Stevens to reopen as D.C. public school after 10 years

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 long-vacant Stevens School will return to public education use for the 2018-19 school year as an early childhood center and an expansion of the nearby School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens, officials announced last week.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision is expected to end years of twists and turns regarding the fate of the 1050 21st St. NW school. After it closed in 2008 due to poor enrollment, the Foggy Bottom-West End community fought off efforts to sell the property to a developer. The school’s advocates instead secured a deal in which a private development team would construct an office building on the school’s playground but would also renovate the historic Stevens building for Ivymount, a private special needs program that has worked with D.C. Public Schools.

In the most recent upheaval, new Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson objected to Ivymount’s inclusion in the project, preferring to educate more special needs students in-house. To fill the vacuum, many West End community leaders rallied for extra School Without Walls capacity — a request that the Bowser administration accepted last week.

“The community always felt that this facility deserved a public education use,” Patrick Kennedy, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End), said in an interview. “If you told us six years ago about the public school, we probably would have opted for it.”

The latest plans for Stevens represent a remarkable turnaround for public education in the West End area. Built in 1868 for African-American children in post-Civil War Washington, Stevens was the oldest surviving public elementary school in the city until it was closed in 2008 due to low enrollment. The city consolidated it with Francis Junior High School at 2425 N St. NW to form the Francis-Stevens Education Campus, serving pre-K through eighth grade — which itself barely survived closure in 2013.

In recent years, interest in Francis-Stevens has swelled amid a concerted push to sell the school to prospective parents, especially when the District established links between the program and the prestigious School Without Walls magnet high school nearby. Now, enrollment pressures at School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens — which has 471 students and a waiting list of more than 900 — are leading the city to reopen Stevens just a decade after it was shut down.

Several charter school programs also expressed interest in the site, including some that had previously lost out to Ivymount. But Jennifer Niles, the District’s deputy mayor for education, said last week that adding the Stevens building to the Walls program will help address its long waiting list. “It’s a solution that I’m really excited about,” Niles said.

Program specifics, including its student capacity, haven’t yet been established. The original Stevens building featured 16 classrooms across four stories. “As soon as school is off to a great start, we can figure out those details,” Niles said. Officials intend to include the Francis-Stevens community in its plans, she added.

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who had helped block the Francis-Stevens closure in 2013, expressed particular enthusiasm for the early-childhood aspect of the Stevens plan.

“I’m very excited about it,” Evans said in an interview. “Early learning is very critical. … Children can be left behind.”

Changes to the Stevens School haven’t affected the commercial aspect of the project: a 10-story office and retail building at 2100 L St. NW, occupying both the former Stevens playground area and the former Humane Society of the United States headquarters site. An Akridge representative told The Current that its renovations to the Stevens building may be altered slightly to accommodate additional students, as Ivymount hadn’t expected its enrollment at the site to exceed 50.