Current Staff Writer
The D.C. Council is speeding up restoration of the historic Reno School as well as an addition linking the structure to Alice Deal Middle School, which has seen its popularity — and enrollment numbers — soar since a major modernization project was completed in 2009.
Council members, at the urging of Ward 3 member Mary Cheh, agreed May 15 to expedite some $8 million in funding for the Reno School and its addition, both just west of Deal, so that construction can begin this fall. Mayor Vincent Gray’s budget proposal would have held the bulk of that money for construction work in fiscal 2014 and 2015.
The shift, according to a Cheh aide, means that the project could be complete by the beginning of winter break in 2013, allowing teachers time to fit out new classrooms before students return to school in January 2014.
It also means that Deal, which now has a capacity of 980 sixth- through eighth-graders, will be able to accommodate 1,200 students. But the school is already overcrowded, said Cheh’s education expert, Drew Newman, with a current audited enrollment of 1,014.
With Deal’s projected enrollment to hit 1,124 next year, the city plans to install four portable classrooms behind the school this summer.
“Deal is exploding with children, with not enough room to teach them,” Cheh said.
Shifting the construction work forward will cost nothing extra, the council member noted in an interview. “There’s no additional fiscal impact. No one else’s project will be affected.”
Officials have long considered renovating the vacant Reno School, a simple red-brick schoolhouse built in 1903 to serve children from the largely African-American community of Reno City. That community was systematically demolished in the 1930s and 1940s, in part to make room for a whites-only Woodrow Wilson High School and Deal. The Reno School — though briefly used for special education and school offices — fell into disrepair.
Initial plans called for restoring Reno School only. But as Deal’s enrollment began to climb, officials hatched the idea of a glassy new two-story addition connecting Deal to the old Reno building. The total project will provide 12 new classrooms for Deal, and its design has already been endorsed by preservation authorities and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
But the enrollment boom is still creating dilemmas, as most Ward 3 schools — especially those already modernized in a construction spree initiated by former Mayor Adrian Fenty — are attracting more families that might have sent their kids to private schools or moved out of the city in previous years.
Deal’s attendance boundaries extend to the northwestern edge of the city, south to Massachusetts Avenue, and across Rock Creek Park to parts of Ward 4. Newman said officials have already decided not to allow any new “out-of-boundary” students to sixth grade at Deal next year. But students who attend in-boundary elementary schools are guaranteed admission no matter where they live, he said.
Wilson High School is feeling the same type of enrollment pressure since the renovated school reopened last fall. Wilson is not accepting any new out-of-boundary students for ninth grade next year, Newman said, but must accept all comers from its feeder schools, which include Deal, Hardy and Jefferson middle schools.
Cheh also pushed through a budget provision requiring a thorough study of public school boundaries every 10 years in order to ease such enrollment pressures.
Council budget director Jennifer Budoff said the council bumped up one other middle school modernization project as it deliberated on the fiscal 2013 budget last week. Funding to fully modernize Johnson Middle School in Ward 8 was pushed up because the school is in such terrible condition, she said.
This article originally appeared in the May 23 issue of The Northwest Current.