A historic DC Public Schools campus closed in 2008 by former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will be used to create more seats for special education students within the public school system, officials announced Thursday, while the rest of the site is slated to become office and retail space.
The announcement marks the latest step in the city's push to serve more children with special needs, rather than send them to costly private schools as required in some cases by federal law.
The Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School building, located in the West End neighborhood, is to be redeveloped by Ivymount Schools and Programs, already a partner in providing special education services to DCPS students. They aim to serve 50 students with autism within the building.
The city selected the partnership of Akridge and Argos to turn the rest of the Stevens site into a 10-story office building with ground-floor retail and underground parking.
"Washington, D.C., has taken steps to improve its standing in special education, and working with DCPS and Ivymount shows our shared commitment to increasing capacity and services for District children with disabilities," said Brandon Frazier, spokesman for the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
In 2009, Mayor Vincent Gray's predecessor, Adrian Fenty, chose Equity Residential to turn the Stevens site into apartments, but amid outcry from neighbors, the deal was tossed.
Meanwhile, D.C. schools officials have been working to increase seats for students with special needs. As all students are eligible for a free public education under federal law, the District must pay the costs of any student whose needs the public school system isn't equipped to handle. The city expects to spend $109.9 million this year to support the 1,700 students enrolled in private schools.
When Gray took office, he tasked the schools with reducing the number of private placements in half. By 2014, the city will have to move about 600 more students from private schools back into public schools to meet that goal.
Earlier this month, the District gave $450,000 to two public charter schools to open extra classrooms for students with special needs who would otherwise be sent to private facilities.
"I believe professionally and personally that our children can be educated here and don't have to go across the country," said Donna Montgomery, executive director of Options Public Charter School.
In July, The Washington Examiner reported that some parents have felt forced to enroll their children in DCPS to meet the mayor's directive. In one case, a nonverbal 19-year-old with the mental age of an 18-month-old had been told to attend Dunbar Senior High School.