization, which has won wide admiration among philanthropists and government officials for its record of preparing poor children for college, would finance the $40 million project privately. There is also an ambitious timeline: KIPP hopes to break ground within a few months so it can open doors to students by summer 2014.
“KIPP DC is always going to operate with a sense of urgency, because we’re on the front lines of trying to educate our city’s kids and reach as many kids as we can,” chief executive Susan Schaeffler said.
Although city officials generally said they would encourage the addition of a high-performing high school, the location has sparked concerns from city and community leaders who worry that it would exclude neighborhood children and conflict with development slated for an adjacent parcel of private property.
The debate illustrates challenges that charter schools face as they seek room to grow. Meanwhile, the city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate traditional high schools that are struggling to retain students. KIPP DC considered moving into a closed D.C. public school facility, but officials didn’t find any of them suitable.
“This is Exhibit A as to what happens when there’s no facilities planning with regard to public education,” said D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, who said he supports KIPP DC’s proposal because the city needs more good schools.
KIPP DC’s sole high school, in Southeast, enrolls about 400 students and can’t grow unless it moves. The organization educates about 3,000 students on three city campuses. A fourth campus is under construction. But the organization aims to serve 5,000 students by 2017, and it needs more space to expand, Schaeffler said.
(The chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co., Donald E. Graham, serves on KIPP DC’s board of trustees.)
KIPP DC would like to sign a 50-year lease for the 8.5-acre Randall site, including terms specifying that the rebuilt community center, pool and fields would remain open for public use, said general counsel Alex Shawe.
Shawe said the organization is confident that it can successfully compete for the land once Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration puts it up for public bid. But it’s not clear if or when that will happen.
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said there are no plans to release a request for proposals.
“Folks are getting very ahead of themselves,” Ribeiro said. “KIPP is a great school, they do great work, they’re a valuable part of the District. But that doesn’t mean that we’re simply going to hand over a parcel of land to them. We can’t do that.”
Parties on all sides
Even though the land isn’t on the market, interested parties on all sides have been quietly building political support.
Supporters of KIPP DC’s proposal, including at least five D.C. Council members, see an opportunity to give more District students an excellent education and to give neighbors a renovated community center, all without having to use taxpayer dollars.
“I think it will be a great asset to the community,” said Ed Kaminski, the local advisory neighborhood commissioner, who spoke in favor of the project at a recent community meeting.
But a key opponent argues that the school and its teenagers would be incompatible with a $200 million development planned on adjacent property.
“We love KIPP to death, we think they do wonderful things and we think there’s a place for them in the city,” said Bill Sawicki of Telesis, which is partnering with the Rubell family of art collectors to build apartments, restaurants and a museum. “But is that place right next door to a major cultural development?”
Sawicki said he’s puzzled by the speed at which KIPP DC is moving, as it already has an architect, a design and an artist’s rendering of the proposed campus. “KIPP doesn’t even control the property yet,” he said. “There’s going to have to be some sort of public process.”
Four council members — Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and David Grosso (I-At Large) — have written letters to the mayor in support of the proposal.
But the council member who represents the Southwest neighborhood in question — Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — said he has reservations, particularly because local children would have no guaranteed access to the school.
Graduates of KIPP DC middle schools — none of which are in Southwest — would have priority for admission to the high school. Any remaining seats would be assigned by citywide lottery.
“Southwest is kind of a landlocked area, with a lot of public housing,” Wells said. “To not have youth from that neighborhood in that school is something I’m concerned about.”
Southwest parent Martin R. Welles said the neighborhood middle school, Jefferson, “has a logical pool of students who should be given the choice to enter a KIPP high school in their neighborhood.”
But instead, they’ll have to attend schools farther away. “Insanity,” Welles said.
KIPP DC officials say they’d welcome a neighborhood admissions preference, but that would take a change in citywide policy to which the District’s charter community is generally opposed.