Will one old school become a new school?
The historic Harrison Elementary school building, at 13th and V Streets, NW, will likely soon continue it's educational mission by hosting one of DC's burgeoning charter schools. If it does, it will buck a trend of DC awarding old school buildings to many organizations except charter schools.
DC's Department of Real Estate Services will begin reviewing applications on October 8 from charter school operators who want to become the next tenant. This request for offers (RFO) is open only to charter schools.
This property is on two major bus routes (90's and 50's) and near the busy U Street Metro station on the Yellow and Green Lines. The original building was constructed in 1890, making it one of the oldest structures in the historic district.
The ANC member who represents the district for this area described to me how she attended Harrison Elementary School as a child and later sent her own children there, but in the mid-1990s, with declining enrollment, DCPS closed the school. They began renting the building on very favorable terms to the Children's Studio School, a school chartered by the old Board of Education.
This past summer, the Studio School, itself struggling to enroll even 80 students per year in a building that takes up the better part of a city block, voluntarily relinquished its charter, making it ineligible to continue its lease.
DC has had a string of historic school buildings that, for one reason or another, have not been awarded to charter schools that applied or hoped to apply, despite the law on the books that charters have the right of first offer on these properties.
Grimke Elementary on Vermont Ave. near U St. NW was supposed to be repurposed from its current "temporary" use as housing for city fire and EMS offices, but the city kept the offices there when two charter schools applied, later awarding it to a revered museum that had long sought the building.
Gales School at 65 Mass Ave. NW and Franklin School on 13th at K Sts. NW were being used as homeless shelters until they were closed in recent years. They are all likely headed for uses other than K-12 public education, with Central Union Mission vying for Gale School and the UDC law school rumored to be in line for Franklin.
M.M. Washington at 27 O St. NW is another of these buildings. This one will be developed for senior housing. Stevens Elementary on 21st St. NW was also closed by DCPS but it went to private developers for housing. Hine Junior High School at 335 8th St. SE, with somewhat less historic architecture, lies right near Eastern Market. I'm not sure if that site was ever offered to charters, but it was awarded to a private developer as well.
Based on the recent history, the "right of first offer" hasn't done much for the charter sector in DC. Does this mean charters will have to locate wherever private market rents or developments costs are low, such on the edges of the city away from transit?
That's not a great choice for schools that aspire to be citywide magnets. Let's hope the Harrison RFO gets a genuine review and in the future we can look forward to kids walking and taking transit instead of riding in buses and private cars to school or attending overcrowded temporary facilities in basements and trailers.
Full disclosure: My wife and I are co-founders and parents at one of the schools that has responded to the RFO. We also share a property line with the Harrison building, so we have a clear stake in the outcome.
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