Facility Update from Chris Lohse, Interim Executive Director

Dear Breakthrough Families,

As you know, next year Breakthrough will be adding a campus to facilitate our growth as a school.  Wanting to help nurture our children’s learning beyond the PK 3, PK 4 and Kindergarten services we’ve offered to date, we’ll be growing into grade 1 next year, grade 2 in 2019-2020, grade 3 in 2020-2021 and so on.  Today, I write to tell you a bit more about the history of the site selection, how we’re doing on our plan to open the space, and a little bit about what we think comes next.

We’ve known for a long time that we would outgrow our comfortable, founding home on Taylor Street.  As a result, our search for an additional campus goes back to 2015, even before our charter had been approved.  Since that time, Keith Whitescarver, our board chairman, and David Bagnoli, a board trustee and founder of an architectural firm with a lot of experience in designing Montessori spaces, have visited and researched dozens of locations.  In their research, they have considered market availability, price, available square footage, the school catchment area (a term that refers to the student population we can reasonably expect will attend the school), impacts on school demography, access to public transportation and outdoor space – to name just a few of the many demands we sought in a new home.

With such expansive criteria, few properties have made the cut for further consideration.  Often, the search was at first encouraging, only to find our hopes dashed in later details.  For instance, we researched one Brookland property, a beautiful 1920’s build with adjacent green space.  Located only ten minutes away from our Taylor Street campus, its square footage would not have been able to accommodate our full growth plan.  Moreover, it proved outside our budget projections, and the owners were not able to flex to our proposed budget.  Other properties, including one right across the street, would stir the same initial excitement, only to find fatal limitations deeper in the discovery process.

As a result, we selected a property on Takoma Avenue in NW DC.  A former publishing warehouse, it had been converted into common work and office space, undergoing many necessary health and safety regulation upgrades in the process.  It has the available square footage we need.  Our projections on demographics for the school approximate the existing demographics of Breakthrough (a way of saying that our racial and socio-economic diversity appear to be preserved – a deeply held value of the board, the school and our families).  It is near a metro stop, and there is developable land nearby for eventual use as greenspace by the school.

In terms of demographics, schools of choice like Breakthrough have a much more difficult time anticipating what their demography will be than traditional public schools.  Nevertheless, examining estimates of the demography in the vicinity of the school has proved useful in other predictive efforts, for other schools.  The board’s review of those neighborhood demographic trends demonstrated some important kinship between the Taylor Street and Takoma properties -- both, for instance, are in ward 4, in census regions with statistically similar poverty rates (12.8 percent poverty and 10.6 percent poverty, respectively) and percentages of black families, though the rate of Hispanic families is regrettably lower in Takoma Park (21% and 11.2%, respectively).  The average income rate diverges more -- in Takoma Park, the average income is about 25% higher than in Petworth -- but in deeper analysis it appeared that much of that difference was driven by the Colonial Village neighborhood, at the margin of the Takoma Park region, that we do not anticipate driving much enrollment.   

We proceeded to engage an organization called Building Hope to project manage our transition to the new building.  The organization’s express purpose is to help schools just like us transition into facilities that are better built for purpose.  They’ve helped us secure our lease, and finance any modifications we need to the existing building.  Those modifications begin this month, and include things like removing existing walls and erecting new ones according to the architectural renderings we prepared for the new school.  Electrical retrofits will be conducted in tandem.  The modifications are financed through multiple streams and bundled by Building Hope.  They include government loans through the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), and a bank note.  The terms are based on our facility allowance from the district offices, our projections of student enrollment and savings we intend to realize in operation costs in years 1 and 2 (our budgets are lean this year and next for this reason, and it’s why we’re encouraging as many as are able to help in the school’s fundraising and development efforts).

So far, we are proceeding according to schedule, and roughly according to budget.  We are slightly short of our budget projections (roughly 2% off of our projections), but are working presently on ways to realize savings in the budget that offset the projected shortfall.

This week, we circulated our project management spreadsheets and responsibilities as a leadership team.  Consisting of five consecutive 2-week sprints, these tools and strategies will allow us to make as seamless a transition to the new building as possible and to troubleshoot problems as they inevitably arise.  The sprints begin in early May and conclude on August 3rd, meaning we should be comfortably in place in Takoma well before the start of next school year.  This will allow guides to undertake the loving process of crafting their new classroom spaces.   Our timeline includes updates to you as a family community, so you can feel comfortable that we’re progressing as planned.     

We were heartened to see that the results of the lottery aligned with our projections of what would happen as a result of adding the new campus.  The population that matched with Breakthrough (admittedly not necessarily the same as the group that will ultimately select and attend Breakthrough), does not appear to be disadvantaged by the distance to the new school.  In fact, in our outreach to new families, they have expressed enthusiasm for the Takoma offering, believing it will offer a less trafficked route to school for their children.  We’ll provide more updates as we learn about the acceptance rate at Breakthrough in coming weeks, particularly as our new families will help answer important questions that have been raised about the relative expense of homes in the Takoma region, versus prices in Petworth.  The concern was that the higher home values would have an adverse impact on the level of enrollment of families from lower income levels.  We share that concern, believe we selected a school that would yield a close match to our existing demography, and intend to be transparent with you about the success of our projections.

If you have additional questions about the expansion / relocation, please feel free to reach out to me personally at Christopher.lohse@breakthroughmontessori.org; we can look for a time to talk, email, or meet in person.  Additionally, we’d be happy to discuss this at our monthly coffee with leadership talks in the morning, or an afternoon tea we intend to add for families who can’t make it to morning meetings (hat tip to parent Ericka Ward-Audena for the great suggestion on the afternoon tea).  At this morning’s coffee with leadership, we heard suggestions to build still more opportunities for discussion -- and opportunities with even less formality -- that we’re going to noodle on and develop.  

I hope this narrative helps illuminate the process a bit more, and I hope even more that the note finds you well and at peace.

All the best,
Chris