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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Foreign language learning and (DC) schools: an old H Street idea

There's been media coverage lately of parent interest in ensuring the opportunity for language learning in DC schools ("Parents want elementary pupils to learn foreign languages," Washington Post; "How One District School Is Tackling English Language," WAMU).  It reminds me of an idea I developed about ten years ago, but didn't seem to resonate, at least at the time.

Group singing on the Atlas stage, H Street Festival, September 20th, 2014Back in my H Street Main Street days, and the planned focus om the arts for the east end, one of my Promotions Committee members, Vanessa Ruffin, made the very good point that the "arts and culture" focus shouldn't be limited to the Atlas Performing Arts Center and some taverns, that it should go beyond the commercial district and permeate the neighborhood.

So we started to explore and expand on her point.  One way we took up the idea was to promote artist studios in homes not unlike how the Maryland Arts & Entertainment Districts work to do that in their respective areas.

And we talked about recruiting artists to live in the area, like the Paducah Kentucky Artist Relocation Program-- it's hard to remember that back then, housing prices in H Street, Trinidad, and Rosedale were still comparatively cheap.

Another was to explore the use of some commercial space on Florida Avenue for galleries, something that happened for awhile with the Conner Contemporary Gallery, although the space is now going to be used by the Capital Fringe Theater program.  (One of the best potential buildings, Jimmy's Tire, burned down...)  One suggestion was to expand on the idea of the RL Christian Library "portable" to a bigger and better library focusing on the arts, to leverage the arts focus of the commercial district.

Finally, to reposition the schools in the neighborhood as an element of the arts district, the idea was that each of the elementary schools could specialize in different arts disciplines (performance, visual, media), including "language arts" and :foreign language arts."

And the three public buildings in the area at the time that were vacant (a school building on the Miner School campus, the old firehouse on Maryland Avenue (pictured at right), and the old police building on 9th Street NW) could be converted to arts facilities, for example, a glass studio, ceramics studio, etc.

(Another model would be the Gateway Arts Studios and Gallery in Brentwood, Maryland.)

Again, a new library could have been developed to support the program as mentioned above.

[Since then two of those buildings have been converted to private housing.  The third building is still vacant.  The area has another school building, Prospect, and the Sherwood Recreation Center, which could be integrated into the concept as well.]

Each studio building site and the schools could also have a resident artist program, and the idea was that the school would develop cultural programs around the language in association with other cultural organizations, embassies, etc.

The elementary schools in the broad catchment area of the H Street commercial district were Gibbs, Ludlow-Taylor, Maury, Miner, Wheatley (Trinidad), Webb (now closed), JO Wilson (which already has a well-respected French language program).  Someone else suggested that Eastern High School (or Spingarn) could be repositioned as an arts high school and the schools boundary patterns could have been changed accordingly.

Note that recently it has been proposed that Roosevelt High School in Ward 4 develop an "international focus."  That could have been developed as a counter-focus for either high school, and a joint arts-international studies cluster could have been developed for middle and high schools, with students taking courses at both schools.

In terms of foreign languages, at the elementary school level that would have been six different languages in addition to French, which is already offered at Wilson and has been for many years.

German?  Russian?  Chinese?  Spanish?  Japanese?  I never developed the concept to the level where these languages had to be specified.  (And of course, charter schools are eating DCPS' lunch in terms of offering foreign language studies as a way to recruit students to their programs.)

It would have been interesting to work with those embassy-connected institutes like Goethe Institut (German) to co-promote language learning, and even to extend it to the community beyond the programs specifically for the students in the DCPS system.  Or to work to get some of those institutes to open in DC, where they are not currently operating (like Spain's Cervantes Institut).

The basic idea as far as the schools were concerned was that special "cluster school" programs were already successful elsewhere in the DC Public Schools district and using the same concept as a springboard to school improvement would be another way to recapture, repattern, reposition, and improve a set of schools, in conjunction with other public improvement initiatives in the area (the H Street improvement program primarily).

At the time, the school system had worked with the urban design studio of the University of Michigan School of Architecture (one of the professors has a focus on urban schools) to create an improvement concept for the Spingarn campus (which at that time had a high school, a vocational high school, a junior high, and an elementary school), and that could have been a simultaneous lever of improvement as well.  That proposal fell by the wayside in the various changes of Superintendents of the school system.

cf "A case for cutting foreign language from US schools" -- I disagree of course, especially when you have the opportunity to integrate native speakers in the classroom and in a broader set of activities.  (The article misses the point that the issue isn't teaching foreign language as much as it is teaching it properly, and in cities like NYC--subject of the article--where there are so many native speakers of other languages, there is a rich opportunity to do it right and better.)

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