District of Columbia Public Schools

Transforming 1.4 Million Square Feet of Empty Space in Washington, D.C.

Every child in Washington, D.C., in every ward of the District, deserves access to a high-quality public education and the chance at a brighter tomorrow. As a city we’ve been working hard towards that goal and steadily moving forward on reform, but as this  new poll of D.C. voters shows, there’s still plenty of work to do—especially when it comes to ensuring that educational quality, growth and opportunity makes its way to every corner of D.C. Truth be told, I don’t need a poll to tell me that. As a former single father raising a daughter in Anacostia, I experienced firsthand how difficult it was to find a school that was nearby, on this side of the river, and also delivered the quality education that I felt my daughter deserved. It was such a struggle to balance my (and most parents’) top priority of getting my daughter the best education possible with the practical reality of being on my own trying to make ends meet. But luckily for my family, D.C. opened Thurgood Marshall Academy, a top-performing public charter school, in a previously vacant building down the road from our house. Finally, I didn’t have to choose between quality and proximity—and my daughter received a top-notch public education that laid the foundation for her future. If you’ll forgive my not-so-humble bragging, I’m proud to say that she went on to graduate from Spelman College and is now working here in D.C. at the U.S. Justice Department. Sadly, I know my daughter’s story is an anomaly for most kids in our neighborhood—but it shouldn’t have to be.

High-Quality Seats for Our Kids

New data revealed that there is 1.4 million (yes, million!) square feet of empty space in neighborhoods like mine all across the District that could be transformed into local high-quality seats for thousands of D.C. students. Twelve buildings are lying vacant. Meanwhile, too many kids in Ward 8 and elsewhere are fighting to get into the few quality schools that we have, are waiting on long lists for better schools that are miles away, or are struggling to learn in mediocre, overcrowded classrooms. That’s simply not acceptable. These are 12 missed opportunities—or 1.4 million missed opportunities—each and every day to give D.C. children the education that they are entitled to. The need is there, and it’s only going to grow, as conservative estimates project the number of D.C. schoolchildren will grow to 125,000 by 2025. That’s an additional 40,000 students over the next 10 years. Not only does the demand exist, the local support is out there as well. An incredible 92 percent of voters say it’s important for the city government to take action on these vacant school buildings, with the highest urgency coming from the Southeast section, where 3 in 4 voters want the mayor to act within the next year or sooner. So the question is, what’s the hold up? Every school year we wait, the city is wasting taxpayer dollars to maintain empty, rundown buildings, when Mayor Bowser and her administration could empower new schools to take these buildings over and give our students a better future. It’s that simple. Now I know there’s going to be plenty of debate as to which schools or what types of schools will ultimately be allowed to fill these buildings, so let me be perfectly clear: What ultimately matters most is quality, not labels. My eldest daughter went to a public charter school, my two younger children began their education in a charter school but now are enrolled in District of Columbia Public Schools, and those distinctions mean nothing to me. Like most parents, I chose my kids’ schools because they were the best fit and the best education for their individual situations. At the end of the day, I’m an advocate for what works, and what’s been working in D.C. is a dual system with both sectors thriving and progressing on behalf of our kids. So let’s band together as a ward, as a city, and seize the chance to take this tangible step forward and turn these 1.4 million square feet of empty space into 1.4 million square feet of opportunity for D.C. public school students. It’s the least we can do for our kids.
Jacque Patterson is a public school parent and the regional director of Rocketship Education in DC. He moved to Washington in 1995 while serving his country in the United States Air Force. He immediately became involved in the communities of Ward 8 where he decided to reside. In 2000, he was elected as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) representing ...

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