Steve Hansen fights to bring Washington Elementary back to the grid

A councilman wants services returned to his district

Just when Steve Hansen got elected to the Sacramento City Council, his central-city district was dealt a major blow. In early 2013, the Sacramento City Unified School District decided to close Washington Elementary School, at the corner of 18th and E streets, in order to cut costs.

The savings were minimal, the school district’s process for closing Washington and six other elementary schools was a joke. And Hansen knew then what more people are now beginning to realize.

“Washington Elementary should not have been closed,” he says. “The central city deserves to have an elementary school.”

But, as a brand-new city councilman, he had no say over the actions of the Sacramento City Unified school board, an entirely different set of politicians, with their own turf and their own egos.

The makeup of the school board has since changed, and there’s a new, more collaborative superintendent in place. And predictably enough, state funding for schools has rebounded.

And for the last two years, Hansen has been agitating behind the scenes to re-open Washington Elementary. His efforts are paying off.

If successful, the plan will be a boost for the part of the city that Hansen represents. But it will also show there’s a better way for dealing with falling enrollment and other challenges facing city schools.

Hansen is a cheerleader for grid living—streetcars, housing, arenas, the more amenities the better. While the census tracts around Washington Elementary have about the same population they did when the school was built in 1976, school enrollment has declined for the past 20 years.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” says Hansen. “We have a hard time attracting families to the central city without good schools. But the school district says we don’t have the families, so we can’t have the school.”

The area is represented on the school board by Jay Hansen, no relation to Steve. Jay voted to close Washington and the other schools, and he still thinks the student population is currently too low to support a neighborhood school at Washington.

Nevertheless, Jay Hansen is now working with Steve Hansen, along with the Sacramento City Teachers Association, to re-open the school.

Partly, that’s because new housing development in and around the core—McKinley Village for example—will eventually boost the school-age population. And nearby schools like William Land Elementary and Theodore Judah are running out of room.

Jay Hansen notes that’s partly because William Land is a “destination school” with a popular Mandarin immersion program that draws students from outside its attendance area. If Washington is to re-open, he says, it ought to be “a neighborhood school with a strand of something special,” like Spanish immersion or an arts program. That might entice some downtown state workers to drop off their kids on the way in to the office.

Hansen and Hansen and company are holding a public meeting at Washington on March 12, starting at 6:30 p.m., to solicit community input about re-opening it. They are billing it as a “Request for Ideas.”

The effort to re-open Washington is a good example of the challenge facing the city’s schools: how to constructively counter falling enrollment, and the flight of families to charter schools and suburban districts.

Until now, the district’s answer has been to slash and burn and shutter schools. There are more creative and more equitable solutions.

Bites is not crazy about the idea that any neighborhood school has to remake itself as a boutique school in order to survive. But it beats sitting empty, or being parceled out to charter-school operators.

And while the central city certainly does deserve an elementary school, so do the south Sacramento neighborhoods that lost theirs. Why is Washington the only closed school with a city council person fighting to bring it back?

Parents at Joseph Bonnheim Elementary in south Sacramento did manage to bring back their school as a dependent charter, at the beginning of this school year. It wasn’t easy, and the district fought them at first.

Steve Hansen wants to see Washington re-opened in fall of 2015. That would be a fast turnaround. And district officials, along with board member Jay Hansen, say it’s unlikely Washington could re-open before the 2016-17 school year.

But Councilman Hansen says “nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.” He worries that otherwise the school will be back-burnered. “I don’t want to get into a situation where it’s another year, then another year.”

If Washington does re-open, it will show that we don’t have to throw away city schools with declining enrollment. With some creative thinking and collaboration, they can be part of a better future for the neighborhoods around them. That’s worth remembering next time, before we start closing schools.