Charter Schools Scramble for Space

Article excerpt

Byline: Vaishali Honawar


A public charter school dedicated to teaching Hispanic youngsters in the District ran into a familiar roadblock as it prepared to open this year - it had no roof over its head.

Things were going smoothly for the Tri Community Public Charter School, with its attractive curriculum aimed at 400 Hispanic youngsters, until December, when the school's chairman, Elizabeth Smith, went shopping for a school building.

After five months of looking, she could not find anything that was safe and that wouldn't cost a fortune to repair. The building she did finally settle on, in the Petworth area of Northwest, was in terrible shape and in no state to move into by August, when schools would open.

"There was asbestos all over the place," she said. "The building had been used by a government agency, and it needed a lot of work," she said.

Now, she has to wait another year to open.

Tri Community's story is not new. It has been repeated year after year, ever since charter schools first opened in the District in 1996, with at least one school every year forced to delay opening because of space problems.

Some charter school advocates say the problem is aggravated because the city is ignoring its own law, which gives charter schools first crack at buying or leasing the hundreds of surplus buildings it controls. Instead, the city gives preference to businesses and builders looking to construct luxury condos. A number of buildings are also occupied free of charge by government agencies.

Usable, safe buildings are "a roadblock in the path of charter schools," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice for Public Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group in the city. "There is no commitment on part of the city to find school buildings" for charter schools, he said.

He said parents have been "lining up" to enroll their children in charter schools, which are estimated to grow to 15 percent of the size of public schools this year, up from 13 percent last year.(spade)His group says it received 1,500 calls from parents last fall, frustrated because charter schools they wanted to send their children to were already full.

With the opening of four charter schools this fall, there were expected to be 37 charter schools on 42 sites in the city, with total enrollment between 11,000 and 12,000, up from 9,500 in the 2000-2001 academic year. Last week, however, the public schools' Board of Education began the process of revoking the charters to three schools, in a setback to the charter schools movement. The three schools are appealing charges of mismanagement, saying some of the problems they had last year were exaggerated or have been fixed.

Several of the city's charter schools are currently in temporary, make-do locations and will need to move into larger, permanent buildings soon because they add a higher grade level every year.

Nelson Smith, director of the Public Charter School Board, says the difficulty in finding permanent quarters can discourage potential applicants looking to open charter schools in the District. "If you look at the way people make decisions, that is one of the things they might think of," he said.

The board received just five applications from charter schools for the 2001-2002 school year, compared with 12 applications submitted last year. Mr. Smith said that the number of applications fluctuates from year after year, but that the annual, embarrassing hunt for good buildings could discourage enough would-be applicants.

Charter schools have been creative in finding buildings, he said. Many convert church basements into cheerful classroom spaces. One school, the Southeast Academy for Scholastic Excellence, which opened last year, gutted the inside of a grocery store and remodeled the space into classrooms, he said. …