Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

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DC Prep CEO Laura Maestas and her colleagues had a lot of explaining to do. More than a dozen Ward 8 residents showed up to the DC Public Charter School Board’s Monday meeting irate. They carried signs that read “#NoDCPreponFrankford!”

DC Prep is trying to open a middle school for 4th to 8th graders in Ward 8, likely at 1619 Frankford St. SE, and has enraged nearby residents in the process. The conflict pitted educators against homeowners, charter school heads against its board, and Ward 8 residents against Ward 8 residents. It’s the latest example of how the District’s lack of comprehensive planning for where to build new schools can create disarray. 

“As a neighbor living 25 feet away from this proposed building, there was zero outreach from this school,” Stephanie Bell told the PCSB. “The only reason that I know about it is because surveyors trespassed on my property while doing a survey for DC Prep.”  

“The behavior we see today from DC Prep indicates to me that this relationship is beyond repair and they will never be a partner to this neighborhood,” said another Ward 8 resident who lives near the proposed site, Sarah Woodruff.   

Maestas and her colleagues admitted to not engaging with the community. DC Prep found the Frankford Street location, an old church, in mid-July and reached out to the seller shortly thereafter to place a deposit. DC Prep founder and board member Emily Lawson said they were quick to put in an offer before speaking with nearby residents because there were potentially multiple buyers interested in the property.  

“Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to be the first people there to say, ‘Here is what we’re thinking about, here is what we are doing,’ because we had just started to think about it,” said Lawson.  

DC Prep also did not contact the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for that area, Darrell Gaston, who represents 8B04. But he did figure it out.

“I saw people in my backyard—it was a bunch of white people. This is a black community so that catches your attention. They were walking around here in private property, so I introduced myself,” Gaston tells City Desk.  

Gaston said the realtor company, Cresa, initially told him in early August that its client was interested in building affordable housing, but later, in a follow-up phone call, revealed the client was actually a high-performing charter school. The next day, he got an email from Maestas. Gaston immediately then notified his neighbors.

Gaston invited DC Prep representatives to a neighborhood meeting on Aug. 21, where residents voiced concerns about having another charter middle school in the area. There are already four schools, two of which are middle schools, less than a mile away from 1619 Frankford Street SE. Residents worried that another school would result in more traffic, loitering, and have adverse effects on their property values. 

During that Aug. 21 meeting, Maestas suggested that DC Prep was looking into other properties for its middle school and that the Frankford location wasn’t a done deal, Gaston recalls. Given this, he started to look for other options for DC Prep and even enlisted help from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. 

At Monday’s board meeting, Maestas made it clear that the Frankford location was DC Prep’s most viable option. “We would be closing in December,” she said. Maestas’s statement was immediately met with cries from Frankford residents in the audience.     

DC PCSB has complete authority to open and close charter schools across the District. The city’s involvement is limited to the District Department of Transportation, as charters need to submit a site plan to determine the feasibility of a prospective building. DC Prep already submitted a preliminary conceptual plan for the Frankford Street location to DDOT in early September. 

DC Prep was not asking the board’s permission to open its sixth school at Frankford Street just yet. Monday’s board meeting was actually about its plans to open a temporary middle school location at 2501 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, the former Birney Elementary School building, effective academic year 2020. The board would vote on this proposal in November. But it’s unclear whether DC Prep will be able to stay at Birney after the 2021-22 school year, as Excel Academy Public School has a lease on the space now and is the primary occupant. Excel’s lease is ending and its long-term plans are unknown to DC Prep. DCPS would only tell City Desk that it is exploring Excel’s options.

“I would not be pursuing Frankford Street if I thought for sure we can go and remain at Birney,” said Maestas. “It feels irresponsible to our families who are counting on us to not continue to explore the best possible option which is Frankford street.” 

DC Prep currently serves Ward 8 residents at its Anacostia Elementary campus on 1409 V St. SE. Ward 8 resident LaShone Davis, a parent of a DC Prep Anacostia Elementary School student, spoke in favor of the opening of a middle school. “It would be an honor to have a school that is located in the same area. Some of us have two or three children at DC Prep Anacostia and then we have to travel across town to actually to take our children to the other schools.” Maestas later told City Desk that “our families want DC Prep to open a middle school in Ward 8. It’s not just about having ‘a school’ nearby. Our families believe we can offer them something that they can’t find elsewhere.”

The PCSB meeting went on for hours, as residents spoke for and against DC Prep’s expansion plans. At moments, it got especially heated. Those who opposed the expansion said DC Prep perpetuated the school-to-prison pipeline due to its suspension rates. (Maestas says DC Prep has worked hard to decrease its suspension rates; for example, Benning Middle School had a suspension rate of 24 percent in academic year 2016 and eight percent in 2018.) Another resident said, “It does not seem as if it is meant for the community, but meant for the current students that would be transferred in.” While those in favor, spoke about its Tier 1 school status. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon Whiteopposed DC Prep building on Frankford Street, sending an aid to the meeting to read a letter to the PCSB on his behalf.       

“Albeit it has been very respectful, there should not be people standing up here with signs and fighting each other over where a school will and will not go,” said PCSB member Naomi Shelton. She’s served on the board for roughly two years. “I don’t like sitting here seeing people fight over simple things that we can have the people we elected figure out.” 

Shelton expressed empathy toward Frankford Street residents, telling DC Prep officials: “I would encourage whatever discussions you have between you and the community going forward, start with an apology with what has happened thus far.” 

The board member was met with a round of applause from everyone in the room. Shelton also faulted city officials, from the mayor’s office to the Council, who are “well aware” of the problems operators have locating facilities. 

“At the end of the day, the children … they are being hindered by an uncoordinated effort to figure out where children can go,” said Shelton. “How are we not thinking about not only co-location, but collaboration between our charter and public schools?” 

In an email to City Desk, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said his office understands the challenges charters face in securing facilities due to the population growth. That’s why, he says, the city continues to increase charter school facility allotments year after year. The city increased the allowance by 2.2 percent in 2018, up to $3,193 per student.

“DC Prep has made some inquiries to our office concerning property availability, and we have been responsive to those inquiries. We have also reminded them of the current Request For Offers from charter schools underway at the Ferebee Hope location. At this point we do not believe there is any other city property available to meet their needs,” writes Kihn.  

Shelton’s calls for collaboration between public and charter schools sounded all too familiar to Caryn Ernst, a public school parent who was part of the mayor’s Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force. Launched in 2015, the task force was charged with making recommendations that would promote collaboration and coherence between all schools to improve overall efficiency and effectiveness. Facility planning inevitably came up. 

“How do we coordinate so that we are not setting up more and more schools [in places] that are already saturated by schools and cannibalizing schools that are already there? That was never addressed,” says Ernst. Looking at the data, Ernst said, Ward 7 and 8 suffered the worst of this—that is, setting up competition that is not sustainable. “The Charter school board blocked any substantive policy changes around schools opening and closing decisions, openings in particular.” 

Ernst, who ultimately decided to leave the task force, was happy to learn about Shelton’s calls for public-charter collaboration during Monday’s board meeting. But Ernst also says it’s challenging to create such methodical collaboration when the PCSB has full autonomy over the opening and closing of schools. 

Maestas did contact Gaston late Wednesday evening, taking Shelton’s recommendation that she communicate with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission following Monday’s meeting. Maestas tells City Desk she feels badly for everything. If she could go back in time and do it again differently, she would. For this, DC Prep is pausing the surveying at Frankford Street and holding a November meeting about the location with DDOT. DC Prep is also planning to send an open letter with updates addressed to everyone from Mayor Muriel Bowser to Ward 8B04 residents. 

“The challenge for us is if we do not have access to city facilities there is no way identify spaces other than going and looking at every listing we can find,” says Maestas. “Honestly, I don’t know what the systemic [or] policy answer is to prevent situations like the one we’re in.”  

Gaston, for his part, is confident DC Prep will move into 1619 Frankford St. SE. His experience with Rocketship Rise Academy Public Charter School getting the board’s approval despite pushback informs this opinion. Now, Gaston is hoping to get every ANC in Ward 8 to pass a resolution in November that calls on the Council to pass a “comprehensive and equality” plan specific to his ward and would require Kihn’s office to produce a performance evaluation for all existing schools; place a moratorium on new schools, both charter and public; and create an assessment plan for any new school.