City quietly drops Ivymount program from Stevens School project

The historic Stevens School is slated for renovations as part of Akridge's redevelopment of its former playground. (Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

The District has quietly scrapped five years of planning to house a special education program at the vacant Stevens School, a reversal that frustrated both program leaders and community members.

Ivymount School, a Rockville-based nonprofit that provides special education services, was selected in 2012 to run a program at the now-vacant historic building at 1050 21st St. NW in the West End. Akridge and a team of developers plan agreed to renovate the historic three-story school building in exchange for the rights to construct a 10-story office building on part of the city-owned property.

The decision to move away from Ivymount — which will leave the Stevens School vacant until the city can strike another deal for the space — followed months of uncertainty and funding cuts. According to Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson balked at the program’s cost after assuming the position in February.

“There were a bunch of different pieces that were great in a letter of intent, but we never created a letter of agreement,” Niles said in an interview June 5. “It was a powerful idea in 2012. It’s now not 2012 anymore.”

Ivymount’s CEO Jan Wintrol wasn’t completely surprised.

“You can understand someone new coming in town was not necessarily going to want to work in this way at the Stevens School,” she said in an interview.

At the June 21 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End), commissioners voted unanimously to authorize the use of ANC funds to file a Freedom of Information Act request to make details of the decision-making process public. ANC 2A members have criticized the city for failing to strike a deal with what they see as a worthwhile program.

The D.C. Public Schools system sees the move away from Ivymount as consistent with goals of providing special education in individual schools, as opposed to forcing students with special needs to attend a centralized program, according to spokesperson Janae Hinson.

“Because we can serve students with Autism levels 1 and 2 in neighborhood schools, DCPS is not moving forward with establishing the program in the Stevens building,” Hinson wrote in an email. “We will continue to work with Ivymount as a vital partner in our neighborhood schools so that every student’s needs are met.”

The final decision comes after a long period of confusion in the community over the project status. Niles sent ANC 2A a letter on May 17, writing that D.C. Public Schools “has decided not to move forward with” the original agreement with Ivymount, which stretches back to former Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration.

That letter from the deputy mayor suggested Ivymount could still return to the space in another form, but Wintrol said that option wasn’t on the table.

“We are out of the whole Stevens School,” she said. “Time kills all deals, it seems.”

Wintrol said that Ivymount currently provides consulting services to D.C. Public Schools and they “still maintain a really good working relationship.”

Meanwhile, Akridge and its two partner developers still plan to finish renovating the school, but most of the interior work will be on hold until a use has been determined, Akridge vice principal David Toney told The Current.

Construction of the office and retail building at 2100 L St. NW is slated to begin “early next year” after a temporary fire station and former Humane Society of the United States office building are demolished, according to Toney. The new building would then open in approximately 2020.

Staff writer Mark Lieberman contributed to this report.