Posts about Schools
A few years ago Gaithersburg adopted an ordinance to ensure that infrastructure keeps up with growth. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the law turned out to be counterproductive, as it damaged the city's ability to grow in the right places.
Gaithersburg has a big problem. On one hand, the city is trying very hard to promote smart growth. They've adopted beautiful master plans, and worked with developers to design some very strong projects. On the other hand, they have a crippling adequate public facilities ordinance that slaps a complete moratorium on residential development in large swaths of the city.
The city's two hands are pulling in opposite directions. Mountains of genuinely good planning effort supports smart growth, but this one ordinance requiring excess school capacity throws a wrench into the whole business.
It's especially maddening because of the way school boundaries are drawn. The most overcrowded schools happen to also cover most of Gaithersburg's smart growth receiving areas, including its most walkable and transit-connected downtown and new urbanist districts.
For the most part it isn't the smart growth developments that are overcrowding the schools (they tend to attract smaller families), but because they're within the same school boundary as other neighborhoods that do produce a lot of kids, residential development is outlawed in precisely the areas where it's most appropriate.
And the really bad news is that the moratorium isn't effective at saving schools. Because Gaitheresburg is a geographically small jurisdiction within a larger, growing region, the school capacity test merely pushes growth out to other jurisdictions that have even less capacity, and less ability to plan.
In fact, the moratorium is doubly damaging because of the type of growth it is pushing away. By including these smart growth receiving zones in the moratorium, Gaithersburg is pushing out high-density urban developments that don't produce many students, but are very effective at reducing sprawl and growth in congestion.
The school capacity test makes sense in a vacuum, but not when all the issues of urban development are considered together. It's counterproductive, and should be changed.
The good news is that the Gaithersburg City Council, which does seem to sincerely want to do the right thing, realizes there's a problem and is considering corrective measures. According to a Patch article, the council is looking to add flexibility and leniency to the ordinance. Proposed modifications could allow the council to grant exceptions in certain circumstances, or could allow neighboring schools to share capacity if one is over its limit but another nearby school is not. These are good suggestions.
The city might also consider designating official smart growth receiving zones that are automatically exempted from the ordinance altogether. That would allow the right sort of growth to take place in the right places, while still controlling the sort of growth that is a problem for school capacity.
Gaithersburg deserves credit for acknowledging a difficult problem and moving to solve it. Other jurisdictions with similar ordinances should follow Gaithersburg's example and carefully consider whether or not their growth controls are accomplishing the right goals.
Like many colleges with large football programs, the University of Iowa faces major congestion problems on football game days, when tens of thousands of fans converge on its stadium. But Iowa has come up with an innovative solution to the traffic.
A railroad runs directly behind the football stadium, which got university administrators thinking. Working with Iowa Northern Railway, the University proposed running a train from satellite parking areas to the football stadium on game days.
Iowa Northern thought it was a great idea, and the Hawkeye Express was born.
In the beginning, they leased equipment from Colorado's Ski Train. For the third season, they purchased a former Amtrak locomtove and 6 bi-level former commuter cars from Chicago's Metra, now painted in Hawkeye black and gold. The train, while owned by Iowa Northern, operates over tracks owned by Iowa Interstate Railroad (whose chairman, Henry Posner III, is a prominent passenger train advocate).
The train takes 8 minutes to get from the parking areas in Coralville to the stadium and costs fans $10. It has operated for seven seasons of Iowa football.
No other university uses special trains just for football games. But it's certainly not the only university where fans can ride a train to the game. The University of Pennsylvania's stadium is just steps from the SEPTA Regional Rail station at University City. Georgia Tech's Grant Field is just a few blocks from the MARTA subway. And these aren't the only examples.
In the past, many university stadiums were served by special trains from near and far. For many at the University of Iowa, this service hearkens back to the days when Rock Island trains brought fans from as far away as Chicago.
For most, it's just a way to avoid parking problems and congestion. And, as the film shows, it's also a fun way to go.
High schools can form the backbone of community life. They serve as a place of learning, but also as the local sports arena or performing arts center; a polling place or town hall; occasionally, a house of worship. So it makes sense that a high school should occupy a prominent location in the community as well.
That seems to be the thinking behind plans to build a new Wheaton High School, which is one of Montgomery County's oldest, having opened in 1954.
Proposed plan from Grimm + Parker Architects showing a new Wheaton High (left) and Edison High (right), with Randolph Road running along the bottom. Image courtesy of Wheaton Patch.
The favored scheme, according to Wheaton Patch, is one that places each school in its own separate building, one on either side of the building both schools currently share. Not only does this allow construction to take place while classes are in session, minimizing disruption, but it puts Wheaton High School in a more prominent location.
Today, Wheaton and Edison's shared building backs to busy Randolph Road. As cars speed by, all they see of the schools are the football stadium. The county and Calverton-based architects Grimm + Parker, who will design the new campus, propose building a new Wheaton High where the football and baseball fields are today, placing the school right on Randolph Road. This move emphasizes the school's significance to the community, putting it in full view of the thousands of people who come through Randolph each day.
The proposal is also more convenient for students who walk or take public transit to Wheaton High. That's especially important at a school whose catchment area extends as far as Takoma Park and Aspen Hill and where four-fifths of the student body is on free or reduced lunch.
People coming from Randolph Road, served by multiple Metrobus and Ride On bus routes, or the Glenmont Metro station a mile away, would now be able to walk right into the school rather than circle around the entire campus. Making it easier to reach Wheaton High without a car will give students a greater sense of independence and reduce their reliance on rides from parents or friends with driver's licenses who aren't allowed to carry passengers.
Bringing Wheaton High up to the street could also help with the issue of speeding along Randolph Road. In 2007, the county placed speed cameras on Randolph behind Wheaton High, arguing that it would improve pedestrian safety. Currently, the only thing motorists see along Randolph Road are trees and the school's fence, the kind of featureless environment that encourages speeding. Grimm + Parker's plans show a new Wheaton High located just a few feet behind the sidewalk, close enough to make drivers more attentive of their surroundings and encouraging them to slow down.
The design for a new Wheaton High isn't perfect. Though the building would be located on Randolph Road, the entrances would face away from the street, allowing buses and cars to drop students off without stopping traffic. But shouldn't a school that's supposed to give a "new fresh start" for Wheaton present itself to the community rather than turning its back on them?
There are few examples of other high schools in Montgomery County that actually face the street, and those that do, like the old Blair High or Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, have been altered so that you enter on the side. Still, I hope that the architects can do things differently at Wheaton.
A new Wheaton High School will be a place to learn and a destination for the community. And by placing the building on one of Wheaton's busiest streets, and creating a prominent entrance on that street, it'll become a treasured landmark as well.
Digging through the Post archives to research an article on the Fillmore School, I came across a fascinating article from 1927. It described a zoning fight over the block facing the Fillmore School, on the eastern edge of Burleith.
According to the article, J.R. Hall owned the buildings on the west side of 35th Street between S and T. This block was zoned for residential use, but three frame houses on the block contained stores, presumably built before the residential zoning existed.
Hall proposed to knock down these small buildings and build "new and more ornamental" buildings to house more stores. He needed the block to be rezoned commercial in order to accomplish this.
Hall wanted to serve Burleith residents, who had begun to move in to all the new Shannon and Luchs houses. No commercial district was built into Burleith and the residents soon tired of walking all the way to Wisconsin Ave. for their retail needs.
In fact, Hall presented a petition signed by a majority of the neighborhood's residents in favor of his request. Even the Burleith Citizens Association was for it.
What stopped Hall, and the reason there are still no commercial buildings in Burleith, was the Fillmore School. A 35th Street neighbor filed an objection, supported by the PTA and several other citizens associations from across the city.
Their arguments were based off of the belief that no commercial buildings should be in the immediate vicinity of schools. Assistant Superintenent of the Schools, Robert Haycock, argued against the change because, "experience has shown it disadvantageous to the education system and such stores become a factor in delinquency."
The zoning of the block wasn't changed. Whatever few stores were open have long since closed and the buildings either torn down or converted to residential use.
Though many aspects are different, fights over the location of commercial buildings in a non-commercial setting, are still going on. The Office of Planning is drafting a new zoning code. When Travis Parker of the Office of Planning presented the rough contours of the plan to the Citizens Association of Georgetown in November, he emphasized that one of the core principles of the rewrite is to change the code in order to allow other neighborhoods become more like Georgetown.
In other words, Georgetown already has great neighborhood stores like Sara's and Scheele's, but such stores are prohibited in most residential zones (and wouldn't be allowed in Georgetown if they weren't already grandfathered in). Under the zoning rewrite they will be permitted on a limited basis.
Not everyone is happy about this proposal. While the arguments are probably going to involve fewer mentions of student delinquency and more complaints about noise or traffic, the basic battle lines will be the same.
Eighty-four years ago, the anti-mixed use crowd won, and to this day Burleith residents have a longer walk to get a jug of milk (and most probably just drive instead). The deck is stacked a bit more in favor of the other side now, but it's not over until the DC Register sings.
Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
I once asked a retired school superintendent who had worked all over the Northeast what was the hardest part of his job? Knowing all the challenges of running large urban school systems, I was surprised when he said it was the wrenching decision of whether to close schools for weather-related reasons.
Closing schools means lost critical learning time and parents having to provide impromptu child care, often missing work. Keeping schools open can be dangerous for children and staff trying to get to school or resulting in them getting stuck at school. (The superintendent I spoke with recounted horror stories of a school full of people huddling in a gym with limited food and no electricity).
Suburban school systems are more vulnerable than DC. The city tends to get slightly higher temperatures and less precipitation, but more importantly, a densely settled city should require fewer and shorter motor vehicle trips to transport kids to school.
This is where people in walkable neighborhoods can get their gloat on. (I happily dragged a sled around the corner to pick up fresh groceries during the snowpocalypse of February 2010, while suburbanites survived on canned goods).
But even DC schools have teachers who live in the suburbs and students exercising choice who attend schools outside their neighborhoods.
As a New England native, I would say as long as cars and buses can move (albeit slowly), they can get to school. (The only hazard for kids who walk to school was the strong temptation to stop and play in the snow). That usually meant anything less than one foot of snow was fine. Black ice, the worst non-snow impediment, slows down vehicles but doesn't stop them.
There will be car crashes, but there are crashes every day on the roads. Just drive carefully. Be flexible on arrival times. Fear of power outage or actual power outage or loss of water is reason to close a school. Anything less, however, is just wimping out. If we can't find our way to school during messy but passable winter weather, we should re-evaluate our school density and planning.
What is your cutoff? When is it too cold or too messy on the roads to keep schools open?
A proposal from two local nonprofits to turn a vacant school building in the Truxton Circle neighborhood into a unique charter school could die unless the DC Council votes on Feb. 1 to approve the building's disposition.
One unique aspect to the project is that it will include 20 housing units for selected at-risk young people.
The plan has raised ire from neighbors who say the area has more than its share of social services. But supporters point to the same nonprofits' record of being a positive force in Columbia Heights to show that Truxton Circle stands to benefit from their presence.
The former John F. Cook School, located on P Street NW near North Capitol Street, has been sitting empty since 2008. A big vacant building is certainly not an asset to a neighborhood that is seeing the beginnings of revival.
The District government made the building available for applications to use it as a school once again. The winning bidders were the Youth Build Public Charter School (YBPCS) and its parent organization, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC).
YBPCS envisions expanding the school it currently operates at 14th Street and Columbia Road NW in Columbia Heights into the first floor of the Cook building. The school serves people ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of traditional high schools, but want to turn their lives around by learning a trade while earning a General Education Degree (GED). The school would continue to operate at traditional hours.
LAYC would operate housing on the second and third floors of the building, federally funded through Section 8, for a self-selecting group of 20 young homeless people looking to turn their lives around. Applicants for housing would have to pass drug tests and meet a very rigid schedule to get accepted. While living at the facility, social workers would help each resident one-on-one, and residents would be subject to continued testing for drugs and other risks.
In Columbia Heights, LAYC and YBPCS engage in community policing and maintain good relationships with area business owners. Many credit the nonprofits for contributing to the neighborhood's revitalization, in addition to turning young people's lives in a more healthy direction.
The Fenty Administration approved the transfer of the school to YBPCS and LAYC in 2008, giving the DC Council until February 1, 2011, to vote to put the final stamp on the transaction. YBPCS President Mark Jordan insists that his school has complied with every law and regulation and has made efforts to involve the surrounding community in its plans, including offering to include space for community meetings and arts programs. Jordan feels that there has been more than ample opportunity for public input.
Some neighborhood leaders, however, feel that the school's move is being forced upon them without due process. Heading the opposition is Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) Sylvia Pinkney, in whose Single Member District the school sits.
Pinkney and fellow Commissioners Bradley Thomas and Ronnie Edwards offered LAYC & YBPCS three alternatives: no sale of the building, sale with no housing allowed, and sale with only five housing units allowed. None of these are acceptable to the nonprofits, which see these as meaning "don't build it." LAYC & YouthBuild are willing to provide community meeting and arts space, and to include more diverse demographics as tenants in the housing portion.
The nonprofits hosted a community forum in the Cook School parking lot in October, and a listening session at Big Bear Cafe in December. They intended these simply as opportunities for interested neighbors to learn the facts and share concerns in a collaborative manner. Some opponents, though, saw these as having plans forced upon them. One opponent went as far as to ask Big Bear owner Stu Davenport not to host the December session.
One ANC 5C Commissioner believes that the nonprofits suffer from poor public relations, saying that school leaders did not approach the Bates Area Civic Association (BACA) or the ANC until very far along in the planning process. BACA approved in March a resolution opposing the project, but LAYC & YouthBuild's later efforts convinced some members to support the school's disposition.
Architect's rendering of the expanded and renovated school.
Image from Wiencek & Associates via City Paper.
Many opponents of the project feel that more Section 8 housing would add to Truxton Circle's problems, citing the negative effects the neighborhood has witnessed from the high concentration of social service agencies nearby. Some supporters see these opponents as inflexible NIMBYs whose views are colored by their sour attitudes towards the Fenty Administration.
The opposition from three civic associations and the ANC may have contributed to the delay in the D.C. Council's final vote. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. has not taken a firm position, despite that every other Councilmember appears to support the sale. When asked, Thomas has only made vague references to flaws in the process. Supporters say that the project fits right in to Mayor Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown's emphasis on building more affordable housing.
If things had gone differently, the school could have begun construction by now, with classes to begin this September. However, the persistence of misinformation and mistrust between the project's backers and its critics may mean rapidly-changing Truxton Circle may lose this opportunity to have a venerable building being once again being put to a noble use.
If Council doesn't vote on Feb. 1, the nonprofits, which have everything in place except the title to the school, will be forced back to the drawing board. And the Cook School will remain unused for the foreseeable future.
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- Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business
- Good design, lots of parking at Wheaton's tallest building
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- DC mulls new affordable housing rules in public land deals