- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

If things go as planned, there will be nearly three dozen charter schools in the District next school year. The majority of them offer specialized programs, such as strenuous mathematics, science and technology curricula. D.C. Public Schools already had similarly successful schools, including Banneker High, which focuses on math and science, and Ellington High, which stresses the arts. Yet, in the District, the argument revolving around school choice is no longer about academics. Sadly, the latest battleground is over facilities.

Paul Junior High School in Northwest has, after three years, been granted approval to become a charter school after two-thirds of parents and 70 percent of faculty signed on to the proposal. Like two other charter schools set to open next year, Paul Junior High is breaking new ground: It will be the first public school to convert to a charter school and that is indeed a welcome rallying point. But Paul’s chartering officials and public school overseers appear to be butting heads.

Paul officials want to lease the building they currently occupy in the 5800 block of Eighth St. NW off Georgia Avenue, and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, after speaking with Paul’s parents and other parents in the neighborhood, wants to establish a new technology and arts program in the same building. Both institutions could potentially become citywide “magnets.” At this juncture, though, if Paul’s chartering officials don’t secure a site by January the charter school just might not open next September. On the other hand, if Paul stays put Mrs. Ackerman just might have to look elsewhere for her proposed school. Surely, for the benefit of current and future students, a compromise can be reached.

At first, as always, heavy-handed politics got in the way when D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who represents Paul’s neighborhood, drafted emergency legislation that would have permitted Paul to stay put and forced Mrs. Ackerman to back off. The legislation was withdrawn after Mrs. Ackerman promised to compromise and compromise both sides must.

Mrs. Ackerman proposes to let both schools share the same building, a practice commonly known as a school-within-a-school charter, and there are several successful precedents for it. One excellent example is the Business and Finance Academy at Woodson High School in Northeast. Since the 1980s, both the Academy and the regular, or comprehensive, Woodson High School have cohabited the school facility at 55th and Eads streets NE. The academy has its money, which includes tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship funds from Fannie Mae, and the regular school has its. The academy has its principal and parents group and the regular school has theirs. They have two different sets of academic agendas, but collegially share some resources, including library facilities and the like, and Academy students participate in sports and other extra curricular activities alongside their counterparts in the regular school. The Local School Restructuring Team, which coordinates all aspects of school-based management, represents both institutions. There are other examples as well, such as the Health and Human Services Academy at Eastern High near RFK Stadium and the Pre-Engineering School at Dunbar High off New York Avenue NW.

To be sure, it is hoped school officials will recognize that the more options the better, and that public school buildings belong to the entire community not just the students who attend them. Also, it is hoped that such competition does not spawn similar turf battles in the future. Let neither side forget, as well, that smack in the middle are children who deserve the best education their parents can afford and parents who deserve as many options as they can imagine.

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