EARLY-CHILDHOOD learning is supposedly a top priority of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) administration. So why on earth are city officials displacing and forcing the closure of a high-performing preschool that serves at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds in a part of the city where there is a shortage of prekindergarten seats? The sorry answer is that the school is a public charter, and making space for charters is not a priority for an administration that seems to be increasingly wary of them.
At issue is the impending closure of the Southwest campus of the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, which offers high-quality pre-K to 108 students, mainly African American and from economically disadvantaged families. The preschool has operated in various locations in Southwest D.C. since 2001. For the past five years, it has been located, under a use agreement with the public school system, in portable classrooms (owned by AppleTree) at former tennis courts next to Jefferson Middle School. The arrangement was always regarded as temporary while the school sought a permanent site. But finding space, as is often the case for charters, proved difficult. In one case, AppleTree lost out to a for-profit day-care provider. Finally, this year, AppleTree secured alternatives, but occupancy won’t be possible until next summer. Meanwhile, the city has told AppleTree it must vacate the Jefferson Middle School property by July 31.
City officials say they have bent over backward to accommodate AppleTree, extending the lease, meeting school operators and offering support, but that the portables now must go because of Jefferson’s ongoing modernization. They fault AppleTree for the situation; Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn called the operators “irresponsible.” Perhaps AppleTree could have done more, but that raises the question of why the city doesn’t feel more of a sense of responsibility for preserving what it agrees is a top-flight program. AppleTree provides not simply day care but data-driven instruction designed to help disadvantaged students, for whom a good start in school makes a critical difference. If these were traditional public school students, there would be no question of finding them space.
Construction at Jefferson has proceeded with portables in place not only for AppleTree but also for the displaced Jefferson students. The building is set to reopen in August. Why not let AppleTree students stay where they are — on former tennis courts slated to be a parking lot — for the less-than-a-year before their new digs are ready? Alternatively, can’t the city find 9,000 square feet of property somewhere in Southwest where the portables could be moved? It’s rich that the administration cites the underutilization of space in traditional schools in suggesting there be a limit on new charters but can’t seem to find space for a program of unquestioned value.