GW and the School Without Walls are considering a deal that would provide a new building for the G Street high school and more on-campus housing for the University.
But their hopes may be dashed by a city historic preservation board that could vote to preserve the century-old property next week.
Under a plan both GW and School Without Walls officials approve, the magnet high school would also develop a program to work with the Graduate School of Education and Human Development in addition to a new facility.
Officials from the University and the D.C. public school board have discussed the partnership for years, GW Senior Counsel Charles Barber said. School Without Walls Principal Dana Bedden said the previously “mystical” idea is now solidifying and would address several problems that the school faces.
The school’s current 2030 G St. building is 120 years old and vastly under-spaced, he said, at 125 percent capacity. It also lacks facilities basic to most schools, such as a gymnasium, a cafeteria and science labs.
“Partnering with GW would allow these capital improvements while funds are strapped,” Bedden said, though he is unsure where the high school will procure its part of the funds.
The school is part of a citywide magnet program. It specializes in humanities with 325 students, admitting students who qualify after an application process.
Under zoning regulations imposed last year, the University is restricted to building on campus. The high school’s property lies within these boundaries, providing both GW and School Without Walls with what officials called a “win-win” situation.
Under the plan, GW would build a residence hall on space behind the school currently occupied by University-owned tennis courts.
However, the plan faces legal hurdles and community criticism.
Built in 1882, the School Without Walls may soon be protected by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, which will hold a hearing about the property Sept. 26. Legislation has been pending on the building’s official historic status for more than a year.
Properties are deemed historic for “their contribution to the cultural and aesthetic heritage of the nation’s capital,” according to the preservation board Web site. Archaeological sites, engineering structures, sculptures and landscape features may also be preserved.
“We are concerned about any preservation legislation that would prevent a School Without Walls from being built,” Barber said.
The Foggy Bottom neighborhood would like to maintain the building’s historic aspects, said Elizabeth Elliott, chairwoman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. She mentioned advantages to land-marking the school in the National Register of Historic Places, such as federal funding.
“We’re seeing the obliteration of the historic underpinnings to this neighborhood,” Elliott said. “GW wants something from the School Without Walls. It’s a piece of property. That’s the tradeoff.”
A possible compromise that would address aesthetic concerns is preserving the facade of the building, though this would raise the cost, Bedden said. The exterior is currently being refurbished.
Both University officials and Bedden said they would stay away from any agreements that would put limitations on a new school. There is an inherent incompatibility when maintaining history, Bedden said. Just renovating the inside of the school could mean no increase in capacity.
“My position is to be respectful . how do I give the best education to our children? I can’t put a price on what they’re worth,” Bedden said.
Both schools will work to develop a program with the GSEHD, addressing how to best share space while maintaining separate control, Bedden said. He gave examples from simply sharing copy rooms to classrooms and teacher preparation rooms.
Currently, GW uses the School Without Walls’ classroom space, while the high school uses University facilities for assemblies and part of the Smith Center for physical education. High school students also take and receive credit for University classes without having to pay tuition. The plan would expand class options to include the high school instructors.
GSEHD Dean Mary Futrell said planners will look into sharing science labs, library resources and cultural activities. Teachers at the School Without Walls could receive master’s or doctoral degrees and become adjunct professors at GW.
The GSEHD has worked with Cardozo High School in Northwest D.C. for five years and currently has six student teachers there. It has three or four student teachers at the School Without Walls. GW can help with what is needed at individual schools, like Cardozo, which lacked discipline and reform, Futrell said. The difference with the new proposal is sharing space between the school and the University.
Bedden said he hopes the program could become a model across the country. It is based on other university-high school relationships, such as the University of Chicago, which has its own secondary school and the University of Florida, which has a school, grades K-12, on its campus.
“We don’t want that ownership,” he said. “We want to share resources and be independent.”
A “swing space,” where School Without Walls students could go while the building is under construction, has not yet been determined, Bedden said.
The D.C. school board is looking to select a team to begin the negotiating process, said William Lockridge, Board of Education vice president. They will vote on whether to amend regulations to allow a partnership between GW, a private property owner, and the public school board property.
“This way, GW wouldn’t go out and competitively bid for the project,” Lockridge said, noting that GW could place a bid on building a new facility rather than negotiating directly with the school.
The board is looking into other models in the city, he said, including the James F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, which the developer rebuilt in addition to adding rental housing to the same property. The Charles Sumner School, the first school to admit black children in D.C., now houses space for meetings and a museum.
Other historic campus buildings include Corcoran Hall, Lisner Auditorium, offices at 2003 G St. and 700 20th St., Stockton Hall (in the law school) and Strong Hall.
Besides preserving the high school’s historic aspects, the neighborhood is also concerned about the influx of students caused by construction of a new residence hall, Elliott said.
“GW is pretty much at its limit . in terms of density on campus,” she said. “We don’t want to see the community disappear and it pretty much has east of 23rd Street.”
Elliott said while it’s true that the commission wants GW to house its students on campus, the goal should be for the University to “go for better, not bigger.”