For months, residents of Randle Heights in Southeast have appealed to the D.C. Office of Zoning to reclassify public charter schools as private schools in its regulations.
This endeavor comes at a time when residents continue to speak out against Lee Montessori Public Charter School’s plans to expand its East End campus, portions of which neighbors charge have already encroached on their properties.
Residents said that because of its zoning classification as a public school, Lee Montessori leased the plot of land at 2345 R Street SE from Eagle Academy Public Charter School and proceeded to enhance the building without properly consulting with them.
In October, the D.C. Office of Zoning denied Randle Heights residents’ appeal to reclassify public charter schools as private schools. The zoning board’s rationale centered on the assertion that charter schools functioned as public institutions.
Key organizers have since countered that ruling, saying that the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) and District’s public charter schools have independent boards that allow them to function as private institutions, and should be designated as such.
“I see all the time when people talk about charter schools like they’re not public schools, and even the charter schools try to distance themselves from DC Public Schools when it’s convenient,” said Camille Joyner, a Randle Heights resident of eight years.
If the zoning board reclassifies Lee Montessori as a private school, it along with Eagle Academy and other public charter schools would be required to engage residents in surrounding communities about ongoing construction projects taking place on private property.
While Joyner acknowledged that Lee Montessori hosted engagement meetings last fall, she said leadership hasn’t been explicit about their plans to expand the school, nor have they rectified the fallout from a change Eagle Academy made to the neighborhood.
Shortly after occupying 2345 R Street SE, Eagle Academy removed a tree line. Joyner said that Lee Montessori didn’t follow through on assurances that they would erect a fence in place of the tree line so that a border clearly divided the property and surrounding homes.
What residents saw instead were walls of gabion — steel and mesh boxes filled with rocks and concrete. That scenario, Joyner said, further highlighted the need for community involvement in the construction and expansion of Lee Montessori.
“We want them to follow the same rules private schools would when they’re building in our community,” Joyner said.
Over the last few years, residents in Wards 7 and 8 have pointed out the increasing presence of charter schools, and other neighborhood schools, in their communities. When DCPCSB released its strategic roadmap last year, officials announced that new District public charter schools wouldn’t open until 2024.
The East End campus of Lee Montessori opened in the fall of 2020. This happened after the charter board and other agencies approved its lease with Eagle Academy, which had originally planned to open its campus at 2345 R Street SE.
Years earlier, the first Lee Montessori campus opened in Brookland in Northeast in 2014. Its name comes from Tahiira Lee, a D.C. native and proponent of Montessori education, along with Dr. Maria Montessori, the woman who pioneered teaching science.
Students at Lee Montessori’s Brookland and East End campuses guide themselves in their education with the help of teachers, peers and the classroom environment. The curriculum includes general education classes in addition to ‘specials” — enrichment classes that students take across grade levels. Officials said the East End campus has reached capacity with an ever-lengthening waitlist.
Chris Pencilkowski, Lee Montessori’s executive director and Title IX coordinator, told The Informer construction will happen on the current property with no possibility of encroachment on neighbors’ space. He also said that he and his colleagues have collected community input and provided updates at monthly virtual meetings.
Pencillkowsi then recounted implementing changes proposed by a traffic consultant while offering to show interested community members the building inspections.In regard to the tree removal, Pencilkowsi said residents requested that task.
For the time being, community meetings have stopped, but not without reason, according to Pencilkowsi. He said Lee Montessori had no updates to provide at the time. However, he did hint at a reemergence of such gatherings.
“We always welcome conversations on any specific concerns,” Pencilkowski said. “We made the decision to expand together with our existing families (most of whom live in Wards 7 & 8), our staff, and our Board of Directors, and look forward to shaping the future of our vibrant community, together.”