Lab School to close pool despite community objections

The school plans to replace its swimming pool with a theater. (Brian Kapur/The Current/March 2017)

After months of debate, The Lab School has decided to replace its campus pool with a theater, as part of an institutional goal to provide an improved arts education for its students.

A larger performing arts theater will replace the existing 25-yard, six-lane indoor pool on the private school’s main campus at 4759 Reservoir Road NW, with the pool scheduled to close at the end of next summer. The school announced the decision to parents and community members in late October.

The surrounding community had been fighting to retain the pool, which Lab had been making available to the public and two local swim teams — the Dolphins and the Sea Devils — outside of school hours.

“The pool is less than 20 years old and was built specifically because many kids with learning disabilities have problems participating in traditional team sports,” reads a petition opposing the closure, which accrued 635 signatures earlier this year. “Swimming is a lifelong sport that provides these kids with therapeutic benefits, inside the classroom and out.”

Head of school Katherine Schantz told The Current that Lab has many competing needs and significant space constraints.

“It was a very difficult decision that the board and the leadership needed to make. We spent many months looking at the decision and considering it,” Schantz said. “The main reason is we had to make a choice — we’re in limited space at the Lab School.”

The school’s current black box theater is outdated, Schantz said, going on to describe its small size and “antiquated lighting and technology.” Plans for the theater are in the early stages of design, she added, and a date to begin the pool’s conversion into performance arts space hasn’t yet been determined.

While the school’s physical education classes will no longer include swimming lessons, Schantz said, Lab intends to identify an off-site swimming pool for its students in the coming months. In the meantime, Lab School leaders plan to modify its sports program, adding a yoga class among other possibilities.

“We really value sports and movement — it’s not as if they’re not getting a lot of programming,” Schantz said.

Chris Hardimon, a Sea Devils board member and former Lab School parent, said he was dismayed by the pool’s imminent closure.

“That is a treasure; that is an asset; that is a resource,” Hardimon said in an interview. “I’m just devastated over it.”

But others say the Lab School should have control over its resources.

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh said that while she had hoped the pool would stay open for community use, she understands the Lab School’s decision to close it.

“I was hoping that we could come to some sort of compromise,” Cheh told The Current. But school leaders, she added, “can obviously can make their own decision.”

Foxhall advisory neighborhood commissioner Stephen Gardner said there are no past zoning decisions specifying that the pool was a community amenity, and so the community has no legal entitlement to it. “While I’m sympathetic to the constituents and the people that use the pool, I also believe The Lab School has the prerogative and the right to convert it,” Gardner told The Current.