Foxhall and MacArthur
As a parent of three DCPS graduates and an activist on schools issues, I have been committed to addressing overcrowding (and ensuring great schools in every community), including helping to found the Coalition for DC Parents and Communities (“C4DC”) that brings parent leaders from all eight Wards together to address issues, including overcrowding. As a member of the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Student Assignment Committee in 2014, I pressed to ensure the recommendations included a vehicle to address overcrowding that was used to convene the Community Working Group for the Wilson feeder. And, I kickstarted the creation of the Ward 3 Wilson Feeder Education Network (“W3EdNet”) that has been such a tenacious and effective advocate on the subject.
The Mayor’s budget devotes significant resources to address overcrowding and she deserves thanks for that and many congratulations are due to CM Mary Cheh, SBOE Representive Ruth Wattenberg and the W3EdNet for their successful advocacy. As we move forward though, while we should treat the level of investment as settled, we should treat the details of the Mayor’s proposals as one possibility.
Residents have been asking me for my views on two of the proposed investments – Foxhall ES and MacArthur HS. My perspective is informed both by working with Ward 3 schools and people from across the city for over a decade on school issues. That experience has driven home that families across the city want investment in their communities, not new options that will require their children to travel long distances to school. There is sympathy for the Ward 3 need to address overcrowding, but also reticence to see excess out-of-boundary seats created that can undermine efforts to strengthen feeder systems in other parts of the city. See here, here at 18 and here at 2. Neighbors in Ward 3 and residents around the city want answers that are tailored to meet the needs of Ward 3 school communities.
The proposal on the table is for a 550 student elementary school to open on the site next to Old Hardy on park land in SY25-26. See here and here. It is an idea without a sincere author. The Mayor proposed it as a way of papering over the transfer of Old Hardy to the Lab School. The obvious natural answer was that Old Hardy would become a very small elementary school able to serve the lower Key area. That ship has sailed (for now), but is the proposed new Foxhall School at 550 drawing from Key, Stoddert and Mann the answer?
The pandemic has pinched enrollment at Key, Mann and Stoddert (though less so at Stoddert). Enrollment likely will snap back and, we should be expanding PK4 seats to fully serve our communities. But where will 550 students come from? Can the Key, Mann and Stoddert boundaries be carved up in such a way to fill 550 seats at Foxhall and leave the other schools anywhere near capacity. Are we creating out-of-boundary seats in among the most difficult parts of the city to get to?
It is wise that the Mayor’s proposal calls for a pause before proceeding with Foxhall. While money should stay in the budget for it, before we proceed, we should consider every other possible solution. Could it make sense to build additions at Key and Stoddert or an addition at Stoddert and a small school, like Ross in Dupont Circle or the Old Hardy, on the Foxhall site? Might it be possible to persuade the Lab School to take over the River School site on MacArthur if it vacates and properly cede Old Hardy to serve the lower Key area? Or might there be a way to buy back the Lab school lease of Old Hardy? It does seem that there has to be a better way.
In the meantime though, one thing we definitely should do is fully and promptly fund an adequate addition to Stoddert to enable it to address its overcrowding issues which have been among the most acute in the area. Such an addition would be bigger than what is currently contemplated and will require additional funding, but is an immediate must. Some of the dollars from other projects on which changes are suggested can and should be shifted to Stoddert to make that happen.
The Mayor’s proposal, see here, here at 11, here and here, calls for MacArthur HS to serve 1000 students with a set aside of 500 citywide seats. The sentiment of that set aside may be well-intentioned, but it does not make sense on the site or for the city. As described above, families and communities want convenient options, not ones in among the most difficult places to get to in the District. And, we already have a glut of high school seats. The way to increase access to Ward 3 schools is to build more affordable housing in the area, a project to which I am deeply committed.
Whereas on Foxhall, we should take a pause and search for other options, on MacArthur we should press for the kind of approach suggested in the Community Working Group process. Renovate the building immediately so that it is a magnificent high school that could serve on the order of 700 students. Engage the Hardy community and neighbors in the planning for how the school will work both programmatically and as part of the fabric of the community. And, as we should for all of our DCPS schools look at how we can strengthen transportation options to and from the school. Here, there is the special circumstance of the opportunity to improve connectivity using the trolley trail, an idea that had merit on its own, but makes even more sense with the school coming.
Often in modernization fights, a community seeks a modernization but there is no money in the Capital Improvement Plan (“CIP”) and it is very difficult for the Council to find new capital dollars. Here, thanks to the Mayor’s budget, there is lots of money in the CIP and the Council could move it around. Let’s use the budget season to press for sensible strategies to address overcrowding, not settle for the first ones proposed by the Mayor.
And, we should take note that the flaws in some of the proposals underscore again the need to develop a serious citywide, cross-sector plan for school investments going forward. I, and many others, have advocated for this for years. The emergence of ideas to create a consciously citywide school on the edge of the Ward and city in a place that is particularly difficult to access, emphatically demonstrates that need. We need a strategy and must move away from our serial ad hoc approach by the Mayor and Public Charter School Board that is only loosely based on an evaluation of need. We owe it to our students, families and taxpayers to make wise, considered school investments.