Last spring, Shining Stars Montessori Academy had a wait list with more than 200 names on it. This week, since school started, the wait list has been whittled down and the school is under-enrolled.
In between, school officials and families went on a real-estate roller coaster ride, when negotiations for two buildings fell through at the last minute. They found themselves without a home nearly two weeks before school was to begin.
The charter school was able to secure a two-year lease at a location near the Maryland border, but many families got lost along the way.
“The uncertainty is what impacts parents, and rightly so,” said Regina Rodgriguez, executive director of the school.
The school has 120 students enrolled, close to its target of 124 students, Rodriguez said. But some students have dropped out in the first days and others have not yet arrived for the school year. Rodriguez is hoping to enroll about 10 more students, particularly in the lower primary grades.
Charter advocates say the challenges Shining Stars experienced are an extreme but familiar example of the struggles charter schools face when trying to find facilities in the District. The city recently announced that it is planning to make four surplus D.C. school buildings available for charters to lease this fall in time for the next school year.
Rodriguez is eager to fill her classrooms and rebuild her school community. Enrollment is also key to balancing her budget.
“We are a small school. Our per-pupil allocation really drives everything,” she said. One fewer student can translate into fewer books or one less workshop for parents, she said.
In late June, lease negotiations for a building in Petworth fell through, after the owner accepted a more lucrative offer from another charter school at the last minute. School officials scrambled to find another location and announced in early August that they planned to lease a building on Wisconsin Avenue in Ward 3.
A few days later, they found out that their negotiations for that building, owned by the International Union of Operating Engineers, had also fallen apart.
Rodriguez said she was in the car with her director of operations on her way to sign the lease and discuss transition plans when they got a call from the real estate representative saying the meeting had been canceled.
The owners did not want to lease the building after all. They wanted to find a buyer.
“We pulled over to the curb and just sat there and said this cannot be happening again,” she said. “It was almost unbelievable that this transpired, lightning striking twice.”
They returned to another building they had considered that was still available. They have a two-year lease there. Rodriguez said she will discuss with her board and her families what they want to do in the longer term.
Ebony Washington, a Columbia Heights mother of two, said she had been with Shining Stars since the school opened, but she decided to leave amid the turmoil this summer.
“I found a more stable school,” she said. “It was a sad decision for me.”
Her older child was already attending a different school and she was able to get her daughter enrolled there, too. “I’m a working parent, and I need to make sure that the school is accessible to me.”
Another former Shining Stars parent, Tabitha Bennett, said she was able to get into Capitol Hill Montessori, a D.C. public school, through the lottery. She said she was disappointed in how school officials communicated the problems with their search.
Some parents read rumors online that the Wisconsin location had fallen through before they heard from the school directly, she said.
“The community is so close. For them not to communicate with us, it was upsetting,” she said.
Kamina Newsome, director of operations for the school, said school officials spent “every ounce of energy” they had trying to secure a new location after they lost the second building.
“We had already made two other announcements to parents thinking that we had” a deal, she said. “We did not want to announce anything without a binding agreement.”