District of Columbia residents might think that our city has come a long way in terms of caring for our precious heritage. Conservation and stewardship inform decisions today in a way that has not always been the case in the District’s past, including its still-recent urban decline.
Home to abolitionists from Frederick Douglass and Charlotte Forten Grimké, whose homes are national historic monuments, to organizations such as the Washington Abolition Society, to newspapers The Genius of Universal Emancipation and National Era, D.C. has much abolitionist heritage.
Slavery’s ubiquitous presence extends throughout the District, from the Underground Railroad stop that ran through Anthony Bowen’s house in Southwest, to the Capitol itself, built by slave labor. Even abolition is marked by D.C.’s Emancipation Day, nine months prior to the national Emancipation Proclamation.
Civil rights, too, has its heart in the city which hosted the March on Washington, 101 years later. A groundbreaking but largely forgotten ruling, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. Inc., desegregated Washington restaurants, one year before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated the District’s schools. Carter Woodson, the “Founding Father” of African American history and of Black History Month, also lived and worked here, with his former home a national historic site.
A key thread in this history’s fabric is Spingarn High School, named for educator and writer Joel Elias Spingarn, a Jewish civil rights activist, who served as board chair, treasurer and president of the NAACP.
The schoolhouse is located off Benning Road, Northeast, close to the Anacostia River. This nearly quarter-million-square-foot schoolhouse was built two years before desegregation but shuttered by the city eight years ago and left to rot at the mercy of nature, thieves and vandals.
What should be a shining community asset, housing contributions to the general welfare, is a derelict eyesore attracting behavior that undermines residents’ sense of community and its reality. Currently, the site makes a statement that the neighborhood is unimportant to the powers that be, and that the people who live alongside it are of little concern to those in authority, but renovation could create many beneficial community uses.
Nearly 12,000 individual student names lie on waitlists for public charter schools that lack the space to accommodate them. Charter schools provide a free public education to D.C. residents that operate independently of the city-run system, while being held accountable for improved student performance by the city’s charter board. Charters currently educate half of D.C. public school students.
District law requires these unique public schools receive a “right of first offer” to bid for surplus city-owned school space before developers can, and the Spingarn schoolhouse could house many such popular over-subscribed public school options. But sadly, the District has all too often chosen to ignore this requirement, leaving buildings like Spingarn empty without even keeping up its basic infrastructure.
The government’s hoarding of surplus school properties, including a further nine schoolhouses, is a social injustice and a blight on underserved neighborhoods. Combining these buildings with underutilized school space, there is approximately 1.4 million square feet of city property that could be leased by over-subscribed public charter schools but, shockingly, is not.
District charter schools’ per-student facilities allotment formula which funds their facilities needs could be used to help renovate the Spingarn school building. Charters can also leverage private funding for renovations.
Spingarn could be used as incubator space for charters that typically extend enrollment by one grade level at a time, relieving them of the need to find often costly, scarce additional space.
This huge building also could combine public education provided by District charter nonprofits with entities adding to the quality of housing and employment in the neighborhood — for example, affordable teacher housing. The community also lacks a library and community center.
Additionally, co-location revenue sharing legislation is needed to allow city-run schools hosting a co-located charter to benefit from the co-location and offset costs, while releasing currently underutilized classroom and other school space.
Government should also provide a new facilities grant fund to assist the establishment of new public charter schools. Funding charter students on a par with their peers in city-run schools for facilities — currently they receive one dollar for every three that go to traditional public school students — would assist mixed use development further.
Spingarn ought to be part of the rebirth and revival of D.C.’s Trinidad district, allowing the community to contribute to the District’s history and heritage. Will the government step up to the plate for our children and this community?
Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.