Some of the District's public charter schools convene classes in church basements. Two are in an office building with leases about to expire. Many more are in crowded buildings with no room for expansion.
Around the city, charter schools are frenetically searching for space. To meet their needs, charter school advocates are pressing the city to turn over surplus public schools, unused school-owned land or excess classroom space.
"It's definitely a crisis," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, which has been helping the city's charter schools find buildings. "The real estate market is dreadful. There's a lot of competition for commercial space."
There are 36 charter schools on 40 campuses in Washington, a number that has grown steadily since Congress authorized their creation in 1996. The schools' enrollment has increased to about 10,800, compared with approximately 68,000 students in traditional public schools.
Of the existing charter schools, 17 will need new facilities in the next two years, according to Cane's organization. That includes schools that have lost leases and those that need more space to accommodate the number of children projected in their operating plans. Some charter schools have opened with classes in the lower grades, anticipating expanding by one grade a year as the children grow older.
Charter schools, which operate independently of the traditional public school system, receive public funding based on the number of children they enroll. It's the responsibility of a school's leadership to find space, and the schools are provided with an additional allotment earmarked for facilities.
The public charters last year received a per-pupil allocation ranging from a low of $5,907 for students in grades 6-8 to a high of $7,679 for students in high school, according to the D.C. Public Charter School Resource Center. Schools for adults receive $4,430 for each student.
The charters also receive supplementary funding for special education, for those with limited English and for other needs. The basic additional facilities allotment for each child is $1,422 for this fiscal year.
Some schools have raised significant amounts through fundraising efforts and borrowed millions of dollars to construct or rehabilitate ramshackle buildings across town. Charter school officials say that even loans are difficult to obtain in a school's first few years of operation because lenders prefer to see a longer track record.
Few charter schools have access to wealthy donors who could provide the millions of dollars necessary to build modern facilities, said Josephine Baker, president of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees more than half of the city's public charter schools.
District officials said 14 former D.C. public schools have been made available to the charters, either sold or leased or in the process of being so. But some charter school advocates said the city should do more to make additional schools available, including some being used by city agencies for offices. City officials said 11 former schools are being used for "public purposes," including homeless shelters and office space for fire and corrections department administrators.
Cane said he is especially displeased that Mayor Anthony A. Williams has not been more helpful in turning over surplus schools since many of them were transferred to the mayor's control by the now-defunct D.C. financial control board in 2000.
"We still have faith in the mayor, but the people who are in control of these properties in planning and economic development have given us a raw deal," Cane said. "What we want is for these government agencies to move. These are school buildings for public education."
John A. Koskinen, city administrator and deputy mayor for operations, said Williams supports charters and has turned over as many buildings as is feasible. He said that many government operations cannot move easily and that sending these employees to private office space would cost too much at a time when the city is projecting decreases in revenue as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We're looking very hard at how to balance the budget," Koskinen said. "It's not as if we have a pool of money to build an office building or rent one."
Charter schools have also been seeking to share space with traditional public schools. Enrollment in the school system has declined in recent years, leaving some buildings under capacity. While some charter schools have brokered such arrangements, others complain that their requests have met resistance.
Cane has also said the school system should make available to charter schools excess land on public school sites where there is a surplus. He said charters could use that to build new schools.
School board members expressed mixed opinions on the issue. Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said that in some cases, she hopes to use excess school land to provide housing for teachers.
"You can't not meet the needs of the huge majority population by giving up what you need -- [only to meet] the needs of a tiny minority population," Cafritz said.
For some D.C. charter schools, the need to find space is urgent.
The leases of Techworld and Washington Mathematics, Science and Technology, two charter high schools in Waterside Mall in Southwest, expire in June. Their building is to be renovated as part of waterfront redevelopment.
If the schools find no space, their officials said they must close.
"What you end up with is charter schools struggling for survival in a tough real estate market," said James D. Ricks, principal of Washington Math. "Sometimes it looks almost impossible. You can't compete with law firms and nonprofit companies."
Still, he said he remains optimistic.
If Techworld does not find new space, Vice Principal Samuel McCoy said the school would consider seeking temporary quarters, such as a church basement. "We are in a critical situation," McCoy said. "We are running out of time."
Some other schools are squeezed into buildings too small to accommodate expanding enrollments.
At Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy, located in an old commercial laundry in Northwest, classroom and office space is packed, and school officials are seeking a new building.
Chavez, which enrolls 231 students, installed a blue divider at the edge of its cafeteria to create an art classroom. The divider does not reach the ceiling, and when students are eating lunch, the cacophony can become overwhelming, especially when the art students hear their friends talking behind the screen.
"It can be kind of distracting," said student Marcus Pearson, 18. "You try hard to stay focused and get your work done."
Teachers often must plan for upcoming classes in the hallway or at a nearby coffee shop.
"Welcome to my office; it's where I will be doing my administrative tasks," English teacher Robin Megibow said, sitting on a chair in a hallway at Chavez.
Lisa Jacobs Raymond, chief of operations, said that if the school cannot find a bigger facility, it may reduce its enrollment. Raymond herself is squeezed into an administrative office with two other staffers.
She said the school is working with a real estate agent, looking all over the city, attempting to find a home, preferably near a Metro station, to allow students to reach class quickly.
Susan Schaeffler, principal and founder of the Kipp DC: Key Academy in Southeast, said the school, which opened last year, wants to move out of a church basement and into a larger facility.
The school has 80 students but plans to grow to 160 next school year and reach 320 in 2004. Key officials, too, are working with a real estate agent and remain hopeful about finding space. If none is found, expansion plans would be put on hold.
"It would be very frustrating for us if that were the case," Schaeffler said.