Op-Ed: A school for tomorrow being built in today's Ward 8


Last week, the board of trustees of Friendship Public Charter School and I broke ground at the site of what will become the campus of the Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy. Construction of the academy will be complete when the new school year begins in August 2014.

This $22 million investment is taking place in the Congress Heights neighborhood of the District's Ward 8, an area long underserved by D.C.'s public schools. One in five Ward 8 adults is unemployed; one in two children lives in poverty; and one in two adults is functionally illiterate.

Built on the site of an abandoned McDonald's restaurant --now demolished -- the new state-of-the-art facility will include a high-tech SMART lab, which enables students to complete projects across a wide array of subject areas using the latest technology.

The new building also will include a robotics lab, two chemistry labs, two biology labs and a greenhouse. The school will introduce students to 21st century skills in environmental sciences, engineering and technology, including computer-aided design, 3-D printing and gaming.

Tech Prep, like many District public charter schools, has had to renovate buildings, at great expense, that were not built or designed to be schools. The current Tech Prep facility is a former Boys and Girls Club -- less than adequate as a school space.

The new building, which is on the same block as the existing campus, will stand opposite Friendship's Southeast Academy, which serves students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, meaning that the combined campuses will serve every grade level at the same location.

Like the new building, Southeast Academy was an important boost for neighborhood regeneration. We created a schoolhouse there in 2005 by renovating and adding on to an abandoned Safeway store.

Friendship's schools border the western portion of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital, where construction of new headquarters for the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security is under way.

We are looking forward to building mutually rewarding relationships with this new technological hub in support of the school's focus on STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math.

Every 11th and 12th grade student will be dual-enrolled at Tech Prep, which, as a charter school, is tuition-free and open to all District residents, and in college -- at no cost to themselves, an important benefit in this low-income community. Students will earn both a high-school diploma and credit toward a college degree.

The new building, designed and built by Turner Construction Co. and Architecture Inc., will serve 650 students sixth through 12th grade -- more than three times as many as when the school opened in 2009. The project is funded by public charter school revenue bonds.

Tech Prep is a college prep STEM school with a focus on environmental sciences; accordingly, the new building is LEED certified.

We hope that the new school will build on our efforts at our more established charter high school, Collegiate Academy.

Collegiate's Ward 7 campus today has a 91 percent on-time high school graduation rate -- well above DC Public Schools' 56 percent rate -- and higher than the average even of Virginia and Maryland public high schools.

Fully 100 percent of Collegiate's graduating class is accepted to college. Nearly 250 students graduate annually, in a neighborhood where public high schools are notorious for their dropout rates.

We believe in providing the academic rigor, mentoring, emotional supports, school culture and funds for college that are routinely available to students who attend private, suburban public and academically selective schools.

Ward 8 is desperately short of the good public schools its children need and deserve. Our multimillion-dollar investment in this severely disadvantaged area will build a school for tomorrow for the children who live in Ward 8 today.

Donald L. Hense is founder and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School.

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