D.C. Public School Seeks Linkup With New Charter

Hana Ford, 9, left, and Alexis Neale, 9, work on a writing assignment at Scott Montgomery Elementary, which could join forces with a new charter school.
Hana Ford, 9, left, and Alexis Neale, 9, work on a writing assignment at Scott Montgomery Elementary, which could join forces with a new charter school. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

Over the past five years, D.C. public schools have lost 10,000 students, mostly to charter schools. But with the backing of Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, an under-enrolled school in Shaw recently came up with a novel strategy to draw more students and avoid possible closure: join forces with a charter school instead of trying to compete with it.

Under the proposal, Scott Montgomery Elementary and a new charter middle school, run by the nationally acclaimed KIPP organization, would share a building, with Montgomery students moving to the KIPP school after fourth grade. The two schools would collaborate on curriculum and teacher training to make the transition as seamless as possible.

Although there are cases of a traditional D.C. public school and a charter school being housed in one building, the academic relationship between Montgomery and KIPP would be unprecedented in the city.

But the plan has drawn criticism from some school board members and education activists, who argue that by arranging for its students to enroll at a charter school, the school system would be furthering its own demise. The school board had agreed Wednesday that it would vote on the proposal next week. But yesterday, at the urging of board Vice President Carolyn N. Graham, Janey and the principals of the two schools agreed to try to rework the plan so that it would not disrupt other elementary schools in the neighborhood.

The plan's supporters say it represents the kind of creative thinking that the school system needs -- becoming partners with successful charter schools instead of treating them with hostility or indifference. Enrollment at the city's charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, has grown by about 7,000 over the past five years and now totals 17,500, compared with the school system's 58,000. The District has 51 charter schools.

"In an urban school district, there are a number of tools you've got to use to improve student performance. One of those tools . . . is the use of charter schools," said Thomas M. Brady, the school system's chief business operating officer. "If successful, this pilot can be replicated."

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, operates 47 schools in 15 states and the District. A Kipp middle school on M Street SE, one of two in the city, had the highest math and reading scores in the District last year.

Janey initiated talks with KIPP last year about taking over a low-achieving traditional public school. KIPP officials rejected the idea, but they continued talking about other possible forms of collaboration.

In recent weeks, the principals of Montgomery Elementary and the new KIPP school became highly motivated, for different reasons, to enter into an agreement. Montgomery Principal Melissa Martin was worried that her school, because of its low enrollment, was in danger of being closed this year as part of the school board's plan to eliminate 1 million square feet of excess space. And in the city's hot real estate market, KIPP Principal Jessica Cunningham was scrambling to find affordable space for her school, which is to open in July.

Under their agreement, KIPP's program would be housed on the second floor of Montgomery's 73,000-square-foot building. The charter school would make lease payments that have not been determined. KIPP initially would enroll 85 fifth-graders and would add a sixth, seventh and eighth grade over the next three years, reaching an enrollment of 320 by 2009.

Montgomery currently enrolls students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, but it would phase out fifth and sixth grades in the 2007-08 school year. Even with the loss of those two grades, Martin said Montgomery's enrollment would grow from 200 to 300 because of the cachet of being a feeder school for KIPP.

But Graham, the school board vice president, questioned how it would help the school system -- whose funding is tied to enrollment -- to turn those two grades over to a charter school.

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