Photo from Frozen Tropics.

DC Public Schools plans to close 15 schools, based on declining enrollment and changing demographics. This isn’t a new experience; DC closed other schools in 2008. What happened to those school spaces?

There have been many debates in DC, and nationally, about whether it’s wise to close schools. But if schools do indeed close, it’s also worth talking about the spaces. What can we learn about what might happen to this next batch of 15, and what questions should that spark for our neighborhoods, and the city as a whole, about how we use physical space?

Charles Young Elementary, a school I taught at briefly in the 2007-2008 school year, was closed in 2008. Young Elementary has tall white columns overlooking the Anacostia river, nestled between the then-being built Phelps ACE High, along with Spingarn and Brown schools in Carver Terrace.

While my memory of that year is filled with students, stories, and spring zoo field trips, it was also dominated by family and community concerns over what pre-K-to-8th grade schools would mean for very young students, how transportation and safety changes would affect students, and, of course, the loss of a school that had educated generations of students, their parents, and even grandparents. In the end, it closed.

One of several murals students photographed at Charles Young Elementary before it closed.

Here’s a rundown of schools closed in 2008 that have been redeveloped:

  • Bertie Backus Middle (Fort Totten): The DC Council named this as a home for UDC’s community college wing serving a range of workforce development programs, including nursing, architectural engineering and construction management.
  • Bowen Elementary (Southwest): Bowen is now home to the MPD 1st District police station.
  • Bruce-Monroe Elementary (Columbia Heights/ Parkview): The building was demolished and the land has become a “temporary” public park, but there’s been plenty of renewed interest in the land, right on Georgia Avenue, as a commercial space
  • Gage-Eckington Elementary (LeDroit Park): After the building was demolished, it became a park, and there is also a community garden.
  • PR Harris Education Center (Washington Highlands/Bellevue): Home of UDC’s Community College campus in Ward 8 as a vocational educational outlet.

Other schools are planned for further redevelopment:

  • Hine Middle (Capitol Hill): The building is slated to become a mixed-use development.
  • Merritt (Deanwood): Slated to become MPD’s 6th District headquarters.
  • Stevens (Foggy Bottom): Mayor Gray’s administration is developing the parking lot and land and the Ivymount School will operate a special education facility at Stevens.
  • Rudolph Elementary (Petworth): Currently undergoing renovation to open as Washington Latin PCS’ new campus this fall.

Other school buildings are home to charter schools, still serving DC public students:

  • Benning Elementary (Benning): Benning is now the home of DC Prep’s Benning elementary campus, adding to other sites, including the Edgewood campus.
  • Clark Elementary (Petworth): Fully rennovated in 2010, it is now E.L. Haynes PCS’ early childhood and high school sites, with additional construction on the site underway.
  • Taft Elementary (Brookland): Now home to Perry Street Prep Public Charter School.
  • Douglass Transition Academy (Buena Vista/Douglass): Now home to KIPP AIM and KIPP College Prep.
  • Slowe Elementary (Brookland): Now home to Mary McCleod Bethune Day Academy PCS.

The other group of buildings are still standing but currently shuttered, though: Brookland Elementary (Brookland), Gibbs Elementary (Rosedale/Kingman Park), JF Cook Elementary (Truxton Circle), MM Washington High (Truxton Circle), Meyer Elementary (Pleasant Plains, which served as temporary housing for the Takoma Educational Center), Moten Elementary (Buena Vista/Anacostia), Shaw Middle (Shaw), Turner Elementary (Douglass), and Young Elementary (Carver-Langston).

There are many schools that were consolidated and the school name lives on: Bowen Elementary closed, but “Amidon Bowen” serves students in Southwest DC; Turner is now Turner @ Green in Congress Heights; and Brookland Educational Campus is now at Bunker Hill, among others.

DC schools continue to serve all of the students, unless they transferred to charter schools, moved, or otherwise left the system. Several consolidated to create large pre-K-to-8th grade institutions. This was the case with Charles Young Elementary, when all the students moved next door to Browne, which had previously been a standalone middle school.

There were also additional school closings, at the end of the 2011 school year — one, Shaed Elementary in Edgewood joined the “shuttered” cohort of schools. River Terrace is slated to be a hub for the neighborhood again, opening as a special education school receiving students currently at Mamie D Lee and Sharpe Health Center. Chancellor Henderson made the pitch to the community that she was committed to working to find a use for the physical building that could be allow it to function as a neighborhood hub again.

What can we learn from the results of schools closed in 2008 to predict what will happen to the slated schools to close at the end of this school year?

  • Many will remain empty for the indefinite future, as evidenced by the summary of results from 2008. Half of the closed schools, four years on, sit empty. Some have plans for renovations and new tenets, but that takes time.
  • Advocacy by neighborhoods can make a difference: Chancellor Henderson and DCPS’ actions with River Terrace give hope that neighborhoods could successfully organize to retain the closed school building as a functional school. It’s also worth noting that River Terrace is still serving as a polling place. Communities interested in seeing their school slated for future or new DCPS school models should learn from River Terrace’s example — consistent and continued advocacy could help create renewed opportunities. On the other hand, Young has been closed for a while and was rumored to potentially house a SEED boarding school, but the Kingman Park community association opposed it. Community action can run both ways, depending on neighborhood goals.

What do we want to happen?

There are a number of possible ways to use the school buildings.

Charters? Many charters are using public dollars to rent commercial space, and this feels like a clear partnership opportunity for neighborhoods to maintain students in a space and charters have classroom space. While many partnerships currently exist, are there additional opportunities?

Sell them? Should DCPS and the city consider selling buildings and land for commercial endeavors, particularly in high-density areas where land is scarce and valuable? There is plenty of talk of this at places, and with, for example, the action at Stevens, what will come of it?

Keep them? Or, regardless of use, should we applaud DCPS keeping the closed schools as publically held lands? I was surprised in finding how many public uses DC has found with the closed schools. Could we expand this? Will holding onto land and buildings without clear use create opportunities for the future — new or recreated school models, community or public service centers, parks?

The Logan school near Union Station, which served as a warehouse for assorting central office activities for years but now is housing DCPS’ Capitol Hill Montessori program, is a potential model.

What do you think should become of closed school spaces?

Laura McSorley is a former DC teacher who taught Head Start in two DCPS schools and pre-K at Bridges Public Charter School. She lives in Southeast Capitol Hill with her husband, Tom, and is learning to be a runner. Laura works with Teach For America’s early childhood education initiative around the country. All opinions, views, and mistakes are solely hers alone.