Thursday, April 9, 2009

Wilson Modernization Funding

(from The Northwest Current, Wednesday, April 8, 2009)


Mayor Adrian Fenty has often emphasized his wish that neighborhood schools become centers of community activity. Those of us in leadership positions at Wilson High School believe that the upcoming modernization of Wilson provides the perfect opportunity to create an incredible community resource.

However, the current D.C. Public Schools Master Facilities Plan shows a funding level for Wilson that is obviously inadequate. For instance, the funds allocated are roughly the same as being spent for the modernization of Deal Middle School, which will open this fall with an enrollment about half of Wilson's -- and with 105,000 less square feet than Wilson’s proposed 286,000.

At the proposed level of funding, the city would squander an opportunity to make Wilson a great school and a great community resource. That would be a loss for our kids, for our community, for the city that our school serves and for taxpayers.

Woodrow Wilson High School was built during the Great Depression, opening in September 1935. When funds ran low, cost-cutting measures left Wilson with a building on 11 levels -- resulting in useless corridors taking up space in a constrained building area and limited accessibility for disabled students and faculty (of course, this was prior to federal disability laws). It is the D.C. Public Schools system’s only high school with this daunting and potentially costly modernization challenge. Wilson's gymnasium was built in the 1970s; the corners cut then meant that it was substandard on the day it opened. We cannot allow our students and our community to be shortchanged again.

A conceptual design developed for Wilson over the past year showed how a modernization could create a model school and provide the following in community enhancements:
• a gymnasium built beside the new Wilson pool to provide a neighborhood recreation complex that would provide sorely needed services while achieving long-term economies of scale in operating costs related to management, maintenance, utilities and security;
• a media center accessible to the public during non-school hours for workshops and meetings;
• a new state-of-the-art performing and visual arts center also available during non-school hours;
• new underground parking available after-hours for pool users and attendees of community events.

We believe the existing plan could be implemented comfortably if Wilson’s allocation were equal to at least the average per-pupil level proposed for the other D.C. Public Schools high schools. Instead, what is contained in the plan put forward by the mayor and the Office of Public Education Facilities and Modernization is a funding level that, in the opinion of both architecture and education professionals, would make it very difficult to meet the educational program requirements for a 21st-century school.
Among the city’s comprehensive high schools, Wilson is the largest and most diverse, with a current enrollment of 1,500 (projected at 1,600) students from all wards and all 22 Zip codes. Based on projected enrollment for modernized schools, Wilson’s per-pupil spending is the lowest in the facilities plan for all high schools. Its per-pupil spending is $40,088 vs. an average of $62,029 for the other 12 high schools. What is fair about that? Wilson’s overall budget of $64 million compares unfavorably with recent similar projects in Arlington -- that is, schools that were a combination of rehabilitation and new construction: Washington-Lee High School at $95.2 million (1,500 students at $63,467 per pupil) and Yorktown at $92 million (1,600 students at $57,500 per pupil).

Mayor Fenty campaigned on a promise to make our schools the best in the country. A first-class school needs a first-class building. A fully modernized building, properly designed and built, could provide a top facility for our students, as well as our whole community, and serve the city for the next 75 years. This will be the most important investment made in our community in decades.

We need to work together to make sure that when the final budget is approved, the mayor and the D.C. Council properly fund a modernization of Woodrow Wilson that will provide a vital anchor for our community.

Mary Giffin and Susan Carter are co-presidents of the Wilson High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association, and Mary Froning is chair of the Wilson Local School Restructuring Team.

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