Greater Greater Washington

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DC Council and OSSE dragging feet on community schools

When the DC Council gave control of the schools to the mayor in 2007, the law required DC to create community schools, but there has been little progress since. The Council can rectify this problem by passing a proposed law to create incentives for community schools.

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

Community schools are schools that provide after-hours services to students and their families and communities. The idea is that schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, should address obstacles to learning such as student health and excessive unstructured time.

A hearing on the DC Community Schools Incentive Act that would finally implement the rest of the 2007 legislation was scheduled for December 14, and it looked like this missing piece of school reform would finally be implemented. However, the hearing was abruptly cancelled with only 3 hours notice.

DC Council Chair Kwame Brown said he had to cancel the hearing because the DC State Superintendent of Education, Hosanna Mahaley, cancelled that morning. When she skipped the hearing, national experts, grandparents, teachers and students who spent days memorizing their testimony showed up for no reason.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is central to the creation of community schools, and Mahaley had confirmed before Thanksgiving that she would attend the hearing.

The Coalition for Community Schools defines a community school as a school that partners with community resources to "[integrate] academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and civic engagement."

Community schools are open 7 days a week during the day and evening to encourage involvement from families and the community.

Community schools are traditional schools that also offer programs and services for their students, their parents and the surrounding community. They may include: before- and after-school programs for their students, family-support centers and adult enrichment classes on topics, such as parenting, employment, and housing, and medical, dental and mental-health services.

Community schools report gains in academic and nonacademic areas, which impact academic achievement. Research also suggests that students in community schools have higher attendance rates and their families "show increased family stability, communication with teachers, school involvement, and a greater sense of responsibility for their children's learning."

One year after the passing of this act, OSSE would administer multi-year award grants to establish "no less than 5 new community schools (at public schools or public charter schools)."

OSSE would also establish and administer the Community Schools Fund "to fund the operation of the initiative, and to ensure the District of Columbia becomes eligible to receive federal and private dollars in support of community schools."

If DCPS and OSSE are committed to increasing educational outcomes for all children in Washington, DC, they need to further demonstrate that they support the passing of the Community Schools Incentive Act.

The DC Council hearing on the DC Community Schools Incentive Act has been rescheduled for January 31st at 4:30pm. Let the DC Council and OSSE know that school reform is not just about teachers and buildings, but is also about students and their obstacles to learning outside of the classroom.


School capacity tests make sprawl worse

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 can't develop around its train station because of the law. Photo by the author.

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.


Bringing crowds to a game in style, minus the traffic

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.


Rebuilt Wheaton High could give community a new face

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.

A few weeks ago, the Board of Education looked at options for rebuilding Wheaton High and the adjacent Thomas Edison High, which has a part-time vocational program.

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.

Speed Cameras, Randolph at Wheaton High
Speed cameras on Randolph Road. Wheaton High School's football field can be seen at far right.

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.

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