Back to basics at the Franklin School

The historic Franklin School building in Northwest Washington.
The historic Franklin School building in Northwest Washington. (By Cary Silverman)
By Cary Silverman
Sunday, February 21, 2010

The District recently disclosed that it received only two submissions in response to its request for proposals for the redevelopment of the historic Franklin School. The lack of private interest in the property presents the city with a unique opportunity -- to put the building back into educational use as intended.

For 120 years, the Franklin School, located at 13th and K streets NW, served the educational and job training needs of D.C. residents. It was designed by noted architect Adolf Cluss in 1869 as the flagship building of a group of seven modern school buildings that housed, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the city. It became a symbol of educational opportunity in which barriers of class, wealth and sex would at last be overcome.

Early on, the Franklin School provided instruction for teachers, housed the city's first public high school and offered technical and vocational training. Among the school's pupils were the children of three presidents. It even was the site of experiments by Alexander Graham Bell.

At the center of learning in the nation's capital, the Franklin School served as the headquarters of the D.C. Board of Education for 40 years. In its most recent life before closing in 1989 for a renovation that never came, the Franklin School served as a successful adult education center.

Perhaps not coincidentally, as Franklin fell into disrepair, the District's school system, as well as its literacy and vocational training programs, continued to deteriorate.

Ultimately, after sitting vacant for a decade, the birthplace of educational innovation and job training in the District reopened as a homeless shelter. Between 2002 and 2008, the Franklin School warehoused 400 men at night, spitting them back out into adjacent Franklin Square Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. library during the day.

Today, job training for D.C. residents is as important as ever. Yes, the city is pushing hard to improve the public school system for the next generation -- and it is having some success -- but what about the generation that was left behind? According to a Brookings Institution study, as many as 60,000 District residents could benefit from workforce development services to increase their skills, employment and earnings. How often do we hear from employers that D.C. residents do not possess the skills to meet their needs?

The Franklin School would provide an ideal location for a downtown campus for an expanded community college, a vocational training center or a program to help residents get their GEDs. It could prepare residents for the city's unique mix of employment opportunities -- in the hospitality and tourism industries, or for nonprofit, government, construction and paralegal jobs. Its central location would be particularly convenient for those taking night classes after work.

There are a host of other worthy educational uses for the Franklin School. If placed back into the D.C. Public Schools' inventory, it could serve as Ward 2's only neighborhood high school. Alternatively, given its location near Metro Center, it could be a thriving magnet school or gifted and talented program for students across the city. This would provide an attractive option for parents who might consider sending their children to a private school or moving to the suburbs after the elementary grades. The School Without Walls, for example, receives far more applications than it has space. A Franklin Academic Center could provide a forum for educational research and policy, lectures, music and arts programs, teacher training, and job placement and career counseling services.

Unfortunately, that's not what the city is looking for. Such uses would require an investment -- not only in the future but also an estimated $20 million for renovation. In addition to the city's school modernization fund, federal education and historic preservation grants might help move an education-oriented project forward.

The District's request for proposals sought "highly-qualified development teams with experience in planning, financing, building, and operating small to medium scale mixed-use, commercial, hotel, residential, or retail use development projects."

Yet private developers in a troubled economy have shown little interest. The only submission for private development is to turn Franklin into a boutique hotel, a use contemplated for years that, due to a deal lacking D.C. Council approval, led to a lawsuit and a $500,000 settlement against the city.

The other proposal suggests a Chinese-language immersion charter school, a plan that the city inappropriately dismissed as "not viable" last year.

It's time to get back to basics. The city should consider the full range of potential educational uses for the Franklin School and the needs of D.C. residents. Picture students preparing for class in Franklin Square Park. And perhaps a few of the homeless individuals in the park would find a new home at the Franklin School -- as students.

Or we can have another hotel in downtown D.C.

Cary Silverman is a member of the Coalition for Franklin School.

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