A Boom for D.C. Charter Schools

Jamila Henry reads to pre-kindergartners at Friendship Public Charter School, one of the few D.C. charter schools to meet academic targets.
Jamila Henry reads to pre-kindergartners at Friendship Public Charter School, one of the few D.C. charter schools to meet academic targets. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes and Theola Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Donald L. Hense stared at construction work in the parking lot outside the former Safeway that houses Friendship Public Charter School's Congress Heights location, surveying a piece of his expanding empire.

A "social entrepreneur" who chairs the school's board, Hense said he expects the spot to be covered by a $15 million addition in the fall. The campus, which opened two years ago, already needs to expand. Friendship also plans to open two campuses by 2010.

Demand for the District's publicly funded, independently operated charter schools is at a high -- enrollment has risen an average of 13 percent annually since 2001. If the trend continues, more students will attend charter schools than traditional public schools by 2014, according to a study last year by Fight for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

In a rapidly shifting educational landscape, at least a dozen charter schools that opened a few years ago in church basements or vacant shops are pursuing state-of-the-art campuses, a sign that the city's once-fledgling charter movement is maturing. The schools are popular even though the vast majority of them failed to meet federal academic targets last year.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's planned takeover of the traditional school system would bring some uncertainty to the city's educational structure. But even if Fenty succeeds in improving the city's low-performing traditional school system, charter school supporters say they are confident that their schools will continue to grow, which would make Fenty's plan less relevant for an increasing number of students.

Charter schools account for a quarter of the District's public school enrollment, an expansion financed in part by an annual allocation from the city that has reached $260 million, or 32 percent of the city's spending on schools. The District is one of the few places in the country where charter schools receive money for facilities on top of per-pupil funding for operating expenses. D.C. charter school enrollment rose during the past five years by 9,000, to 19,733 in 55 schools, while the traditional school system closed classrooms as enrollment dropped by almost 13,000, to 55,355.

The charter school numbers are expected to rise further as frustration with the traditional school system grows. Chartering authorities have given 20 schools permission to add about 6,800 students over the next few years, and 13 proposals for new charter schools are under consideration.

The D.C. charter movement's building boom has been funded by banks, city agencies, local nonprofit organizations and national foundations: Thousands of new students are drawn every year to charter schools -- which offer a wide range of specialties, including art, public policy, technology, bilingual studies and science and math -- in what parents consider a safer, more nurturing environment. And charter schools have been scrambling to find affordable space, partly because the school system has been slow to provide access to schools with sagging enrollments.

Because of the increased demand, more than a dozen charter schools are launching or are planning to launch major construction. For example:

ยท D.C. Preparatory Academy, which opened as a middle school in Edgewood, in Northeast, four years ago, will inaugurate an elementary campus in the fall. The academy is proposing to open a campus every fall until 2014, for a total of 10 sites serving more than 3,000 students.

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