Somerset PCS Seeks to Stay in Ward 8

Neal Ables (third from left), poses with fellow Somerset Prep staff members and representatives from MCN Build, a Georgetown-based construction company. In November, MCN donated gym supplies to the school, including two backboards, dust mops, wood chips for the floors, first aid kits, and ice packs. Photo: Charnice A. Milton

Located on Wheeler Road, Somerset Preparatory Academy Public Charter School opened during the fall of 2013. Boasting a school model that utilizes a “21st-century classroom,” the school scored a “rising school” rating from the DC CAS. However, when the school's one-year lease ended in September, the DC Government released the building, making it available for other organizations to obtain the lease. After teaming with two other Ward 8 public charter schools, Somerset Prep and its staff are asking parents and area residents to support them as they apply for a new lease.

Background

Somerset Prep is the first DC-based school from Somerset Academy, Inc., a Florida-based public charter school network. Founded in 1997, the network currently has schools in Florida, Nevada, Texas, DC, and online. The Somerset Academy, Inc. website states that each school “...follows a state standards-based curriculum unique to the community and students it serves.” According to Somerset Prep's application, this meant offering, “... a well-rounded, dynamic educational program that will hold itself and its students accountable for meeting self-imposed goals, Common Core State Standards, DCPS Standards, and all relative standards associated with Advanced Placement (AP) and/or Dual Enrollment courses, in which the students may choose to enroll.” 

When looking for a location, Somerset Prep's Founding Board used the IIF 2012 study, “Quality Schools: Every Child, Every School, Every Neighborhood,” and identified two Wards with the greatest need: Wards 4 and 8.  “The current elementary schools in these Wards provide the opportunity for the school to have natural feeders based on the programs currently available,” stated the application.  “In addition, the implementation of a Communications and Digital Media Arts Academy, which does not exist in either Ward, adds a choice option for students and parents.” 

Somerset Prep's First Year

Currently in its second school year, Somerset Prep serves grades 6 to 9. With the motto, “Learn. Live. Lead,” the school offers extended day tutoring and enrichment programs and “21st-century classrooms,” which utilizes technology in daily lessons. For instance, Spanish I students get to practice the language while speaking to students in Miami, FL and Spain through Somerset's virtual school. Students can also take courses that allow them to earn college credit through the Scholars Academy or Technology Academy, which has a focus on communications and interactive media.  

According to the 2012-2013 DC CAS, Somerset Prep's students earned an overall index score of 47.04, which classifies the school as “rising.” “We're proud of our kids,” said Somerset's Principal Jim Griffin. “Now, we’ve still got to work hard. We had great growth, but we got to work on proficiency.” He explained that at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, many students came to Somerset with “almost zero levels in reading and math;” by the end of that year, students' scores were above the public school average. 

The Incubator Initiative 

Somerset Prep is currently located in the former M.C. Terrell-McGogney Elementary, which the school leased through the Public Charter School Incubator Initiative. A partnership between the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and education non-profit Building Hope, the Incubator Initiative provides short-term transitional space for start-up public charter schools located in high-need communities. This means that the initiative gives up-and-coming charter schools a space to grow for its first few years. Today, the initiative manages six facilities, five of which are located east of the Anacostia River. 

Building Hope's President and former Somerset Prep Academy Board President S. Joseph Bruno explained that a new charter school usually has a small number of students, usually encompassing one to two grade levels, with plans to increase in later years. However, with limited school spaces in the city, it can be difficult for schools to find an affordable space. “No one would take one building and put a school with 150 students in it,” he explained. “One building could hold two or three schools. Otherwise, you're wasting a lot of money and energy.” With the initiative, schools can pay rent based on their enrollment levels. For instance, Somerset Prep's one-year sublease allowed it to use 80 percent of its facilities allowance (which was $2,400 per pupil) as rent. 

Partnerships

Somerset is partnering with two other charter schools, Early Childhood Academy (ECAPCS), which serves students from Pre-K to the third grade, and Community College Prep Academy (CC Prep), a school for adults, to buy an extended lease. “...When we get the building, we're going to have Pre-K to [Grade] 3 on one end of the building; in the middle of the building, we'll have Grades 4 to 12. And in the evenings, we'll have an adult program,” said Neal Ables, Somerset Prep's Community Liaison and Athletic Director. “So we'll have, I guess you'd say, every level in the building.” 

“We knew that M.C. Terrell would be put up for sale,” said Wendy Edwards, Executive Director for ECAPCS. “When we contacted Building Hope, Tom Parker [Vice President of Real Estate Operations] was interested in a proposal from Somerset, Early Childhood, and Community College Prep.” Connie Spinner, the Executive Director for CC Prep stated that Building Hope approached her in order to help respond to the community need for high-quality adult education programs. “The building has the capacity for adults to enter through a separate and accessible entrance,” she explained. 

Community Response 

While the three schools worked on their application, Somerset Prep worked to gain community support.  “The cool thing about Somerset is that each school tries to be a true community school,” Griffin stated. “It's just not a cookie cutter.” He explained that the partnership between Somerset, CC Prep, and  ECAPCS is another step towards better serving their community. To that end, Somerset held community meetings and a November open house to meet with residents and plead its case. The school also created a petition on and offline for residents to sign. When Somerset turned in its application, it amassed 350 signatures; after its last public meeting, the petition received over 800 signatures.

“I would like to see them stay in the school,” said Absalom Jordan, President of the Ward 8 Education Council. Although he is not supportive of the charter school movement in DC, he acknowledged Somerset's achievements in the year and a half since it opened. “I think parents and their children will continue to get the education they need there,” he said. “I don't want the disruption.” After two waves of school closures in the last seven years, Jordan is concerned about how it would affect the students. “In all the struggles we go through, the children are the ones that get hurt.” 

Making a Commitment

“The outpouring has been spontaneous,” said Judd Starr, Somerset Prep's current board president. “Parents have been very vocal about this.” Starr, who has been with the school since the beginning, said that Somerset is committed to Ward 8 and hopes to establish roots there. “If, in fact, we did have to leave, we will be very aggressive on trying to find a place quickly and stay in this area. That's our goal,” said Griffin. “We wouldn't want to move Northwest or any of that stuff. We want to stay in this area and this is our commitment to this community.”

Somerset Prep DC is located at 3301 Wheeler Road, SE Washington, DC 20032. To learn more, visit somersetdc.com. To sign the petition, visit petitions.moveon.org/sign/save-somerset-prep-dc. 


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