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A Boom for D.C. Charter Schools
Scores Lag but Campuses Multiply, Reshaping Educational Landscape

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:

· 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.

· KIPP DC public charter school, which is an affiliate of a national group and leases space for its middle school campuses in Anacostia, Navy Yard and Shaw, is preparing to construct its first building, in Marshall Heights, in Southeast, for middle and elementary students.

· Capital City Public Charter School in Columbia Heights and the SEED School of Washington in Marshall Heights are proposing to build second campuses to accommodate hundreds of students on waiting lists. Capital City, with students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, plans a high school. SEED would replicate its boarding school, which houses mainly low-income students in grades 7-12, with a campus that would include sixth grade.

· E.L. Haynes Public Charter School broke ground in March on an $18 million campus in Columbia Heights, $13 million of it financed through Bank of America.

· Friendship is doubling the size of its Congress Heights elementary campus by adding 16 classrooms, a technology lab, a gym, a library and a larger cafeteria. Over the next three years, Friendship expects to open a 600-student technology high school and a 1,100-student school with a Spanish-immersion program enrolling students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Charter schools were considered something you laughed at -- no one presumed they would have any impact at all," said Hense, whose school in Woodridge, in Northeast, with pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, was among the few D.C. charter campuses to meet academic targets last year. "Now we are a force to be reckoned with."

Public and private money for charter expansion has flowed through several local agencies, including Building Hope and three programs in the city's State Education Office.

Building Hope, a nonprofit organization working with 11 D.C. charter schools, opened in 2003 with a $28 million investment from Sallie Mae, the student loan giant, and $2 million from the federal government. The group, which offers its services at no cost, acts as a real estate agent in finding sites for campuses. It also puts up the deposit to secure property, offers advice on financing and provides loans to cover up to 20 percent of the purchase price.

Congress and the D.C. Council have been pressing the D.C. Board of Education to close under-enrolled schools and lease them to charter schools. The idea is to get charter schools out of expensive commercial leases -- some as high as $50,000 a month -- and to provide steady income to the cash-strapped school system. But even though the system requested proposals from charter schools interested in five schools closed in June, officials have not made any of them available for short- or long-term leasing. Instead, one building will be used for administrative offices, and another will provide space for students who attend a school that will be remodeled. The city has proposed converting the other three closed schools into housing.

So charter schools such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and E.L. Haynes are spending public money to purchase private land, which is then taken off the tax rolls, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an organization that is doing research on the charter building boom for the State Education Office.

Tom Porter, director of real estate and operations at Building Hope, said he'd like the school system to provide charter schools the 2.5 million square feet that school officials say they don't need.

Abdusalam H. Omer, the school system's chief business operations officer, said he will propose to the school board tonight that it make one of the five closed schools, McGogney Elementary in Southeast, available to charter schools for short-term leasing. He also wants to give charter schools access to some of the nearly 20 schools that the Board of Education is proposing to close over the next decade. "These are huge buildings, and you can earn money . . . when a tenant comes in," he said.

Congress passed legislation in 1996 allowing charter schools in the District, and the nation's capital has been fertile ground for the movement. The city's 55 charter schools are operating on 71 campuses, and the District has the highest concentration of charter students in the nation behind New Orleans, according to the Center for Education Reform.

The boom has not been hampered by poor test results. Seven percent of charter schools met No Child Left Behind standards last year, compared with 19 percent of the traditional public schools. The dismal results in part prompted Fenty (D) to propose giving the State Education Office the authority to revoke charters.

Charter schools offer "a pretty picture painted on the outside that doesn't reflect what is going on inside," said Cherita Whiting, a member of Save Our Schools, a group that opposes charter schools. Three years ago, Whiting said, she switched her son back to a traditional school from a charter school, where she was a trustee, because the charter school failed to meet academic targets and lacked what she considered an adequate number of certified teachers.

But in a forthcoming book, "Charter Schools: Hype or Hope?" its authors, Jack Buckley, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, and Mark Schneider, a political scientist at Stony Brook University in New York, report that most parents of D.C. charter school students say they believe that the schools have more qualified teachers, a safer environment because of strong discipline, better academics and more involved parents.

"I feel that charter schools . . . genuinely care about the students," Angela Allen, whose 13-year-old son Christopher attends SEED, said in an interview.

Capital City, in Columbia Heights, was among the 66, out of 71, charter campuses that did not meet No Child targets. Parents have indicated in surveys that they love its curriculum -- children explore topics in depth through semester-long projects -- and its near-even blend of whites, blacks and Latinos, officials said. The school has 600 students on its waiting list, prompting officials to begin planning a second campus for seventh- to 12th-graders in 2008. "A lot of these kids would be lost in the neighborhood public school," said Anne D. Herr, Capital City's founder and executive director.

Looming on Benning Road SE is the carcass of the Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center, a 300,000-square-foot building that the school board ordered shuttered last summer because of low enrollment. Across the street is the site that KIPP DC purchased to build a $27 million campus for KEY Academy, a school with grades 5-8 now leasing space in a commercial building at the Navy Yard, and LEAP Academy, a new elementary school.

Opened in 2001 as KIPP DC's first campus, KEY Academy, with a 99 percent black student body, has the highest middle school test scores in the city and is among the five charter campuses that met No Child targets. Demand for the program, which has nine-hour days, Saturday classes, mandatory summer school and an emphasis on good behavior, prompted officials to open two more campuses.

Like Friendship, KIPP DC is working to become a self-contained school system, with two elementary schools, three middle schools and a high school by 2009. KIPP officials predict that enrollment will quadruple by 2013, to 2,600.

Susan Schaeffler, KIPP DC's executive director, said the ideal option would be to lease space in a closed or under-enrolled school building. Last summer, the school board nearly killed KIPP DC's proposal to place a new middle school in an elementary school in Shaw, then approved it a few weeks before it was scheduled to open.

That experience, Schaeffler said, was a factor in KIPP DC's decision to purchase land rather than negotiate with the school system.

Too much red tape, too time-consuming, Schaeffler said.

Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.

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