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Sharpe Health School, a school for disabled students in Petworth, could close, sending students to the former River Terrace Elementary School in Ward 7. Not only is River Terrace inaccessible to disabled students, but parents fear its location could put their kids at risk.
Sharpe and Mamie D. Lee, another school for the disabled in Fort Totten, will be combined in fall 2014 and moved to River Terrace, which closed in 2012. Tamara Gorham, whose son has attended Sharpe Health School for the past six years, believes that students will be worse off at River Terrace.
She cites a number of reasons including the limited input from parents, the short timeline and inadequate funding given for River Terrace to accommodate students with disabilities, and the emotional toll these changes will take on the students.
DCPS, community already invested in Sharpe
Sharpe, located at 13th and Upshur streets NW, is a part of its community. It’s located less than a mile from the Petworth Metro station on a tree-lined street with wide, ADA-compliant sidewalks. The school is adjacent to Upshur Park, several other public and charter schools, and the newly renovated Petworth Library. Sharpe has relationships with local businesses where students can receive job training, and is located close to Children’s National Medical Center, which many students visit frequently.
In addition, DCPS has already invested in physical improvements to the school, recently refurbishing its therapeutic pool.
Sharpe parents say teachers have developed a rapport with students and tend to their needs beyond what is expected of them. Teachers at Sharpe change soiled diapers for incontinent students and clean their tracheal tubes frequently.
While DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she doesn’t “believe effective teachers will lose their jobs,” there’s no guarantee that they’ll be rehired at River Terrace or that they’ll want to teach there.
Parents worry about River Terrace’s location
Even if Sharpe teachers come over to River Terrace, the school’s surroundings could put children at risk. The school is one block away from the 100-year-old Benning Road Power Plant, which is being decommissioned. Pepco is currently trying to figure out how polluted the soil and water are in the surrounding area.
Meanwhile, the nearby Minnesota Avenue Metro station is a repeat offender on the list of Metro’s 10 most dangerous stations. Students taking the bus may have a hard time finding a space on one, as each bus only has two spaces for wheelchairs. And those who walk will have to cross over the Anacostia Freeway on a narrow sidewalk.
Gorham worries that disabled students could endure teasing from people on the street while going to school. She also fears that students in need of medical help would be taken to nearby Prince George’s Hospital Center, which has poor ratings.
River Terrace isn’t ready for disabled students
Meanwhile, renovations at River Terrace haven’t even started yet. Today, a high, chain-link fence surrounds the shuttered building. The school isn’t wheelchair accessible, and there’s no guarantee that it will be before opening day.
DCPS has set aside between $15 and $20 million for the work to be completed in a piecemeal fashion, though parents estimate it could cost as much as $30 million to provide everything they feel their kids will need. They recently gave a wish list of things they’d like to see in the new school to the architect hired by DCPS, but were told he was “trying to work [their requests] into the budget.”
There are also concerns about plans to co-locate a community center with the school, which neighborhood residents asked for after the school closed. Sharpe parents wonder if the community center will be open to the public during the school day, which they feel could be a safety risk.
Last week, a federal judge decided not to grant a preliminary injunction against DCPS closing Sharpe and 14 other schools across the city. Judge Boasberg argued that students could go to better schools, citing several examples of students who would be moved to schools with better test scores.
However, that won’t be the case for Sharpe Health School. If DCPS wants to do school reform right, they should take a second look at the closings list. For now, parents and students are hoping the judge will see things from their perspective and allow them to have input into decisions that so drastically affect them.