Thursday, September 3, 2009

Flagship College or Boutique Hotel?

This week's Current Newspapers includes a viewpoint feature in which I suggest using the Franklin School as a flagship downtown campus for UDC's community college, developing thoughts from my earlier post. The Current also includes a cover story applauding the opening of the new, separate community college ("After Years of Discussion, Community College Debuts"). Transforming the Franklin School into a downtown campus fits perfectly within UDC's long-term goals. According to the article:
"Plans for other satellite campuses [beyond use of the Backus Middle School in Ward 5] will follow. UDC already runs workforce-development programs at McKinley Technology High in Ward 5, the old Fletcher-Johnson school in Ward 7, and the Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Ward 8. “We want satellites everywhere,” said Emily Durso, chair of the University's Board of Trustees. “Research shows that community college students want to go to school where they live.”
I would add that nontraditional students are also likely to appreciate the ability to take classes where they work.

You can view the entire September 2, 2009 edition of The Current here. The viewpoint op-ed, reprinted below, appears on page 13. The report on UDC appears on page 1 and continues on page 25.

A flagship college or a boutique hotel?


“Ah! sir, I hope the time may never come when we would make less beautiful and attractive the places where our children are to receive an education, where lasting impressions are to be made upon the young mind, than we would the offices of State ... It has been well said by an eminent thinker, ‘Show me the churches and schoolhouses of a nation, and I will tell you what is its civilization and enlightenment.’”

Those were the eloquent words of Alderman W.H. Chase at the dedication of the Franklin School in 1869. His words were a reaction to critics who believed the building, designed by Adolf Cluss, was too fine for a public schoolhouse.

We return full circle today, as the District government, after soliciting requests for offers, opted not to award use of the now-vacant historic building at 13th and K streets NW to the city’s burgeoning public charter schools. Rather, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (read, private developers) may now hold the key to its future.

When constructed, the Franklin School was the flagship of seven modern urban public school buildings that housed, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the District.

Over the years, its mission evolved but remained true to public education. It housed the first normal school in D.C., providing teacher training, and held the first high school classes. Technical/vocational training classes were introduced, and a business high school arrived in 1891. From 1925 until 1968, the building served as the Board of Education’s headquarters. It then hosted an adult education center until 1989, when it closed for renovation. It did not reopen. Instead, the building decayed. Not coincidentally, so did the District’s educational system.

In its latest life, the Franklin School served as a low-barrier shelter for the homeless. The shelter, which had virtually no support services, took in more than 300 men each evening. Out into Franklin Square Park and the surrounding downtown streets they flowed when the shelter tossed them out each morning.

After gradually removing its beds to reduce capacity, Mayor Adrian Fenty abruptly closed the homeless warehouse in September 2008. The move was part of a noble, but still unachieved, goal — to move the homeless into transitional housing and smaller shelters across the city.

Even while the building still operated as a shelter, the city solicited proposals for its reuse. In 2005, the city entered a no-bid agreement with a politically connected developer to transform the building into a boutique hotel and private club. After questions arose regarding the city’s authority to enter the lease, the District backed out, leading to a lawsuit the city settled for a half-million dollars.

Transforming the Franklin School into a high-end hotel certainly has its appeal, not the least of which is tax revenue.

But what would Alderman Chase say?

If the Franklin School is not to house charter schools, there’s another sound option: the flagship building of D.C.’s new community college.

This year, the new president of the ailing University of the District of Columbia, Allen L. Sessoms, made the bold, wise decision to end open admissions for four-year degree programs and split off a separate community college. This marks an opportunity to return the Franklin School building to its roots.

The city is striving to repair its bruised and battered elementary and secondary education systems. But how do we provide tools for success to the generation that system has already failed? And, if Chancellor Michelle Rhee is successful in bringing students back into the public schools, what are their options when they graduate?

A downtown community college campus would provide adult education, technical training and four year degree programs. It would prepare students for the jobs that are so vital to the District’s economy, but for which employers find themselves relying on the Maryland and Virginia workforces.

Envision the new downtown campus opening its doors onto Franklin Square Park, where students would prepare for classes and eat lunch on the lawn.

Night students would walk to class from their downtown jobs. Steps away, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library would provide a resource for students. It would add vibrancy and energy to downtown — and further public education.

Turning the Franklin School into a boutique hotel may have appeal, but this historic building must be something more.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mission Unaccomplished?

The Gales School, 65 Massachusetts Ave NW. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Three weeks short of one year ago today, Mayor Fenty closed the Franklin School, which was being used as a shelter for over 300 homeless men downtown. The Franklin School needed to close and - given its design, need for renovation, and size - the city should never have turned the building into a homeless warehouse in the first place. Moreover, it was an emergency shelter that was serving as a permanent home for hundreds of people.

When the Mayor closed the Franklin Shelter, it was part of a plan that included: (1) moving 400 of the chronically homeless into permanent housing with extensive support services through the Housing First initiative within 6 months; and (2) moving the Central Union Mission from its long-time home in Logan Circle at 14th and R Streets NW to a renovated Gales School at 65 Massachusetts Avenue NW. The new location, sitting between Mount Vernon, Chinatown, and Union Station, would provide emergency shelter for the temporarily homeless, those who find themselves without a place to stay due to a sudden calamity. It would include 125 downtown beds for homeless men. Ultimately, the city's long-term "Homeless No More Plan" aspires to provide 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing financed by a Housing First Fund.

According to an October 1, 2008 news release, Mayor Fenty met his 6 month goal of providing permanent homes for 400 chronically homeless -- in fact -- he claimed credit for surpassing 600, including 305 men, as well as 215 families, 75 men and an additional 12 individuals who were moved from a median strip along I-395.

But what of the Gales School? Workers overlooking the building report that other than seeing a few workers sweeping up around the property, there has been no work for several months. The city is to pay $7 million to renovate the building, which will then be owned and operated without subsidy by the Central Union Mission. (You can read the history of this building, up until 2004, here)

According to David Treadwell, Executive Director of the Central Union Mission, the city has not entered a contract on the redevelopment of the school, which is basically a vacant shell. The Central Union Mission now anticipates that they will move into the Gales School no sooner than fall 2011, though the new facility was tentatively scheduled to open in 2009.

Did a lawsuit delay the project? Financing issues? Lack of will?