Yesterday I was able to touch base with Dr. Soner Tarim, a founder and chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools. You could hear the frustration in his voice as he explained to me that the last thing he wanted was to ignite a controversy over where his school would be located. He then went on to portray a facility hunt that for me was a broken record of the exasperating process each and every charter opening in this city has had to endure.
Dr. Tarim recalled that his team had been trying to secure a site even before his charter was approved. But the matter rose in seriousness on November 18, 2013 when the D.C. Public Charter School Board gave the green light for their application. The Harmony CEO reminded me that his school was granted the right to begin operating for the 2014 to 2015 school term under the Board's fast track experienced operator provision along with Democracy Prep PCS. The very next day he met with Building Hope.
Building Hope's Tom Porter provided him with a list of 50 potential options. On the spreadsheet were eight closed DCPS buildings, five available for long term leases and three which there going to be provided for use on a short term basis. Recall that in May 2013 Mayor Gray committed to turning over 16 surplus traditional schools to charters or other community organizations.
Right from the start Mr. Porter warned Dr. Tarim that his timeline for securing a DCPS property was too narrow. But he indicated that he was willing to give it a try, and the challenging task of making one of these schools a permanent facility for Harmony began.
At the same time Dr. Tarim was extremely interested in introducing his school to the city. Toward that goal he scheduled a meeting with Kaya Henderson. He explained to me that he makes it a point to meet with the school superintendent wherever Harmony PCS goes. "We want to collaborate with the local education officials," Dr. Tarim related. "There is no rationale for getting into fights with these individuals. We are all trying to do our best for kids," the Harmony CEO asserted, "and we want to see how we can work together." Last March, four months ago, he sat down with the DCPS Chancellor who brought with her one of her system's STEM experts. He described the dialog as positive and he was immediately impressed by Ms. Henderson's friendly and upbeat demeanor. There was no mention of a facility since Harmony was laboring hard to taper the original list of potential sites.
As Harmony condensed their possibilities the organization had many conversations with Brian Hanlon, the director of D.C.'s Department of General Services. It is DGS that is responsible for developing leases for shuttered DCPS facilities with charters. In a meeting last February the DGS head declared that most likely he would not be able to turn over a former classroom building to Harmony that would be ready for the start of their school year.
There was one closed DCPS site that especially appealed to Dr. Tarim, and that was the former Marshall Elementary located on Fort Lincoln Drive, N.E. in Ward 5. So about four weeks following his session with Mr. Hanlon he set up an appointment with Abigail Smith, the Deputy Mayor for Education. The Harmony CEO had a cordial discussion with the Deputy Mayor in which she raised the possibility of the school co-locating with a future YMCA at Marshall. Dr. Tarim said he was open to the idea and the meeting concluded with Ms. Smith relating that she would be back in contact if this proposal seemed possible to turn into reality. However, a follow-up call failed to materialize.
Harmony was now racing against the clock. Their first lottery was imminent and they needed to have a home so they could determine how many students they could admit. They reduced the first list of classroom locations to eight, with none of these buildings coming from the city. Discouraging negotiations to secure one of these spaces concluded without success.
Finally, and in desperation, Harmony settled on the 19,500 square feet building across the street from Langley Elementary. Dr. Tarim said that he knew that McKinley Tech middle and high school was in the vicinity, but he did not realize there was an elementary school so close that had the same STEM academic focus and grades. He added that this former home to a private school and City Lights Charter School is too small for his program, and therefore in only two years Harmony PCS will have to find an additional facility. Dr. Tarim added one final piece of information. Of the 92 students admitted so far to Harmony's D.C. location only 10 come from Ward 5. Therefore, the presence of his school is not having a significant detrimental impact to the enrollment of the neighborhood school.
This story is really a tragedy. There are currently 23 surplus DCPS buildings that are sitting vacant. Many more current traditional schools are substantially under-enrolled. It should be asked how anyone can complain about a lack of coordination when the city refuses to engage. If these empty structures were turned over to charters, as the law requires, it would avoid future controversies like the one concerning Harmony PCS Langley Elementary. It would also allow these alternative schools to concentrate on their core mission of academics instead of real estate. Something has to be done immediately to prevent one more charter from repeating what this new school had to live through.