Schools vie for Stevens site after Ivymount’s departure from project

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

Now that the Ivymount special-needs education program has been dropped from the long-planned rehabilitation of the Stevens School, a key question remains for the West End community: What will take its place?

With the Ivymount program shelved due to the school system’s changing priorities toward special education, neighborhood leaders now want the 1050 21st St. NW site to be restored to its original public school use. Their vision for the now-vacant site is a third location for the in-demand School Without Walls, which currently operates a magnet high school at 2130 G St. NW in Foggy Bottom and serves pre-K through eighth grade at the former Francis-Stevens Education Campus, 2425 N St. NW. Meanwhile, charter schools remain in the mix for Stevens as well.

At the July 19 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End), Richard Livingstone from the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations said the Bowser administration considers a possible public school use its current top choice. He also reported that Bowser wants a “truncated” timeline for deciding the site’s future and installing a new education program.

Community meetings in late August and September, along with ongoing studies of demographic needs in the area, will guide the city in its search for the site’s new education partner, according to Ahnna Smith, chief of staff for Deputy Mayor of Education Jennie Niles. The exact dates and times of those meetings will be announced soon, Smith told The Current on Tuesday.

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans is among the stakeholders backing the idea to add School Without Walls to the Stevens School project. He told The Current on Monday that he has support from Bowser, who responded favorably to the suggestion when the two met within the past two weeks, according to Evans. “Using it for a public school space has a lot of potential,” Evans said.

Developer Akridge and its partners agreed in 2012 to renovate the historic three-story Stevens School building — a public elementary school that closed in 2008 — in exchange for the rights to construct a 10-story office building on the school’s former playground. The Rockville-based Ivymount was set to host a program for 50 students in the renovated school space. But in May, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson decided to drop Ivymount from the project due to the school system’s ongoing efforts to incorporate special education into existing classrooms rather than adding separate facilities.

Furthermore, the city now plans to retain ownership of the Stevens School property after Akridge completes its renovation, according to Smith.

ANC 2A’s Florence Harmon, who represents an area that includes the Stevens School site, came up with the idea of adding a Walls campus there. She has been railing against the city for its handling of the project at various points since 2008, when then-D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee permanently closed Stevens despite substantial opposition. Community protests also blocked efforts to sell the entire property to developers.

Named for Thaddeus Stevens, a member of Congress from Pennsylvania who championed an anti-slavery agenda as a leader of the Radical Republicans around the time of the Civil War, the school was built in 1868 as one of the city’s first public school facilities for African-Americans. It was populated in large part at first by recently freed slaves.

Harmon thought the original decision to shift the use to private or charter programs was a mistake. At her prompting, ANC 2B (Dupont Circle) voted unanimously July 12 to request that the city assign the Stevens School space to School Without Walls; ANC 2A followed suit a week later. “To have that history erased would be just the most sad thing that one could imagine,” Harmon said at last week’s ANC 2B meeting.

Prior to becoming part of Schools Without Walls, Francis-Stevens nearly closed in 2012 due to low enrollment. A vigorous community effort convinced city officials to keep it open, and the investment has paid off: Both Walls campuses are now at capacity, with a combined 900-student waiting list.

Evans thinks the Stevens School would make an ideal location for Walls’ pre-K through first grade, easing the burden on the N Street campus. Meanwhile, a Ross Elementary parent at Wednesday’s ANC 2A meeting said parents in his community think a middle school there would be ideal.

But the public school plan isn’t a done deal. The newly available site has also attracted interest from several charter schools in recent weeks, according to Evans, who said he hasn’t ruled out that possibility as the best path forward.

Back in 2012, four non-D.C. Public Schools entities vied with Ivymount to be the project’s education provider in the project. Two of those four contenders — Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School and the GEMS private school — no longer exist. Another, Eagle Academy, which has locations in Congress Heights and Capitol Riverfront, would eagerly accept the Ivymount slot, head of school Joe Smith told The Current last week.

“I think that would be really exciting to have a small school over there for level 4 special education kids,” Smith said. “We’d be happy to do that, or a regular school. It doesn’t matter to us.”

Smith said he was surprised to learn from The Current’s phone call that Ivymount had left the project, and expressed frustration that the city hadn’t already contacted him about a possible partnership.

A representative of AppleTree Institute, the fourth contender against Ivymount a half-decade ago, did not return a request for comment.

Another charter school possibility could come from West End resident Don McGovern of the D.C. Association of Public Charter Schools and his wife, Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern. The couple has plans to partner with George Washington University on an elementary public charter in the neighborhood, potentially at the Stevens School site, Don McGovern said at Wednesday’s ANC 2A meeting. The project team for that program will meet next week with Niles’ office about the Stevens School site, he said.

At the ANC 2B meeting, Harmon said she doesn’t support the possibility of a charter school partnering with the project, especially if that decision is made without an opportunity for public input. Several ANC 2A commissioners concurred on Wednesday night, though the commission’s Detrick Campbell said he’d welcome a public charter there.

Harmon and other residents see the Stevens School as an important landmark whose use shouldn’t be dramatically altered. Stevens School’s distinguished alumni include Washington Post columnist Colby King, blood transfusion pioneer Charles Drew, local radio and TV host Petey Greene and legendary singer Roberta Flack. President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy also famously attended Stevens, which at the time was the in-boundary public school for the White House.

This post has been updated with information from the July 19 meeting of ANC 2A.