Architect’s rendition of the renovated Van Ness Elementary by Dariush Vaziri of Dariush Watercolors. Final design is subject to change.

At a time of alleged cost overruns and mismanagement on school construction projects and delays in long-promised renovations, does it make sense to spend $28 million to reopen a dilapidated DC Public School? It might, if the school holds the promise of providing a high-quality education to a permanently diverse group of students.

A year ago, some parents and community activists feared DCPS might not follow through on a pledge to reopen a shuttered elementary school in the redeveloped Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. But the school will welcome its first crop of preschoolers and kindergarteners this August.

Construction is now in progress at Van Ness Elementary—which is nowhere near the Van Ness Metro station, but rather in Southeast DC near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park. The building will house two classes of three-year-olds and two of four-year-olds this coming school year, along with at least one class of kindergarteners. The school will add a grade each year until it reaches 5th grade.

DCPS closed Van Ness in 2006, after the housing projects that supplied most of its students were razed. But the school system held onto the building, anticipating that families would move into the area once it had been redeveloped with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.

That’s what happened. And about five years ago a group of parents, eager to have a neighborhood school, started pressing DCPS to renovate and reopen Van Ness. While the parents didn’t get everything they asked for, the school seems to be on track for success.

Late hiring, but “amazing” teachers

One thing parents wanted was the appointment of a principal a year in advance of the school’s opening, to allow time for recruiting teachers and general planning. But DCPS appointed Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, formerly an assistant principal at Seaton Elementary, as the head of school only this past May. (Although she doesn’t have the title “principal,” Robinson-Rivers says her role is essentially the same.)

That could have been a problem. By late spring, many teachers on the job market have already accepted other positions.  But Robinson-Rivers had previously worked for DCPS as its director of teacher retention and recognition, a job that put her in contact with some of the best educators in the system. As a result, she was able to hire a group of teachers she calls “amazing.”

"Many of them reached out right away,” she says, “because they were excited about Van Ness, but also because they knew me and they knew the extent to which I really value teachers.”

The Van Ness faculty will include three members who have won Rubinstein Awards for Highly Effective Educators within DCPS, including Robinson-Rivers herself.  Another won a Milken Educator Award, given to top educators across the country, this past school year. All of them have extensive early childhood experience, some of them specifically with the curriculum Van Ness will be using, The Creative Curriculum.

In addition to a principal planning year, the parents who pushed for Van Ness’s reopening also wanted work on the two-phase renovation to be done only during the summers, to avoid disruption. But for the first phase, some construction will in fact be ongoing after school opens.

Robinson-Rivers says the construction won’t be disruptive because it will be confined to a separate wing from where students have classes. Given the interest many young children have in construction, she says the ongoing work might even be a “teaching tool.”

While the building appears somewhat forbidding now, at least from the outside, Robinson-Rivers says the plans indicate the finished product will be “beautiful.”

Competition for school renovation funds

There’s been a lot of controversy about school construction lately. After hearing complaints about inequities at a DC Council budget hearing several months ago, education committee chair David Grosso proposed new guidelines to bring more fairness to the process of allocating modernization funds.

More recently, DC auditor Kathy Patterson issued a scathing report charging that the District government has failed to provide basic financial management for its spending on school construction in recent years. And because DC needs to start paying down its debt load, fewer construction dollars will be available in the future, putting some promised renovation projects in jeopardy.

At a time like this, when many existing schools are in serious and long-standing disrepair, it might seem foolhardy to spend $28 million to reopen Van Ness. But there’s clearly demand for Van Ness’s seats, at least at the preschool level.

Generally, DCPS doesn’t guarantee families preschool slots at their neighborhood schools, and many preschool programs at schools near Van Ness have long waitlists. At one of those schools, Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill, some parents urged preschool applicants to consider Van Ness as an alternative.

Van Ness currently has 58 names on its waitlist for its three-year-old classes and 21 for its four-year-old ones. While there are still kindergarten spaces available, Robinson-Rivers says that may change as the opening of school draws nearer. And she predicts the school will continue to attract older students once parents are able to see it in action.

Aside from considerations of demand, the cost of the Van Ness renovation is relatively modest. DC has budgeted $78 million to renovate Lafayette Elementary in Ward 4 and just under $43 million to renovate Murch in Ward 3.

And compared to the hundreds of millions DC has spent renovating or constructing new high schools, several of which stand half-empty, the amount DC is spending on Van Ness is small potatoes. The ongoing renovation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown is now budgeted at $178 million, or over $1,000 about $639 per square foot.

DC may have made its school construction decisions in an arbitrary and inefficient way in the past, but that history shouldn’t be invoked to prevent the revival of a defunct school in the midst of a newly vibrant, eminently walkable community.

The promise of lasting diversity

Beyond those considerations, Van Ness holds the promise of becoming a truly diverse high-quality neighborhood school. While the school doesn’t have figures on the incomes of families enrolled for next year, a spokesperson said the student body is about equally divided between black and white children.

In some gentrifying neighborhoods, low-income and minority elementary students have been displaced by an influx of affluent ones. That’s a shame, because all students—and especially low-income ones—benefit from attending socioeconomically diverse schools.

But that kind of “flip” from entirely low-income to entirely affluent is unlikely to happen at Van Ness because Capitol Riverfront was planned as a mixed-income community, with around 10 to 15% of its housing units reserved as affordable housing. That means a significant number of low-income students will continue to live in the neighborhood and attend Van Ness as a matter of right.

Perhaps the real question is what will happen to Van Ness’s students in the upper elementary grades and beyond. The middle school that its students are zoned for, Jefferson, isn’t in high demand. In fact, it’s one of the schools that saw its long-planned renovations delayed as a result of recent budget cuts.

At most elementary schools in the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, families start to peel off in the older grades rather than stay in a feeder pattern that sends their kids to middle schools they don’t have confidence in, including Jefferson. Unless DCPS can figure out how to improve Jefferson within the next five years, that may happen at Van Ness too.

But at least families in Capitol Riverfront will get the high-quality neighborhood school they fought for. And those outside the neighborhood should be able to snag some spaces as well, especially as the school expands in future years.

Van Ness was one of a handful of DCPS schools where in-boundary parents were guaranteed a preschool slot this year, as long as they chose it in the first round of the school lottery. Even so, slightly over half the students enrolled come from beyond the school’s boundaries.

Robinson-Rivers herself is one example: although she doesn’t live in Capitol Riverfront, she entered the school lottery and, without pulling any strings, managed to find a spot for her own four-year-old in Van Ness’s preK program.

Update: The original version of this post said that the renovation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts would cost over $1,000 per square foot.  DC Auditor Kathy Patterson has informed us that the correct cost per square foot is $638.64. The Mayor’s 2016 Capital Improvement Plan used the $1,000 figure, but planned additional square footage has reduced the cost per square foot.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.