The ANC meeting on Rocketship Charter School’s traffic study on September 10 was interesting. Three commissioners were present: Chair Ronnie Edwards (5A05) and Commissioners Sandi Washington (5A07) and Gordon Fletcher (5A08). The proposed school sits in Commissioner Fletcher’s single member district (SMD). The ANC realized they could not call the meeting a special meeting or even an official meeting because they only provided one day of notice, so the meeting turned into more of an informal discussion about the traffic study. This link is to Rocketship’s presentation and this link is to the traffic memo prepared for the school.
Comments on the school’s application to open a third campus in two existing warehouses at 3rd and Kennedy Street NE near Fort Totten metro station are due to the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) by September 16. DCPCSB will hold a public hearing on September 16 and vote on the application on October 28.
Before we get to the traffic study, we have to talk about the surprise that Rocketship dropped on the ANC. Rocketship is exploring the possibility of a a subtenant. That information is in Rocketship’s application. What Rocketship did not spell out in its application is that the proposed subtenant is a middle school. Rocketship has always stated that it has a partnership with AppleTree Learning Center to provide pre-kindgerten instruction at Rocketship campuses, but Rocketship announced at the meeting that they signed a letter of intent with the Social Justice School to operate a middle school on the campus for three years. The Social Justice School’s charter application was approved by DCPCSB on June 3, 2019.
Rocketship said technically the Social Justice School will have to go through its own community engagement process, but Rocketship also said it still needs to talk to the DCPCSB about how the process will work given that Rocketship is seeking approval for its third campus and they want to lease part of the campus to the Social Justice School. Rocketship invited leadership of the Social Justice School to the meeting to introduce themselves, but given that this was a complete surprise to the ANC and the only thing on the agenda was Rocketship’s traffic study, the ANC opted not to have Social Justice School representatives speak at all. (An aside: DCPS is in the process of phasing out middle school grades at its education campuses so that elementary grades and middle school grades are on separate campuses. Consequentely, neighborhood elementary schools are now zoned for the new Ida B. Wells Middle School near the Coolidge Campus.)
Rocketship officials stated they knew they would have underutilized space on the campus and stated that they did not have any news about the middle school to share with the ANC previously. They stated that a leter of intent was signed with the Social Justice School only on Friday (I am assuming this means Friday, September 6 or maybe even August 30). Rocketship’s traffic study is dated August 27 and assumes the presence of a middle school on the campus. Their application for the new campus, which was submitted on August 2, states, “We expect to be able to meet the total cost of the lease by sharing the building with a possible sub-tenant. We have engaged in serious conversations with two prospective sub-tenants and expect to finalize a lettter of intent between both parties by mid-August 2019.” It is not clear if having a subtenant is absolutely essential to the financial viability of the new campus. It is not clear if Rocketship intends to have a subtenant only for the period of time in which they are growing their enrollment to full capacity, and once they reach their full capacity or close to full capacity (say after three or five years), the subtenant goes away. The ANC did not ask any of these questions.
Turning to the traffic study, the study is based on the presence of pre-kindergarten, elementary, and middle school grades, specifically 120 AppleTree pre-K students, 440 Rocketship elementary students, and 160 middle school students. There will be around 74 faculty and staff.
There will be 17 vehicle parking spaces in a small lot near the front of the campus, with 10 spaces reserved for teachers/staff, five for visitors, and two for handicap accessbility. There will be 26 short-term bicycle spaces. The traffic memo states that under current zoning regulations, the school is required to have a minimum of 8 long-term bicycle spaces and 28 short-term bicycle spaces, so it is not clear why they landed on 26 short-term bicycle spaces. There is likely room for more.
The only vehicular access is via Kennedy Street. School officials will strongly encourage parents, students, faculty, and staff to use public transit, walk, and bike to the school. Faculty and staff will receive Smartbenefits. The traffic engineers anticipate many of the pre-kindergarten students will arrive by car and most of the older students and faculty and staff will use other means to get to campus. The traffic engineers said school officials can get students out of the cars in two minutes. Staff will be present to escort children into the school so that parents do not have to park and escort their children into the school. They anticipate having 15-minute parking limits for on-street spaces during peak hours for those parents who may wish to park briefly. They will also stagger start and dismissal times to avoid having everyone arrive and leave at the same time. School officials will also encourage carpooling.
Commissioner Washington noted there is not a left-turn signal for motorists who want to turn west onto Kennedy Street from South Dakota Avenue, so conceivably motorists waiting to turn could impact the flow of traffic to Riggs Road. There is also a public alley just east of the site that conceivably some parents might use to get to Kennedy Street to access the campus. There was a bit of back-and-forth discussion about having traffic control officers or crossing guards at intersections like South Dakota and Kennedy and who exactly would be responsible for working with DDOT on that. Rocketship does intend to work with DDOT, but also recommended that the ANC make the request to DDOT as well so that DDOT takes it seriously (I guess).
The traffic study was largely based on current conditions, but Kennedy Street between South Dakota Avenue and 3rd Street will look much different in the next few years than it does today. Construction on the second phase of Art Place at Fort Totten, which would sit right next to the campus, could begin at some point in the next one to two years. The Cafritz Foundation is the developer of Art Place at Fort Totten and also owns the warehouses that Rocketship is leasing for the school. I tried to find an image that would show the relation of the existing warehouses to the second phase as well as a general site plan for the second phase. If all goes according to plan, 4th Street between Ingraham and Kennedy will become a shared pedestrian/vehicular path. There will be a grocery store at the corner of South Dakota and Kennedy, a dog run near 4th and Kennedy, and truck loading for Art Place via 4th and Kennedy. Parking garage access will also be available via Kennedy Street. The traffic engineers believe most of these uses will not present conflicts during school peak hours and also believe the new parking garage may be useful for occassions in which the school might need additional parking.
Rocketship wants to begin construction renovating the interior of the existing warehouses soon after the DCPCSB vote on October 28, assuming the vote is in their favor. The ANC plans to reach out to DCPCSB to ask for an extension of time to file a report by the ANC. Given that the Board will not vote until October 28, the ANC and Rocketship seem to believe the ANC will have no problem getting additional time after September 16 to submit comments. It is not clear if the commissioners will attend the hearing on September 16 or what they plan to say if they do show up, or if they simply plan to file a comment with DCPCSB by September 16 saying they need more time. As previously mentioned, Rocketship stated they wanted to reach out to DCPCSB to get clarity on the process for the Social Justice School. It is not clear if that conversation has happened. I have been told the ANC has invited both Rocketship and the Cafritz Foundation to the next ANC meeting on September 25 to look at the bigger picture. So it seems as if this process is a bit convoluted at this point.
I have not seen the ANC present any standards by which it will evaluate whether to support Rocketship’s application. DCPCSB approved Rocketship’s initial charter application to open up to eight campuses in DC, conditioned on four factors:
(a) All previously authorized campuses have opened; (b) All operating DC campuses have PMF scores of at least 65 for the most recent year of reporting; (c) All operating DC campuses have early learning programs that are the equivalent of “tier 1” on the forthcoming EC PMF for the most recent year of reporting; and (d) There have been no material violations of the law and neither the school nor any of its campuses are under “charter warning” status by PCSB.”
There are a number of other conditions in the approval.
I asked a DCPCSB representative how they evaluate whether to approve a new campus and that representative stated they look at whether the school is operating according to its charter, whether its existing schools are meeting standards, and whether this is a need for another school. It is not clear to me whether the ANC has asked for information from Rocketship about the performance of its two existing campuses (Rise Academy and Legacy Prep). A quick glance at the schools’ PARCC scores show them to be in the middle range. It is not clear if the ANC has asked for information about the schools’ suspension and retention rates. It is not clear to me if the ANC has discussed with Rocketship how opening a new elementary and middle school campus will impact enrollment at traditional neighborhood schools. Rocketship’s application points to the long waiting list for highly ranked charter schools in Ward 5 as evidence of need. I am not sure if the ANC has asked Rocketship if Rocketship itself had long waiting lists for any of its campuses, including the initial Ward 5 campus that ending up getting scuttled. And again, unclear if the Rocketship needs to rely on a subtenant to make this campus work and what their plan is if the ANC objects to having a middle school on the campus.
Some have asked my opinion on this proposal or assumed that I am against this new campus for some reason, but I am actually mostly agnostic. The existing Rocketship campuses appear to be swimming in the middle of the pack, so a new campus will probably do fine. Residents will deal with the changes that are coming to the corridor. I do not have children and so I tell people I am just one resident with opinions about the way District officials have handled the charter school experiment. I do not have a favorable view of the DCPCSB but again that is largely a function of how District officials and Congress have chosen to handle the charter school experiment. Generally, my focus is more on having the ANC be a bit more thougtful in how it operates, read relevant documents, and ask critical questions in order to make informed decisions.
There is still time to share your thoughts with the ANC and file comments with DCPCSB. Stay tuned for updates from the ANC about the September 25th meeting.