Happening Right Now: Proposals for Five New DC Schools–and Almost 4000 New School Seats

Two DC charter franchisors—KIPP DC and DC Prep—applied in January with the DC public charter school board to create five new schools and almost 4000 new school seats. The charter board will vote on both schools’ plans at its meeting on April 24. (Public comment on both applications is due March 20 and can be submitted here; that same day, the charter board will hold a hearing at 6:30 pm at its headquarters, 3333 14th Street NW.)

This sea change in public school enrollment in DC—4000 students is nearly 10% of all DC charter school enrollment—has not been heralded much.

Indeed, I found that the applications of these schools and other public information about them are either obscured or unavailable on the charter board website; affected neighborhoods do not appear much, if at all, involved in the decision making up to this point; and KIPP DC’s application comes at almost exactly the same time as two policy announcements by the mayor and deputy mayor for education that could easily favor KIPP DC’s application.

You can find both applications not in the charter application section of the charter board website, but near the bottom of the home page for the DC public charter school board. There, a little interactive box called “Items Open For Public Comments” contains a note that says “view more details here.” If you click on it, you get to a page with an itemized list of things that have, or will soon, come before the charter board for approval, including KIPP DC’s and DC Prep’s applications.

KIPP DC’s application is listed solely as an enrollment ceiling increase, although KIPP DC plans to accommodate more than 3000 new students (a 50% enrollment increase) in two new, prek-8 schools and one new high school. DC Prep’s application is listed as an enrollment ceiling increase, campus replications, and a new location. DC Prep is planning to add more than 800 seats in two new schools, one an elementary and one a middle school, neither of which it has a location for (but which are termed here campus replications). Its new location is for its existing Anacostia elementary.

KIPP DC’s proposed 900-student Hillcrest High School has curious timing. It would be situated on an undeveloped plot of land behind Gainesville Street SE, between Branch Avenue and Naylor Road, along the Maryland border. KIPP DC bought that 12-acre parcel on January 10, 2017 for $5 million.

Its enrollment ceiling increase application, with the proposed new high school, is dated January 27.

That KIPP DC application does not list a location for the two preK-grade 8 schools it wants to start, but makes clear that one would be ideally situated at the closed DCPS facility, Winston.

Winston is a short way down the street from KIPP DC’s 12-acre high school parcel.

Moreover, the mayor and the deputy mayor for education, Jennifer Niles, announced on Monday, January 30–the next business day after KIPP DC’s application was filed–two things potentially benefitting KIPP DC’s application: the start of the RFO process for Winston and a proposal for a charter school walkability preference, which would allow charter schools to give a preference to children whose DCPS schools are more than half a mile from their homes—a situation entirely created by DCPS closures like Winston’s.

To be sure, KIPP DC has not been quiet about its desire for neighborhood preference for charter schools: WAMU’s story about that walkability preference proposal quoted the head of KIPP DC speaking in favor of it last year.

The other week, KIPP DC held a focus group in Hillcrest to discuss what the community wanted from Winston. The education committee of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association also passed around a survey (available here), to gauge community interest.

Expect more interesting conversation this Wednesday March 1, at 6 pm, when the deputy mayor for education, Jennifer Niles, will hold a public meeting to discuss the future of the closed Winston as a charter school (Francis Gregory Library, 3660 Alabama Ave. SE).

Besides a new school possibly at Winston, the other preK through 8th school KIPP DC wants to start would be, according to its petition, “attained via a merger or turnaround of an existing charter school.”

No word on which charter school it would take over—or whether the charter board has any say in that.

Indeed, there’s a lot not said in these applications.

Despite claims to educational excellence in both of their applications, KIPP DC and DC Prep have some of the city’s highest suspension rates, according to the recent GAO report on high and disproportionate discipline rates in DC charter schools.

Of the five DC Prep schools in school year 2015-16, two had suspension rates well above the city average (28.3% and 23.9%). Another had a suspension rate at about the city average (14.6%).

Of the 16 KIPP DC schools in school year 2015-16, six had suspension rates above the city average, with five of those campuses having rates greater than 25%. One of those campuses is KIPP’s college preparatory academy (27.1% suspension rate in SY 2015-16), whose enrollment success is touted in its application as a rationale for creating the proposed Hillcrest High:

“82% of KIPP DC middle schoolers [moved on] to KIPP DC College Preparatory (“KCP”) last year, and 69% the year before that. Given the recent completion of KCP’s new campus and the increased number of eighth grade students graduating from KIPP DC middle schools, KCP is expected to be at capacity by the 2019-20 school year.”

All of this is not even getting into the messy business of charter board terminology, from enrollment ceiling increase to new school to new campus to replication of a campus.

The charter board had a recent hiccup with such terms before approving DC’s second Rocketship campus as a replication of its first campus, even though the board had already granted conditional approval to eight Rocketship campuses. (No word on how the rest of those campuses will be treated.)

That said, the charter amendment application makes clear that a charter amendment is needed for changes in any of the following for an already approved charter school:

Mission or Education Philosophy
Curriculum, Standards, or Assessments
Goals and Academic Achievement Expectations
Expand Grade Levels to be Served
Governance Structure
Enrollment Ceiling
LEA Status for Special Education
Campus Reconfiguration
Replication/Operation of additional campus(es) (with no changes to grade configurations)
New Location or Additional Facility
New Campus that is Not a Replication

Still, it’s not clear how a “new campus that is not a replication” is defined versus a “replication.”

Obscuring the issue further was the fact that I was unable to find online KIPP DC’s prior charter amendments or agreements. The original agreement with KIPP DC was signed in 2001, for one campus, Key, with less than 400 students in a church basement at 1720 Minnesota Ave SE.

But there are currently 16 KIPP DC schools, with more than 6,000 students–and I was unable to find any of their charter amendments, agreements, or applications on the charter board website.

I did find KIPP DC’s 15-year charter renewal and the charter board renewal report (and its appendices) on the charter board website. That report gave the history of KIPP DC’s campuses and schools and alluded to changes in KIPP DC’s charter amendments in its appendices—but those appeared to be letters saying (some of) the charter amendments were approved, not the actual amendments or applications for them or the signed agreements.

That report also summarized KIPP DC’s 5- and 10-year reviews. But I could not find the 10-year review in that report or elsewhere online—and what appeared to be the 5-year review (also in an appendix to that report) was not dated and did not seem complete.

Also, as of few days ago, the web page that had KIPP DC’s 15-year charter renewal also had the original agreement that had been signed for KIPP DC opening its first campus–Key–in 2001.

But that 2001 document does not appear available anymore on the charter board website.

DC Prep’s original agreement is here (I took the precaution of creating my own file with it, but it is also available as of this moment on the charter board website here).

Moreover, DC Prep does have its 10-year review online–albeit copied 6 times over at this website (search for DC Prep; if this link doesn’t work, I made a copy here).

But I could find no 5-year review for DC Prep nor any charter amendments or applications.

In addition, the public is supposed to be informed about any charter amendment applications, but for KIPP DC’s application, that piece didn’t seem to happen. The application question from the charter board of how KIPP DC informed neighbors and ANC commissioners about this (and asking for any meeting minutes) got this response:

“We have presented our growth plan to KIPP DC’s Board of Trustees, school and headquarters leadership, and trusted external supporters, and many others, who provided significant feedback as well as risk analysis, which ultimately clarified and aligned our priorities. We have also informed parent advocates about our growth plans, and received positive feedback about the unique opportunities for expansion, particularly regarding the potential to expand our programmatic offerings and enhance student safety.

“In addition, we have continued to engage with stakeholders in a variety of contexts about not only growth, but our successes and challenges more generally. For example, in September 2016, approximately 2,500 people attended our first KIPP DC: Team & Family Day at our KIPP College Preparatory Campus, which showcased for the community our new high school campus, our students’ talents, and celebrated 15 years of academic excellence. In June 2016, KIPP DC teamed with KIPP DC parents and community partners to host a Peace Rally, to rally around our Benning Campus and voice our concerns over the nearby violence in the community.

“In October 2016, KIPP DC again teamed with parents and community partners to host a follow-up Peace Jam with the same focus.”

(Hmm: guess there are no meeting minutes?)

To be sure, DC Prep’s January 2017 application showed more public outreach, but even that was rather fraught.

Discussing its re-location plans for its existing Anacostia elementary school, for instance, DC Prep answered a question about the value that school would bring the community it was locating in—and compared its school to those currently in that community:

“The [newly re-located] school is two blocks from Ketcham Elementary School, a DCPS school that serves grades PK-5. Ketcham serves a similar at-risk population as DC Prep’s Anacostia Elementary Campus, including over 85% African American and economically disadvantaged student populations. Ketcham’s math student achievement was higher than the city’s average on PARCC in 2016, but still well below the average across DC Prep’s public elementary schools.”

The date of DC Prep’s application for its new school location (at 1409 V St. SE) is January 13, 2017. But DC Prep had purchased the site—a former Catholic school closed in 2007–in spring 2016. By fall 2016, the building was undergoing extensive renovations.

Now, almost a year after that $2 million purchase, the public process component for DC Prep’s new location is being addressed by the charter board—after the school has already undergone extensive renovations for that purpose and while an existing DCPS school two blocks away has higher than average test scores.

Setting aside such costly duplication of public education resources in a two-block space, what is the likelihood of DC Prep investing millions in a school that will not get approved?

(Ironically, several years ago, Greater Greater Washington had written about the closed Catholic school becoming a visitor center for the nearby Frederick Douglass historic site.)

And just when you think this whole new-schools-disguised-as-enrollment-ceiling-increases thing cannot be weirder for the people actually paying the bills (that would be us unwashed DC taxpayers), I discovered that the person in charge of KIPP DC’s real estate and community relations is Althea Holford.

Until sometime in 2016, Holford had been working for the deputy mayor for education on—wait for it—public school facilities, which job she held after several years at DGS overseeing the RFO process for DCPS schools being offered to charters, like Winston is right now.

Meanwhile, underenrolled and unmodernized DCPS schools exist in the wards that KIPP DC and DC Prep hope to expand in–just like Winston once was.

Now that we know that two DC charter franchisors leveraged in less than one year a cool $7 million on public education real estate in wards 7 and 8 (for one, from a Ward 2 office at the Watergate), I gotta ask:

Why are DC taxpayers late to this $7 million public education party?

6 thoughts on “Happening Right Now: Proposals for Five New DC Schools–and Almost 4000 New School Seats

  1. I would say this is what no real collaboration between sectors; public school planning; or wise use of public $$ looks like. I cannot recount all the times I have been told by public officials that if MY school gets X, another school will not get Y–because public $$ only go so far.

    OK–so why isn’t anyone decrying this move? Apparently we have public money to expand school seats infinitely–but not to support existing schools. You can’t have it both ways–so which is it?


  2. Aren’t many of the funds used for these purchases and renovations raised privately? Yes, charters get a facility stipend, but that just covers the cost to operate the buildings. DCPS renovations and buildings (like Ballou, Roosevelt, and the whopping $250M Ellington that will only take a few hundred kids) are funded from the city’s capital budget – those are the places where we the public should be outraged for rampant spending with little community input.

    As a taxpayer, I’m totally fine with private dollars paying for a public resource. Especially if it means more good schools that will attract and keep families in the District.


    1. Yes, it is true that funds for purchases and buildings can be raised privately by charter operators. But that obscures this process as it plays out in DC. When a charter operator here builds or renovates a school, it often takes out a private mortgage based on future per pupil facility allocations from the DC government. So taxpayer money can be–and is–used to underwrite real estate that the public might not actually own. In the case of KIPP DC’s 12 acres mentioned here, for instance, KIPP DC owns that land–not DC. And any building that KIPP DC creates there will be owned by KIPP DC no matter what funds it is created with.

      Moreover, there no tracking by DC of any of its annual per pupil facility allocations to our DC charter schools–more than $1 billion in DC public money thus far. The rationale behind that lack of tracking is that it frees charter schools to use that money however they deem it best–but the downside is that we the people supplying that money do not know what it is used for. And we do not have a good way to know what percentage of private money is used for such real estate transactions by charter operators–at least, I could not see that explicitly in the annual reporting they do nor in the reporting the charter board does in its 5, 10, and 15 year reports.

      While it is true that DCPS renovations are entirely funded by capital funds, that accounting is much clearer and entirely to the public’s benefit: there is an appropriation process that is publicly vetted and approved by elected officials. And in the end, those DCPS buildings are entirely owned by the city that pays for them and is obliged to use them for the public’s benefit.

      While the cost of Ellington is outrageous, we own that school–literally–and we can hold the people who approved its renovation and its cost accountable: our mayor and council members, who are elected by us. But the process I outlined here is almost completely reversed from that: someone buys land to make a school, then justifies the creation of that school to unelected, appointed officials (the charter board), then the community weighs in to those same unelected officials, and if the school is approved, the community pays for it–regardless of community desire or ownership.


  3. Thank you for your fairness in explanation Valerie. I’m not sure if people are totally aware of what is going on.

    Some of these charters are real estate companies. They are securing land and property under the auspices of educating poor and low-income children. Some of them are relatively good at it. But that doesn’t change the facts of what they are. Public support of charters is rooted in an assumption and supported by misinformation and manipulated sentiment.

    The charter movement was an experiment and at its genius may have been useful. Parents wanted options. That generation of parents has moved on. DCPS has since improved and has the attention, capacity and resource to continue positively up that continuum.

    DCPS should not be allowed to shave its duty to all students. It undermines the duty of government to educate its citizenry. In the case of Winston, DCPS took Winston, with relatively substantial reasoning, from the community. But it should come back as a DCPS school because the factors that existed and used to justify its closure are no longer true. There are only 2 DCPS middle schools in Ward 7. By right it should be at least 3 based on geography, populations, government responsibility and interest.

    I am a Hillcrest resident and this circling attack on the neighborhood has created dissonance. As someone who has organized in this community, Ward 7 at large and the city in general, these moves by charters are disruptive. At the end of the day, the people of Single Member District of 7B05 will have the final say. That SMD representative, who is also the chair of ANC 7B05 has moved the community through the neighborhood association of Hillcrest HCCA to oppose KIPP’s ceiling increase. Both the Hillcrest Civic Association and ANC 7B will be in opposition to KIPP’s request on the 20th of March.

    While the opinions on the ground are divergent, the consensus is that this charter school attack will not happen with the community’s agreement. The larger community is more interested in protecting the quality and continuity of its quality of life than a charter’s profit.


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