Local: Education

Charter schools' role in serving neighborhoods to be examined

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Photo - Students at  the Achievement Prep Academy Public Charter School in Southeast D.C. (Examiner file photo)
Students at the Achievement Prep Academy Public Charter School in Southeast D.C. (Examiner file photo)
Local,Education,Lisa Gartner

D.C. schools officials are set to discuss Tuesday whether charter schools should give preference to children who live nearby, as DC Public Schools prepares to close some neighborhood schools.

Admission for charters is set through a citywide lottery on the principle that every student should have access to high-quality options when his or her neighborhood school falls short. Charter schools have been growing rapidly -- they now serve 41 percent of D.C. public school students -- and some campuses have wait lists thousands of students long.

Stories of children shut out of charters across the street from their homes reached the D.C. Council earlier this year, leading then-Council Chairman Kwame Brown to require a task force to explore options that would give first dibs to students who live near the schools.

Task force members
Brian Jones, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board
Beverly Wheeler, designee for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
Jose Alvarez, chief of staff for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education
Scheherazade Salimi, senior adviser to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education
Claudia Lujan, designee for DC Public Schools
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union
Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools
Ramona Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools
Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research
Renita Thukral, senior director of legal affairs for National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
Shantelle Wright, founder and head of school at Achievement Prep Public Charter School
Karen Dresden, founder and head of schools at Capital City Public Charter School

Brown's successor as chairman, Phil Mendelson, said he was interested in the conclusions of the task force but leaned toward charters as citywide schools. "My inclination at this time is charters are more about choice than about neighborhood," Mendelson said.

The situation could come to a head this fall, however, as DC Public Schools is expected to release a list of traditional schools that it plans to close due to low enrollment and poor performance. Without neighborhood schools, parents have questioned why they can't enroll their children at a nearby charter.

"What I most want is for the task force to make sure we have all of the consequences and ramifications really carefully thought out," said Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board. "My greatest fear is we make a recommendation that has unintended consequences."

In Wards 1, 5, 7 and 8, more than half of students who attend charter schools do so within their own wards, and Pearson said the task force would examine whether schools are already serving their neighborhoods without a legal requirement.

An all-or-nothing solution is unlikely. New Orleans requires elementary and middle schools to give neighborhood preference for half their seats. In Denver, only charters that used to be traditional schools give preference to neighborhood children, for 20 to 40 percent of available seats.

There's also the matter of defining "neighborhood." The task force will consider drawing radiuses around schools, dividing by ward and drawing boundaries. It also will discuss what would happen if a school moved, as charter schools are responsible for finding their own facilities and can be subject to fickle conditions.

Staff Writer Liz Farmer contributed reporting.

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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