Mayor Bowser announces plans to renovate District schools to account for student need

Duke Ellington School for the Arts underwent renovation in 2016. Photo courtesy of Jerrye and Roy Klotz.
Duke Ellington School for the Arts underwent renovation in 2016. Photo courtesy of Jerrye and Roy Klotz.

By: Davis Kennedy

Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced, thanks to a projection of continued substantial growth in the number of students, her plans to invest $1.6 billion in continued renovation and modernization of schools over the next six years. So far, about 80 percent of District schools have been at least partially renovated since 2002.

Since 2008, public school enrollment has grown an average of 2.8 percent annually and is expected to grow from the 2017-18 school year’s total of 91,484 students to, in 10 years, just under 110,000 students. This includes public and charter schools. By the 2027-28 school year, the projection is that there will be 122,000 students.

The figures, however, do not take into account private school enrollment. During the recent five-year period, the number of public elementary school students increased by 16 percent more than any other grade level. The number of high school students increased by six percent.

 District children can attend the schools in their neighborhood as a matter of “by-right.” They may also apply to schools outside their neighborhoods as well as privately run public charter schools. About 26 percent of students attend their “by-right” school, while 27 percent are enrolled in a public school outside their “by-right” boundaries.

About 47 percent are enrolled in a public charter school. A recent study noted the share for charter schools started at 36 percent in 2008-09. The study concluded the charter school share would increase to 62 percent of public school students in five years and 73 percent in 2027-28.

Calculating school enrollments for District schools and types of schools, in particular, has considerable room for error due to the enrollment choice policies. The study called for the school system to prepare annual attendance updates.

The District, the study stated, is planning to increase pre-kindergarten classes at existing elementary schools, convert a former charter school to a regular public school, and create two new high school programs over the next 10 years.

Numerous charter schools are planning to offer additional grades in their current facilities and expanding enrollment in them as well as in future facilities. The study, however, found that some of these plans are strictly aspirational.

Currently, the study found public schools as a whole are 80 percent utilized with 212 facilities housing 249 public schools for the 91,484 public school students. The study also found that about a fifth of the schools are overcrowded – at over 95 percent capacity while a quarter is underutilized – at under 65 percent capacity.

Overcrowding is a particularly severe problem in Ward 3 for regular public schools and Ward 5 for charter schools. There are underutilized regular public schools in every ward in the city – except in Ward 3 and underutilized charter schools in every ward except Wards 3 and 5, which doesn’t have charter schools.

The lowest number of public school facilities are in Wards 2 and 3. The highest number is in Wards 5 and 8. Ward 3 has the highest percentage of school utilization at 95 percent. Ward 2 is slightly behind with 92 percent. In both, the study found that many schools are now overcrowded and will continue to be in both five and 10 years.

The lowest utilization is in Ward 5 with 71 percent. Ward 7 has 78 percent utilization and Ward 8 has 79 percent. Overall, District enrollment is expected to outpace school capacity by the school year 2027-28 in all wards except Wards 5 and 6.

Over three-quarters of the public school facilities (87 buildings) have been either modernized or renovated since 2002. Seventy-one schools have been modernized or renovated since 2009. Twenty additional schools are slated for modernization between now and 2024.

The condition of all District-owned school facilities will be assessed by 2020 by third-party civil engineering firms. These firms studied for the first time the facilities of the 49 privately held charter school buildings. They found that 85 percent of the District-owned buildings were in “good” or “fair” condition, but only 71 percent of the non-District owned charter school buildings fell into that same category.

Charter schools are responsible for securing their own facilities. Thirty-one charter schools leased District-owned buildings while 40 leased their buildings privately or commercially.

Twenty-two charters owned their own facilities and nine owned a former public school building. The District government is not a party to the private leases. The city also maintains 13 public school buildings the public school system uses for “swing space” when other buildings are being modernized. Some of these are currently vacant.

The study, which was conducted by AECOM under the supervision of the Deputy Mayor for Education, Paul Kihn, recommended that the number of “unique program offerings” be increased across the District “in order to achieve the strategic goals by sector and promote improved utilization of underutilized facilities. Over 40 percent of the students were in schools offering at least one special program, while only a third of the schools offered such a program.

The most common “unique program offerings” were dual language programs, which comprised 21 percent of the programs offered. Next came Career Technical Education at 13 percent followed by International Baccalaureate at 12 percent.

Ward 1 students have the best access to such programs, but Ward 3 students have the least. The study recommended increased access to these programs across the District. Parents, the study stated, expressed a desire for increased access to them in their home wards.

While transportation costs are not a major barrier for most public school families thanks to free ridership on Metrorail, parents “consistently raised transportation and access to schools as a concern” during the study. The level of service across the District, the study found, is uneven due to differences in the proximity and frequency of Metrorail and bus service.

Higher service levels are concentrated mostly in the central parts of the city making “it difficult for some students living in other areas … to travel by public transit to their school, whether it is their neighborhood school or [a] school of choice.” The study recommended an in-depth transportation study to be able to make changes that will increase student access to schools.

About 88 percent of District students live within a half-mile walking distance to their school or from a public transit stop to their school or specialized program. About 94 percent of school facilities are within a half-mile walk from a public transit stop. Private bus transportation is also available for students with special needs.

About 40 percent of all public school students were enrolled at a school that offered at least one specialized program last year. However, just one-third of all school facilities in the District offered at least one specialized program – 76 of 212. Of those, 64 percent were in public school facilities. The study stated that public school students in Ward 1 had the most access to specialized programs while Ward 3 had the least.

The majority of the District’s public school students can either walk or ride public transit to a school with one or more specialized programs. About 26 percent of students, not counting private school students, were enrolled in a “by-right” public school and 27 percent were enrolled in a public school other than their by-right school. About 47 percent were enrolled in a public charter school.

Students in Wards 1, 2, 3, and 4 had the highest in-boundary student enrollment growth over the past five years. However, in-boundary enrollment at public schools in Wards 5, 7, and 8 decreased during the period. Half the charter school students do not live in the ward where their school is located. Population growth projections for the study were provided by the D.C. Office of Planning.

Kihn said, “With this new data in hand, we will work to optimize underutilized District buildings and land for educational uses, to expand collaboration between DC Public Schools and Public Charter Schools, and expand the number of top quality facilities to support our students. Delivering clear and accurate data like we have done with the Master Facilities Plan will be central to our future facilities planning.”

Kihn contracted with AECOM to develop the plan. It was the first study to take into account the growth of both regular public and public charter schools. There were public workshops throughout the District as well as in-person surveys with community organizations, school parents, school employees, and city government employees among others.

In-person surveys took place outside recordation enters, libraries, grocery stores, metro stations, apartment buildings, and schools. Over 600 people participated in the public outreach process.

The study stated that public sentiment “strongly advocates for transparency about how data is used to inform planning decisions with the sharing of information … with the public as a critical component.”

Planning decisions must address both the city as a whole and “the specific needs of the wards, school boundaries, and neighborhoods.” Public sentiment also calls for “more options for specialized programs in all areas” and “finding creative solutions for underutilized and overcrowded schools.”

AECOM, the study preparer, is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and is headquartered in Los Angeles. According to Kihn, it has a great deal of experience in studying school systems around the nation with about 87,000 employees.

The city code requires the Deputy Mayor for Education to prepare 10-year plans. Bowser pointed out that the plan is the first to ever include both regular public schools and public charter schools.

She wrote it will help the District “more efficiently prioritize and allocate capital funding.” The recommendations, she added, “will aid us as we continue closing opportunity and achievement gaps and enable us to build more city and excellence into our public and charter school systems.”