Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Public schools failure to plan #2: selling off public schools to charters means that in some areas DCPS lacks room to grow--will the park behind Coolidge High School be destroyed for a new middle school?

Disclosure: this is an example that affects me personally, although I can still be analytical and reasonably objective.  The proposed loss of park space is three blocks from my house.

Ward 4's high schools have an underenrollment crisis.  The Ward 4 Education Alliance believes, rightly, that not having middle schools in the ward "breaks the chain" between elementary and high school, and is the cause mostly of the incedibly abysmal enrollments in the wards two high schools, Coolidge and Roosevelt, which between them, have fewer than 900 students but a capacity of about 2,200.

Ward 4 sends the most high school students to out-of-ward schools, which accounts for the low enrollments at Coolidge and Roosevelt.

-- Urban Institute website, Washington, DC: Our Changing City | Schools
-- Draft proposal, DCPS School Boundary Changes, Deputy Mayor for Education

No middle school feeders are present in Ward 4.  The high schools are scheduled for renovation (MORE THAN $200 MILLION!!!!) and the Alliance argues that to improve their enrollment, they need a proper feeder system, that not having middle schools provides an entree for charter schools, and students don't leave the charter system to attend the ward's high schools, so they are lost to the DCPS system forever.

Basically there is recognition that Michelle Rhee's closure of middle schools in favor of making elementary schools K-8 isn't working, or at least, comes at the expense of the quality of education for students in the middle school grades.  (Although I don't see why those flaws weren't pointed out or expected when that "innovation" was introduced.)

The "crisis" was produced by DCPS which closed or lost the junior high schools previously located in the ward.

Proposal: two "new" middle schools.  So the Alliance proposes two middle schools, "north" and "south," starting with reopening the just closed last year McFarland Junior High, which is adjacent to Roosevelt High School.

Building the "northern" school on park space.  The problem is coming up with space for a "northern" middle school, since two junior highs each located less than one-half mile from Coolidge High School--Paul and Rabaut--were given over to the charter schools many years ago (Paul was actually the first charter, a conversion of an existing DCPS school).  And another elementary school (I don't remember the legacy name, it's used by Washington Latin now, it's on the 5200 block of 2nd Street NW) is gone too.

Google image left: showing the four blocks used by Coolidge High School and the recreation center behind it.  Whittier Elementary School, not pictured, is immediately south of the high school.

So people are proposing to take away part of the existing recreation center park and recreation space on the backside of Coolidge, in favor of building a new school.

Using Whittier isn't an option because of the projected enrollment increases as school aged children move into/are born in the enrollment zone.

I can't believe what a bad choice that is.

1.  Frankly, I'd rather execute eminent domain authority and reclaim either Paul or Rabaut first.  I don't think this is an acceptable tradeoff, losing scarce community oriented park and recreation space--which as it is improved, is widely used--because the city gave up schools.

Last year the playground was rebuilt and expanded, with the addition of a splash park. Now on the weekends hundreds of people are in that section of the park at any one time.  (Although this isn't the section of the park that's under threat.)

2.  Rather than use park space, other underutilized spaces should be explored as options first, specifically the Walter Reed campus (maybe the State Department would be willing to give up a small portion for a school, or other space can be reallocated) or even the WMATA parking lot at Fort Totten--not a great option, but at least it is a low value use currently, and developers don't seem very interested in using it.

3.  Other options are out there also.

Conclusion.  I am not against schools--I think it's great Rabaut is now a thriving school run by the Capital City Public Charter School, and the school is less than 500 feet or so from where I live (although it does bug me that some of the students screw around in our alley...).

I am not a nimby.

I am against poorly thought out ideas that have multi-decade consequences that are negative.

Taking away limited park space when there are other options is a very bad choice.

And I won't get into the fact that DC lacks an integrated and comprehensive capital improvements planning and budgeting system, which is why we are in this mess to begin with.

-- past blog entry, "DC wastes $122 million on new high school: evidence of failures in capital improvements planning and budgeting"

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At 9:48 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

stupid question -- where are ward 4 students going? The map suggests w1?

I had to drive up through your area on Monday, and it is amazing how much potential Tacoma has.

Probably another aspect of the charter school mess is we have too many schools. They are a waste.

Sigh. Compare to Singapore!

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard - It appears you have chosen to overdramatize the impact of locating a middle school on the BALLFIELD behind Coolidge into a full blown destruction of the Takoma Recreation Center. 1. The land behind the Coolidge track is part of the Coolidge campus lot, not the Department of Rec space for the Takoma Recreation Center; 2. a school that even the size of another Coolidge would not even fill the space as long as the track and field from Sheridan St. North. You say are trying to remain analytical and reasonably objective, but your piling-on of the destruction of the new playground is purely a demogogic ploy to support your entirely impractical use of eminent domain for well-functioning public schools. As far as making decisions that impact generations, I would say that quality neighborhood schools rank much higher than 1 ballfield on the impact to future generations.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

_Planning_ requires a rigorous examination of alternatives and a serious weighing of tradeoffs.

As charlie points out in the previous comment, we are overschooled in terms of facilities, because of the existence of two parallel networks of schools serving the same population.

He didn't point it out, but the same thing happened during the segregation era, which when the system was consolidated, resulted in having more school buildings than were necessary.

Now we "need" more school buildings than would normally be provided in a consolidated system because we have a preponderance of small schools.

Personally, I think taking back schools for better more productive uses is reasonable.

For what it's worth, the space you are talking about is "branded" as part of the Takoma Recreation Center according to signage posted at 3rd and Sheridan Streets NW.

Functionally, it operates as part of the recreation center, and probably has ever since the combined school and recreation campus was first created.

In any case, the points about eminent domain, or the use of alternative locations, and the negative tradeoff of taking away scarce park space _WHEN THERE ARE OTHER ALTERNATIVES_ are all legitimate, and not demagogic.

I would argue the proposal for the use of that particular site is ill-considered, and it doesn't behoove the alliance to push it to the top of their proposals.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt where the kids go,, I don't know exactly, but there is a lot of movement, if possible, to Ward 3 from the area closer to Rock Creek Park (although technically Lafayette Elem., probably the most popular elementary school in the city, is in Ward 4, albeit immediately across the street from Ward 3 as it is on the ward boundary line).

At 12:02 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, in addition to the white/back legacy, the public/charter thing, and we have the somewhat insane system of wards determining schooling.

(And again, I understand it is a legacy of the 1970 and 80s as a faustian bargan to keep white people in the city and avoid becoming a detroit or baltimore)

But like hospitals, people always want more schools.

At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

I'm a little surprised the school system doesn't lease those schools to charter operations. In NYC, the school buildings are leased and sometimes charter schools are co-located with public schools (including public small schools). Small schools often share the same campus anyway, some of the old large high schools have been divided up into multiple small schools.

Even in my hometown in Illinois, the schools that have been closed have been leased (1 was eventually sold) to other government functions. One school is the district offices, another is now the county school system offices (for years it was the family court building and leased to the county.)

Not retaining ownership seems really remarkable short sighted.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

re hospitals. I once read a quote by someone who said, some states have only one Level 1 trauma center. DC wants one for every ward... (we have 4, 3 for adults, 1 for children).

but yes, while we need to do "sub-city" planning at the district or sector level, wards isn't the right scale.

E.g., the Ward 1 Senior Wellness Center on GA Ave. is less than 3 miles from the Ward 4 Senior Wellness Center on Kennedy St.

In both cases, both facilities are closed in the evening, where they could, if integrated into other facilities, be used at other hours by other demographics.

(Although observationally, going to a meeting at a Senior Wellness Center in Towson, the people were very very old and would not fare well probably, mixing with very active younger folk. OTOH, one of the other Balt. County senior centers sponsors an active cycling club that does long rides, 30 miles, etc., on the weekends.)

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Christopher -- in the 1990s, DC sold a property at the corner of N. Capitol and K St. NW to some Catholic affiliated org. -- it's across the street from Gonzaga High School. A couple years later the city wanted it back, and had to pay double the price.

And there are many instances of schools being transferred to orgs. like GU and other nonprofits, and eventually being sold off for housing or other uses.

Now, I do think the city has a clawback provision of some sort.

At 4:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. You have not addressed why you included the new Takoma Rec playground in your arguments re a new middle school site -- its two blocks from the site proposed -- this is the demogoguery.

2. While the area at 3rd and Sheridan may be used as recreation space - its merely a Ballfield, not a PARK in the sense of Ft. Slocum Park south of the old Rabaut. No trees need even by removed.

3. According to DC Property records the area from 3rd to 5th streets bordering Van Buren is 'owned' by the Department of Public Recreation and is 'used' as a 'recreation center' [SQ 3272 & SQ 3283]. The area along 3rd street & Sheridan [SQ 3285] is just general DC property and is NOT owned by DPR]. Half of the SQ is the Coolidge Track & Field. What the sign says is irrelevant in the process towards change in usage compared to official records. see

4. The charter school properties are 'owned' by DC govt and are leased under contract to the charter schools. Do you propose breaking the lease, engendering lawsuits from owners and parents in order to correct the mistakes of the past? Your definition of 'availability' doesn't seem to include legal, nor public vs. private.

5. Walter Reed property is an historic campus in all respects and all current buildings and grounds are committed in the Federal application process [DC still does not own the land].

6. All in all - you seem to adopt the point of view that you don't want a middle school at 3rd & sheridan and then invent totally impractical, unfeasible alternatives and unrelated information to steer the discussion away from responses and to make an argument. Your rationality and practicality have indeed been compromised.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

not really. note my comment about rigorous planning.

the point I didn't feel needed to be made so overt, but obviously does, is an evaluation framework for use of public lands is necessary. Land that is used for a purpose that is virtually impossible to replace should not be used for other purposes, Unless there are no other alternatives.

There are other alternatives.

Those other alternatives aren't being explored, except to say that they are too hard to explore or difficult to challenge.

Rather than address form vs. substance arguments wrt the use of the space currently, 1. people are saying it isn't used and 2. it's owned by the school system even if it used for another purpose and managed in a real sense by DPR. That's a legalistic argument used to ignore the reality of the situation.

First, it makes no sense to build a northern middle school given current school utilization. Second, But for building up CHS, well, you can make the argument that you have to have the school in line in order to support the high school. Third, in that situation, you could colocate the HS and the MS in Coolidge until which time Coolidge needs the whole building, of which it currently has less than 40% of the enrollment the building is capable of supporting.

Fourth, I'd explore all reasonable alternatives. I have at least two, the Fort Totten parking lot, or on the backside of Paul. A third would be on top of the Walmart. The easiest would be to do it at Walter Reed. Or yes, to force the relocation of a charter school for a DCPS middle school as a replacement.

From the standpoint of a hierarchy of reasons, I think that could be acceptable. And yes, more acceptable than reducing the amount of park space that is actively used.


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