Staff Editorial: Walls program could be good fit for Stevens

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

Stevens School has a storied history of providing public education in the West End. But since 2008, the historic building at 1050 21st St. NW has sat vacant — prime real estate sought repeatedly by developers and educators alike. Today, we’re excited about a community effort to create a third School Without Walls campus there. We hope it proves viable.

After neighbors successfully fought off private development plans, a painstaking process resulted in the selection of a developer-educator team to take over the property: Akridge would construct an office building on the school’s L Street NW playground and renovate the historic Stevens building for Ivymount, a Rockville-based special-needs program that was already serving many D.C. students.

Amid numerous delays, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson stepped down before the program could open — and her replacement, Antwan Wilson, prefers to handle special education internally and therefore dropped the Ivymount program from Stevens.

We feel great sympathy for Ivymount, which invested significant time and energy in the Stevens site. At the same time, we see tremendous potential for an alternative use for Stevens that more closely reflects its public-education heritage.

This change is particularly valuable given the exploding demand for D.C. public schools in the Foggy Bottom/West End area. In 2008, Stevens Elementary closed because of flagging enrollment and was merged with nearby Francis Junior High to form the Francis-Stevens Education Campus. Then, just four years later, the District proposed closing Francis-Stevens as well.

Broad community pressure and a clever branding initiative reversed the school’s fortunes — and now it’s bursting at its seams. The District brought Francis-Stevens under the leadership of the School Without Walls magnet high school, and Walls’ stellar reputation — plus a lot of hard work — boosted demand for the renamed School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens. Now, both the pre-K-through-eighth-grade open enrollment program and the Walls magnet high school have long waiting lists.

Many community leaders are calling for Stevens to become a third Walls campus, either for Francis-Stevens’ middle school students or its youngest ones. We agree that such a concept shows great promise for providing extra capacity for the Walls program, given the rare opportunity of an unused school building in a high-demand area.

We would raise one note of caution: D.C. Public Schools must ensure that a third campus wouldn’t spread Walls’ administrators too thin, and the school system must work with the school communities at both of the current campuses in ensuring the plan’s viability. Fortunately, the high school was able to absorb the unrelated Francis-Stevens program despite initial tensions, so we’re optimistic that Walls can handle the addition of a third building that would not fundamentally alter the school’s makeup.