City Lights fade to dark

Eighteen-year-old Eric Fortune-Epps wants to go to GW so he “can get a good job and have a better life,” but he does not even know if he can make it through his senior year of high school.

Fortune-Epps was a student at City Lights Public Charter School in Northeast. The school, founded three years ago for students with emotional or psychological disabilities, closed its doors last Friday and is slated to be turned into an apartment complex.

“When I first heard City Lights was closing, I was shocked,” he said. “I thought I was in a dream, waiting for somebody to wake me up.”

He works 20 hours a week at Safeway to help his recently hospitalized mother pay the bills. Though his grandmother helps, he mops, sweeps and washes dishes to help around the house.

Iris Lewis, a GW graduate and executive director of City Lights, told parents in late January that the D.C. government was reducing City Lights’ funding, forcing it to close.

Recently, metal fences circled the property while waste littered the grounds. On an outside wall, an unfinished drawing of Obama stood with the words “Yes We Can.” Windows were sealed behind metal mesh.

On the third floor, maps of the world, children’s projects and classroom guidelines such as “Respect your fellow student” lined the classroom walls. In Spanish, handwritten labels described objects like “books” and “poster board.” An empty nail hung beside the label “clock.”

Reference books were scarce and assignment folders thin. A music room contained an electrical piano, headphones and a 24-inch Mac computer. The dark green paint on the door of Room 305 was chipped, some wood torn away.

Nona Richardson, communications manager of the Charter School Board, an organization that directs all area charter schools, said City Lights “voluntarily relinquished their charter.” The Charter Board funds schools based on enrollment.

City Lights had projected an enrollment of 75, but only had 47 students this school year. Because it missed the mark on enrollment, it received less money from the Charter Board, which pays an extra $20,000 per special needs student. The money is meant to cover social workers, security, caseworkers and special education providers.

Richardson said City Lights’ low enrollment “could be due to a number of factors including lack of endorsement from parents, current students or students who have dropped out.”

Coach Robert Grimes, who teaches physical education, said losing the school “kills me, breaks my heart because of all the time we put into it … the students were coming around. Their home life is so broken up that this was the only place they had with regular adults that aren’t crazy, that treat the kids right.”

Grimes, who has since found another job, was given 10 days notice to look for new employment.

Many students suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder or show behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Some are homeless or have been incarcerated.

“In the middle of the year it will be hard to find another school,” said Fortune-Epps, who is taking a part-time business class to advance his studies.

Fortune-Epps, who is described by friends as “a super nice kid,” will have to find a new school before he can achieve his dream of attending GW.

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