Families at one of Washington’s most sought-after charter schools are grappling with how to coexist with a new next-door neighbor — Planned Parenthood.
Children returned to Two Rivers Public Charter School in Northeast this school year to find sidewalks torn up and major construction underway. An abandoned warehouse is being turned into Planned Parenthood’s new flagship health center, which will provide preventive care and abortions.
The center is not scheduled to open until spring, but protesters already have begun gathering outside, at least once waving signs at families who came in for parent-teacher meetings at Two Rivers the week before school started.
Many parents worry that they will have to explain graphic images of aborted fetuses and the ideological underpinnings of one of the country’s most contentious debates to their young children.
The clinic — in the 1200 block of Fourth Street NE — will be next door to an elementary school campus and across the street from a middle school campus.
“Does anyone really believe placing a Planned Parenthood facility literally between two schools is a wise decision for the safety of our children?” said Jonathan Owen, a Two Rivers parent. “Protests at abortion facilities are very heated, personal, and can turn physically violent.”
He said the clinic’s placement is an “in your face” affront to many of the families with children attending the school, particularly those with religious beliefs that don’t condone abortion.
Jessica Wodatch, the school’s executive director, and other school administrators, sent a letter to parents Aug. 27 describing a scene that unfolded that morning involving “several protesters with graphic images” who stood in front of the middle school and the elementary school campuses outside the construction zone. The protesters waved signs at passing cars and shouted at people entering the building.
She urged families not to engage the protesters and said school officials are working with police and have plans to increase security outside the school.
“We are frustrated that we cannot protect you and your children from images and language that you may not deem appropriate for them,” Wodatch wrote. “What we can offer is that we will be relentless in doing all that we can to address this problem.”
Wodatch declined to comment for this article.
The school plans to refer children’s questions about the subject of any protests back to their families, the letter said. But Wodatch said school officials will offer age-appropriate messages about the protests themselves, such as:
“Some people don’t like the organization that is moving in next door and want to share their feelings through protesting. Sometimes that protesting may bother us because they are yelling or showing confusing or upsetting pictures. . . . Those messages are meant for grown-ups, and not for you.”
Public charter schools struggle to find adequate facilities in the District. Two Rivers’ elementary campus is in a former auto warehouse with a cramped playground on a busy corner near Union Market.
[D.C. charter schools fight second-class status when it comes to facilities]
Its industrial backdrop has not discouraged parents from applying. Two Rivers, which has an “expeditionary learning” model, had the longest wait list of any D.C. charter this year, with 1,381 children waiting for a spot in preschool through eighth grade. The school celebrated the opening of a third campus in Ward 5 in August.
Laura Meyers, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington, said that finding space for a new clinic took two years. The organization chose the Northeast location because of its proximity to Metro — it is near the NoMa-Gallaudet U station — and its affordability and space for on-site parking.
Meyers said that other Planned Parenthood clinics in the United States are near schools and that they “enjoy strong partnerships.” She said that Planned Parenthood educators work in many middle schools and high schools providing lessons on reproductive health.
Since the organization bought the 26,400-square-foot building in 2013, officials have worked with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and school leaders as plans were developed, Meyers said. Planned Parenthood had a meeting at the school last spring to discuss the new clinic with parents; the organization’s clinics often are the target of public antiabortion protests, which have been known at times to become confrontational.
“I am a parent myself,” Meyers said. “I am tremendously sympathetic to parents not wanting anyone to be screaming at children about anything.”
The new location will replace its headquarters on 16th Street NW, just blocks from the White House, where Planned Parenthood has operated a clinic for more than 40 years.
Tony Goodman, a parent at Two Rivers and also an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, said the school and clinic are working to mitigate potential harm from future unrest. For example, he said, the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion a legal right, is scheduled to be a teacher work day.
Alden Nouga, who works in public health and is a the mother of a kindergartner at Two Rivers, said she plans to use the clinic as a teaching opportunity for her children about free speech and sexuality. She said conversations about sex and women’s health often get delayed or avoided.
“It has been surprising how young children are when these topics come up,” Nouga said. “We should not shy away from it.”