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If Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s plan to replace the D.C. General family shelter with smaller-scale facilities across the city is approved, schools may have to adjust to a minor influx of students—causing some concerns about crowding.
At a D.C. Council oversight hearing on D.C. Public Schools, those worries were made manifest by the Ward 3 and Ward 6 councilmembers—Mary Cheh and Charles Allen—who have indicated that they support Bowser’s plan. Since the shelters’ sites were announced in February, detractors of the ward-based strategy have expressed concerns over property values, crime, and transparency to varying degrees. The District has offered the new facilities as a practical way to shutter D.C. General (which most residents agree needs to occur) and ultimately end family homelessness in the city.
But at the hearing, Allen and Cheh asked DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson about the system’s preparations for possibly transitioning kids who will be of school-age when D.C. General is expected to close, in late 2018, to schools in areas where the shelters are planned. In particular, they said the Stoddert and Amidon-Bowen elementary schools in Wards 3 and 6, respectively, already serve students at or near their full capacities. “We’re bursting at the seams,” Cheh explained.
“It’s something that we’re working on,” Henderson testified, adding that “we’re going to have to pay special attention to these schools” in regards to the support services they would be able to provide for students experiencing homelessness. DCPS says it plans to coordinate with the Department of Human Services and the mayor’s administration to ensure a smooth transition for the students who’d be living at the new shelters, designed for 30 to 50 families each, with services.
Notably, however, many of these kids may only be of daycare age, or their parent or parents may elect to send them to a charter school once they move into the smaller-scale, short-term shelters. DHS Director Laura Zeilinger explains that federal law gives D.C. families experiencing homelessness the option of sending their children to “home schools” (where they’d been enrolled before) or “inbound schools” (those within the bounds of the shelter). But data shows that almost always, families decide to keep kids at their home school, Zeilinger says, in order not to uproot them from friends and teachers.
“The majority of children in our homeless system are very young children,” the director adds, explaining that families often experience homelessness around the birth of a child. “Even parents who are in more-stable housing situations really don’t want to uproot their kid in the middle of a school year and make their kid switch schools. [Families experiencing homelessness] do have rights and those rights are there for a very good reason.”
Zeilinger says children living at D.C. General, home at the moment to more than 250 families, attend more than 55 different schools across the District. Of the children, only about two percent attend Payne Elementary, the inbound school for the family shelter, she adds. Given that parents tend to keep their children at home schools, the fact that the smaller shelters will accommodate between 30 and 50 families each, and the age-range of the kids, Zeilinger expects that only a handful of students will attend inbound schools at the ward level like Stoddert; besides, the District can make budget adjustments.
“What is important in the discussions we’ve had so far with [the Office of the State Superintendent of Education] and DCPS [is that] there’s planning they do around enrollment and how funding is distributed across schools,” Zeilinger says. “As we get closer to 2018, we will be working with DCPS so they can make any adjustments they need to make as it relates to [enrollment and budget] projections.” School liaisons will continue to help homeless families transition well.
According to My School D.C. figures, in the 2014-15 school year, Stoddert had 418 students enrolled; Amidon-Bowen had 345. Both give preference to students who live in-boundary and to those who have siblings already in attendance.
Below is a map of all the sites the Bowser administration says it considered for the new family shelters, released last month. The D.C. Council has scheduled a hearing on the mayor’s D.C. General plan for March 17.
Key: white = sites that were selected; red = proposed site was not large enough; purple = unsuccessful negotiation; orange = other reason for rejection
Photo by Darrow Montgomery