District praised for letting charters use vacant schools

Monday, November 16, 2009

THE D.C. government has never been particularly generous when it comes to making space for public charter schools. It grudgingly accepts applications from charters hoping to acquire vacated school buildings but, more often than not, opts to sell the properties to private developers or, worse, lets the buildings rot. So it's important to celebrate when the city gets it right -- as in the recent renovation of an old elementary school into an incubator for fledgling charters.

Draper Elementary School on Wahler Place in Southeast closed at the end of the 2008-09 school year. The facility will now serve as home to two new public charter schools until they outgrow it. Achievement Preparatory Academy Public Charter School is a middle school in its second year of operation; National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School is in its first year.

The project comes courtesy of the D.C. Charter School Incubator Initiative, a partnership between a nonprofit established by Sallie Mae and the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education to help charter schools find appropriate and affordable space. The U.S. Department of Education is helping to fund the Draper renovation.

Finding appropriate facilities is a struggle charters face nationwide. Many end up crammed into church basements or take out expensive loans to turn warehouses into school space. That's why the reuse of Draper to accommodate up to 500 public charter school students is so significant. Think, for instance, what would have happened to E.L. Haynes Public Charter School and Capital City Public Charter School -- two of the city's highest-performing schools -- if the initiative had been unable to give them space to operate and grow. Look also at the promise already being shown at Achievement Preparatory in boosting student performance. Test scores from 2007 show that 29 percent of students entering the school were proficient in reading and 35 percent were proficient in math; in the 2008-09 school year, 56 percent of the students were proficient in reading, and 82 percent were proficient in math. And, 83 percent of these students are economically disadvantaged.

There are six incubator sites in the city. Three are former schools that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty agreed to make available. We hope that's a sign of a new willingness by the city to make sure surplus schools are used for public education by allowing charters to buy or lease them.

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