Mary Shaffner is executive director of D.C. International School.
Five vacant and historic D.C. schools are being converted to mixed-use developments: the Franklin School near Franklin Square in Ward 2; the Crummell School in Ivy City in Ward 5; the Grimke School in the U Street corridor in Ward 1; and the Randall School in Southwest and the Hine School on Capitol Hill in Ward 6.
It’s great that the District’s built environment is thriving. But when I read about these projects, all I see is kids in need.
At any given time, there are a number of charter schools in search of facilities in the District. These schools are either new, migrating out of incubator space or expanding because demand for their programs is far outstripping available seats. These schools and the families they serve need facilities, and buildings that used to be schools — even those that need extensive renovation — are by far best suited for that purpose. Especially because they usually come with green space, which is important in helping children learn and grow.
More important, the city is obligated under law to give charter schools the right of first offer when it comes to defunct school buildings. Yet despite serious offers for some of these buildings from high-performing charters that could have easily filled the spaces, the city often favors private development, leading many to feel the system is rigged against them.
So turning these historic schools into apartments, retail spaces, museums and restaurants may be nice for the District, but it’s not what D.C. families need. The supply of high-end apartments, for example, is projected to outpace demand in the coming years.
What the District needs is to honor its obligation to charter schools and choose educational opportunity over the lure of development and dollars. More students are enrolling in D.C.’s public schools than ever before, and the charter sector, which educates half of them, is a huge part of that success. Language-focused charters are in especially high demand. This year, D.C. International School and its five feeder schools each had a wait list of more than 1,000 students. Luckily D.C. International School has a new facility, which we recently finished developing with the city’s strong support; but if we are pressed to expand, we’ll be looking at real estate once again.
My hope is that next time, the city thinks twice and gives charters the option to take over school buildings such as these, because all students deserve a chance to thrive, and they need space to do so.