The Reopening of Van Ness Elementary School

Poised for Success?

On Tuesday, Sept. 23, I joined dozens of hopeful future Van Ness Elementary School parents and community members, to learn more about DCPS’s plans to reopen their school. Van Ness Elementary, just across M Street from the Washington Navy Yard, closed in 2006 due to the razing of multiple dwelling units in the immediate area. DCPS officials confirmed that the school will reopen for Fall 2015 and that the $15 million renovation budget is still in place.

Dr. Beers, Head of Specialized Instruction for DCPS and the DCPS spokesperson for the evening, faced a largely displeased crowd, concerned about most of DCPS’s long term and more immediate actions with regard to the school. While the building is currently partially in use by adults, the $15 million will be much needed to bring it to the condition necessary to host young children daily. Dr. Beers is optimistic about the ability to prepare much of the building for students. However, he also stressed that it is likely that more money will be needed later to complete the renovation. Specifically the third floor will probably remain un-renovated now and then will be renovated down the line when the additional classrooms are needed.

Van Ness supporters expressed their desire that a school leader be put in place before the date indicated by DCPS, July 1, 2015. They feel that it will be very hard to “sell” the school to prospective parents without an effective leader in place. That person would actively promote the school and his/her vision for it while also making sure that every detail would be in place before school opens.

Dr. Beers disappointed the crowd immensely when he stated that, not only would a school leader NOT be in place before the stated date, but that they would actually be starting with a School Director rather than a Principal. Upon further clarification though, it was revealed that perhaps, since a School Director comes from different funds than a Principal, this person could be brought on board earlier in the process. This detail will have to be clarified as Van Ness parents move forward.

A curricular model for the new school was also a topic of discussion. It was indicated that the model will likely be Tools of the Mind, a highly successful early childhood program that is widely used in DCPS schools. Other options are still on the table, though, and a final decision will be made as the community and DCPS work together in coming months.

Ivan Frishberg, ANC representative and Brent Elementary School parent, spoke passionately about the Brent community’s offer to support Van NNess'sreopening. Brent is geographically near Van Ness, has many students from the Van Ness neighborhood, and several teachers who live in the boundary . In addition, Van Ness and Brent will be feeding into the same middle school, Jefferson, and Brent parent leaders have a desire to help support fellow feeder schools.

Dr. Beers was equivocal in his statements about the proffered assistance. He acknowledged that such help would be welcome for the new school, but also stressed that the Brent administration needs to keep its focus on its own school. It remains to be seen what kind of collaboration will be permitted officially. As a Brent parent myself, I have no doubt that the Brent community will lend its support unofficially if necessary.

Van Ness area parents have been insisting for a few years now that the population is there to fill several early childhood and early elementary school classrooms. To the dismay of those assembled, Dr. Nathaniel Beers reiterated downtown’s decision to open only with PK-3 and PK-4 classrooms (two classrooms for each grade, with 16 kids in each PK-3 classroom and 20 kids in each PK-4).

There were several impassioned pleas from attendees to reconsider this decision. Organizers feel that it will undermine the legitimacy of the school not to have a by-right grade and that it will leave out many students whose parents had been working hard to reopen the school.

Particularly moving were the requests by long-time neighborhood residents who expressed that not only will their own children be left out, but that many other parents feel that by leaving their Kindergarten-aged children out, they were just creating a school for others. One couple spoke eloquently about their ten mile round trip walk with their PK-4 child each day to get her to Amidon-Bowen Elementary School and back.

Amidon-Bowen is the current by-right school for the Van Ness area. Located in Southwest, it is quite and across a major artery (South Capitol Street) from much of the Van Ness boundary. Few of the future Van Ness families have children there now so they are unlikely to enroll their children in Kindergarten there for the 2015-2016 school year.

Dr. Beers indicated expressly that the Van Ness community should put together a list of families who would seriously consider enrolling their children in Kindergarten at Van Ness for the 2015-2016 school year if that grade were offered. If a sufficient number of families indicated such interest, he agreed that DCPS would reconsider its decision.

The Kindergarten would consist of two classes of approximately 20-22 students each. Students would benefit from the incredible work of an inspiring team of parents who have gone to great lengths to get this school reopened. With the amount of work the community has done and is prepared to do, It is clear that any school they are behind will be a successful one.

There are already several in bounds kids who would be enrolled in Kindergarten if it were offered. Additional parents should, ideally, be those who would otherwise be turning to charter or private schools. In other words, the goal is not to take kids away from other neighborhood public schools. Naturally, however, if the academic model or other features of someone’s local public school are not a good fit for a particular child, it would certainly be reasonable to pursue an Out of Bounds placement at Van Ness as countless other families do across the city.

Obvious candidates are those who are currently at Apple Tree Public Charter School and Eagle Academy, both of which focus on younger students. Other Hill charter schools that have a less inspired track record are Friendship Chamberlain, Friendship Blow Pierce, and Center City Capitol Hill. Some of the parents there might be ready for a change.

Additionally there are students who are at area daycares and private programs who will need a Kindergarten option. Families who were pursuing private or Catholic schools but did not find the right fit (or financial aid package) would also be likely interested parties. Lastly, families looking for a house In Bounds for a quality school could consider buying so that their Kindergartner could attend Van Ness.

I strongly urge families with current PK-4 students, whether they are in school or not, to e-mail the Van Ness parents group to express interest in learning more about the school. I study and visit a huge number of schools yearly and I have been certain for two years that this is going to be another really great option for our neighborhood kids. The Van Ness parents can be reached at VanNessparentgroup@gmail.com.

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting. She works with hundreds of families each year, helping them to find the right school for their child. From public to charter to private and parochial, E.V. helps families navigate the lottery system and private school applications. As the mother of an autistic child, she also commits part of her practice to helping support special education children in the area, especially in public and charter schools. A graduate of DCPS, she lives on Capitol Hill. Her daughter is in fourth grade at Brent and her son is in seventh grade at Parkmont School in NW.