Vacant D.C. school buildings could house public charters

April 3, 2012

Four vacant D.C. public school buildings could become new homes for public charter schools under a proposal by city officials.

The District’s Department of General Services announced Friday that it will consider offers from charters for leasing the former J.F. Cook, Langston, Rudolph and Young elementary schools. Cook, Rudolph and Young were closed for low enrollment in 2008 under former Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Langston was shuttered in the mid-1990s.

As the city’s charter sector continues to grow — it serves 41 percent of the city’s public school population — the reuse of empty buildings has been a source of tension between the District and charter advocates. The law requires that charter operators receive “right of first offer” on surplus school properties. And while a number of charter schools have gained access to buildings, supporters say they too often end up in the hands of developers or housing other city agencies. In other instances, the city has yielded to neighborhood opposition to the schools.

Twenty-one of the city’s 98 charter campuses are in former D.C. public school buildings, according to the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright acknowledged Tuesday that there had been problems in the past but that this offer marked a new way of doing business.


Kia Williams, 10, and Lakeena Wallace, 12, students at Charles Young Elementary School, take part in a formal dance in 1998 to learn about the finer things in life: The school was closed in 2008 because of low enrollment. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

“We’re trying to create a fair process that is transparent,” Wright said, adding that he hoped to make other school buildings available soon.

Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), the charter lobbying group, said he was pleased by the announcement but would reserve judgment on whether the city was changing its practices.

“I wouldn’t take it as predictive,” Cane said.

Many charter schools with growing enrollments are actively searching for new space. Washington Latin, a middle and high school housed in three locations along a six-block stretch of 16th Street NW, is interested in Rudolph, head of school Martha Cutts said Tuesday.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter school board, said he expected a robust response to the District’s solicitation.

“We have a lot of charters that are in church basements and commercial buildings,” Pearson said. “Most of the them would like to be in a real school building.”

Wright said the most weight will be given to schools with a history of academic achievement.

Two of the vacant schools, Rudolph (Ward 4) and Young (Ward 5), are located in communities identified by the recently completed IFF study as in greatest need of improved school options. A fledgling charter, the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, attempted to secure Rudolph last year, but the deal fell apart at the last minute.

Cook and Langston are also in Ward 5, and both are located on P Street NW between North Capitol and First streets. Langston was offered by the District a few years ago, but there were no takers. Cook drew interest from YouthBuild Public Charter School and the Latin American Youth Center. But their proposal to house at-risk youth on the upper floors drew community opposition.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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