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Is School Choice Strengthening Our Communities, Or Tearing Them Apart?

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Yesterday, I had one of those days that make me wonder long and hard about how we are reforming our schools and redefining our notions of community - and what those changes augur for the long-term.

It began with a groundbreaking ceremony for a third-year charter school, Mundo Verde Bilingual, which was moving into a century-old school building that had been unoccupied for years. While workmen busily hung sheet rock and tucked away wiring inside - it was April, after all, and the site would need to be ready for a full slate of students by late August - scores of elementary-age students, public officials, parents and community members stood or sat in the shadow of the building's handsome fa├žade. The energy and the excitement was palpable, and the sense of possibility was contagious. Here was regeneration at work. Here was a city sowing the seeds of its own rebirth.

Right?

I confess I had a special interest in this site because the school that was moving here was one of the two I followed for a year in order to write my newest book. And I remember well the day back in 2011, when Mundo Verde's executive director, Kristin Scotchmer, parked her car at the corner of 1st and P streets NW to visit it for the first time. Not that long ago, this neighborhood was a part of the city she (and I) would have known almost nothing about. Yet now, as she stepped out to visit the potential future home for her school, she was imagining what it would take to move in.

To our right, we heard the sounds of children at play. We walked over to get a closer look and saw two signs in front of the square, sturdy school that dominated the block. One proclaimed the school's current occupant, the Dorothy Heights Community Academy Public Charter School. The other, still etched in stone over the school's front doors, gave its original name: Armstrong Manual Training School. First built in 1901, it had been designed to teach practical, manual skills in honor of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Kristin and I watched as a stern-faced African-American woman provided careful watch over the carefree movements of the children. Behind them, the sky was cluttered with cranes towering over a sea of new construction projects, many of which have now - three years later - given way to still newer reclamations.

Kristin crossed the street in search of the school she had come to inspect. She walked past the Faith & Hope Full Gospel Holiness Church, where a homeless man was curled up in the fetal position outside the front door. She walked a few steps further and the din of jackhammers and children's voices disappeared. It became completely silent; we were the only people on the street.

Kristin looked one way, past the canopy of trees, and saw a faded, rust-stained sign: SLATER SCHOOL. Many of its windows were broken, and much of the red brick exterior had begun to crumble. She walked further and found a fully restored playground, just past a ten-foot-tall chain link fence. All of its slides and jungle gyms were freshly painted, and the wall just beyond it had been dressed up with a colorful mural of a carousel. But there were no children here to give it life.

Kristin walked further to inspect the second abandoned school on the block, which abutted the other side of the playground. First built in 1891, the Langston School had become a homeless shelter in 1997, but for the past several years it had been completely vacant. The building was too unstable to allow prospective tenants to enter it, so we studied it from the outside. You could see why we weren't allowed in - it was extremely run-down - but its original charm was still apparent, including the large stone-carved Star of David at its center.

Still alone, Kristin searched for the city official who would usher her into the one school she would tour, directly across the street from these two. Formerly known as J.F. Cook, it had been among the twenty-three DCPS schools closed in 2008 for low enrollment under then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. In its final year of operations, 13 percent of Cook's students were proficient in reading and 14 percent in math.

Like Slater and Langston, Cook was originally built as a sort of two-block campus to serve nearby post-Civil War African American settlements. Kristin peered through a chain link fence to admire its large red front doors; separate entrances framed either side, one for BOYS, one for GIRLS. Her guide arrived and they walked around the back to enter.

Inside, it was evident how much damage had been done since it closed down; all the sinks in the building had been stolen, along with all the copper piping. Condoms littered the floor, and pools of water confirmed the shoddy state of the roof. But as she walked the wide hallways, three years ago, Kristin fell in love with the ways it felt like a school. By the time she entered its open auditorium and sat in one of its old wooden seats, Kristin was doing the inner calculations of how it could be rebuilt. That concrete exterior could become a vegetable garden and the greenspace for our outdoor classroom. That second floor could handle all of our plans for expansion. The walk from the New York Avenue Metro station is only four blocks. And the move would position us to become a positive part of the changes taking place in the neighborhood.

Yesterday, all of those dreams were slowly becoming manifest, right before our collective eyes. In the presence of such a vision, it's hard not to feel that creating space for this sort of creative energy is precisely what we need. And yet the truth that exists alongside that one is that there was another school here, just six years ago, and it, too - because all schools do - was filled with hopes and dreams.

I wondered about the stories of the building's previous tenants, and of the ways in which things like school closings and school choice are redefining traditional notions of what makes a neighborhood and what makes a community, when my day concluded with a panel discussion of school choice policies in D.C. at the New America Foundation (you can watch the video below).



Video streaming by Ustream

In many respects, D.C. is the tip of the spear in this new national movement around school choice and school reform. We are the city where Michelle Rhee got her start, where universal preschool is almost a reality, where almost half the students attend charter schools - and where only 25% of the kids in the traditional district attend their actual neighborhood school. It is a rapidly evolving, inchoate, intra-city migration, full of new ideas and neighbors and old tensions and taboos.

Can schools like Mundo Verde help revitalize our sense of civic unity and overall school quality? I think they can. Was a school like the building's previous inhabitant deserving of being shuttered? Its test scores and enrollment figures would suggest so; but what else was happening there, I wonder? What was lost when its students fanned out across the rest of the city? How was this neighborhood affected by its loss, and how will Mundo Verde's arrival affect it further?

The point is not to answer these questions clearly, I think, but to recognize the dialectic of this sort of change - that for something new to grow, something else must die. And so we would be wise, alongside the excitement and the hope, to remember what was here before, and what was lost.

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