- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

There are 57 public charter schools serving about 38 percent of the school-age population in the nation’s capital, but many of them don’t have the opportunity to boast a new state-of-the-art facility.

A multimillion-dollar renovation of a dilapidated school building on Kenyon Street in Northwest Washington is the result of the hard work and cooperation of the D.C. government, Forrester Construction Co., Bank of America, a public charter school and nonprofit advocates.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 30 to formally open the Chavez-Bruce Preparatory Public Charter School was attended by D.C. councilman Jim Graham of Ward 1, where the school is located, and Al Lord, president of the Board of Trustees of Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools and CEO of Sallie Mae Inc. Also represented was Bank of America, which provided the school with a loan to renovate the building, and Forrester Construction Co., which carried out the renovation. Representatives of Building Hope, a nonprofit founded by Sallie Mae to help charter schools overcome the facility obstacles that keep them from expanding and serving more students, and Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, which advocates for charter schools to be able to acquire surplus school buildings, were also there, as were members of the mayor’s office and the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

The new Bruce school building owes its name to Blanche Kelso Bruce, who sat in the U.S. Senate for Mississippi and was the first black to serve a full term in the Senate. But over many years, the site fell into a state of disrepair and lay largely derelict. Indeed, the last time a D.C. school occupied the entire building was 1973, and the external and internal structures required a total overhaul.

But before the Chavez-Bruce Preparatory Public Charter School - the D.C. charter school network to which Chavez-Bruce belongs is named for the late civil rights activist Cesar Chavez - could move in, there were obstacles to overcome.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the usual education bureaucracy. The academic successes and exponential growth of charters - from 22 schools on 29 campuses in 2004 to 57 schools on 99 campuses projected this year - and the increased levels of innovation (prep schools, technology schools, etc.) makes them “a model for the country,” D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has said.

Buying or leasing former schoolhouses has not been easy, however.

The D.C. government agreed to turn over the ground lease to Chavez-Bruce Prep in return for the school renovating the building. Building Hope was able to use its experience in renovating buildings for public charter schools to help the builders and contractors complete the project on time. In particular, Pepco ensured the school’s power was running smoothly by open day. Timely delivery occurred despite the late discovery of extensive mold in the walls that had to be removed. Cooperation and teamwork won the day, said S. Joseph Bruno, president of Building Hope.

Students at the school regard their new premises as a big step up: Many spoke about what an improvement it was for them compared to the buildings the school had occupied previously. In fact, the school first opened in 2007 at the YMCA at 1325 W St. and remained there for its first year before moving again to nearby 16th Street and Park Road in Northwest. This is not unusual. Many D.C. public charter schools, which do not receive a school building when they open their doors, often inhabit temporary accommodations, sometimes in converted retail, office or warehouse space or church annexes and basements.

At the Anthony Bowen YMCA, the school shared a floor with the Y’s city administrators and had to abandon classrooms every day at 4:15 p.m., earlier than they would have liked. A few rooms on the top floor served as a homework center. Later, on 16th Street, the school had 150 students enrolled and simply became too large for the small space the school occupied there.

The Cesar-Chavez Public Charter Schools, of which Chavez-Bruce Prep is a part, specialize in public policy and can now provide the quality school building the 240 students at the Bruce campus deserve. Fittingly for a school whose historical associations include Bruce and Chavez, 82 percent of the school’s students are black and 17 percent are Latino.

Chavez-Bruce Prep aims to provide a nurturing, safe learning environment, where every student is expected to meet rigorous academic and character standards. Operating an extended school day and school year, with a focus on preparing the school’s largely economically disadvantaged students for college, the campus ranked third highest in the District for gains on the DC-CAS standardized test: a 25 percent gain in reading and a 27 percent gain in math - the second-highest gains in math and the third-highest in reading - for all secondary schools in the District.

• Mark Lerner is a former board member of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School.