September 20, 2013

FOR FIVE years, the former Charles E. Young Elementary School has sat empty, its facilities slowly rotting and fast becoming a neighborhood nuisance. Elsewhere in Northeast Washington, Two Rivers Public Charter School has been bursting at the seams and turning away students attracted by its high standards. So the District’s decision to make Charles E. Young and other shuttered schools available to public charters is to be applauded — even if it doesn’t help those students who missed out on educational opportunities because of the city’s previous reluctance to provide space to charters.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced Wednesday that Two Rivers and another highly acclaimed public charter school, KIPP DC, will enter into long-term leases for the two public school buildings. The award of the historic Young facility to Two Rivers and the former Hamilton School to KIPP DC is an important step by the District government in helping charters solve what’s been a chronic shortage of appropriate classroom space. It’s also clearly a recognition of the central — and increasing — role charters play in the District; they now enroll more than 40 percent of public school students.

In May, the administration advertised 16 surplus schools for possible use by charters, and it is now considering other applications that could lead to placing charters in abandoned city buildings. Particularly noteworthy is the emphasis Mr. Gray’s education team is placing on educational quality. A city-commissioned study last year found the District in need of nearly 40,000 additional high-quality school seats. One of the best ways to meet that demand is by encouraging growth from charter networks with proven records of success in boosting student achievement.

Two Rivers and KIPP DC (on whose board sits Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham) hope to complete new building plans in time for the 2015-16 school year. Both charters plan major expansions: KIPP envisions the construction of a new high school that would allow its preparatory school to double in size to 850 students, while Two Rivers, currently with 500 students in preschool through eighth grade at its Florida Avenue location, will be able to accommodate 500 more with the addition of the Young site. For a city so sorely in need of better education choices for students, the addition of high-quality seats from two of the highest-performing charter operators in the city is invaluable. Doubters might just ask the parents of the 1,800 students who last year applied for 35 open spots at Two Rivers.