PoP-Ed: “Why the Wait to Modernize DC’s Aging Schools?”


Photo by PoPville flickr user Eric Spiegel

The following PoP-Ed. was written by Josh Freed, Jennifer Leonard, Cindy Balmuth, and Dina Dajani, parents of students at of Hearst Elementary School. PoP-Ed. posts may be submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

Why the Wait to Modernize DC’s Aging Schools?

By Josh Freed, Jennifer Leonard, Cindy Balmuth, and Dina Dajani

Last week, the parents of Hearst Elementary, a public school in Ward 3 that serves children from across every ward in the city, invited Mayor Gray to visit our school on Friday, December 21st. We hope to show the Mayor, first-hand, how insufficient funding for our long-overdue renovation and expansion is sentencing our students to facilities that fail to meet basic educational standards. This has been a problem the City has identified in its own internal planning documents dating back to 2008.

Hearst was built in 1930 and essentially remains a Depression-era schoolhouse today. It is the educational home to 280 kids, ages 4 to 10. Half of these students are housed in trailers, most without running water or bathrooms. Hearst has no cafeteria, gym or central meeting space. Students as young as six must carry trays of food up stairs to their classroom and have no choice but sit on the floor to eat their lunch. And despite having an excellent autism program, there is no space to provide therapies for students in need.

According to the DC government, it will require only $22 million to bring Hearst up to minimum 21st century standards. Yet, the city has only allocated $9 million.

Without an additional $13 million, our students will remain spread out across an antiquated main building and several sets of trailers, continue to eat at their desks and on hallway floors, and receive therapies in hallways. They’ll miss out on the critical benefits that common instructional and physical spaces provide and modern educational specifications demand. It also means that children and cars will continue to co-exist in a dangerous driveway; and that access will remain difficult to manage.

This is not about geography – Hearst represents families from every City ward. It is not about an underperforming or under-enrolled school — Hearst is a high achiever and 100% over capacity. This cannot be about priorities – Mayor Gray has championed special needs and early education throughout his career. It should not be about poor planning – the City developed Master Plans in 2008 and 2010 and updated Education Specifications in December 2011, when District officials launched their consultative planning process with the community.

Nevertheless, Hearst students are poised to be victims of City bureaucracy twice. First, due to a defective budget and planning system that failed to accurately account for dramatic increases in student population and classes. Then, and despite administration assurances and a paper trail, due to a funding roadblock that risks more delay.

We hope Mayor Gray comes to see for himself the dichotomy between the quality of students and the compromising circumstances imposed upon them by the District. And we hope that other residents of the District, who want to see their children or their friends and neighbors’ children succeed and the City remain a vibrant place for residents of all ages, will urge the Mayor to fund modernization so that all schools are built for the 21st century.

34 Comment

  • You can thank your DC Board of Education and the dinosaurs who sit on it for the lack of progress on all fronts in the DC school system. As a non-breeder, I’m still appalled. Where are my tax dollars going?

  • Thanks for posting – we are a POPville family that has kids at Hearst. The conditions really are sad, but the kids and teachers overcome all of this to create a great citywide community.

  • Points about the trailers, water, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym, meeting space, capacity, services, driveway, and access are all valid and worth making. I have a little guy and know parents of a Hearst student.

    I understand an “op-ed,” even for a Neighborhood Blog, can’t explain everything in a few paragraphs. So, here are a few questions prompted by your op-ed, in no particular order.

    Would a December 21 visit inform professional staff and/or decisionmakers of anything they do not already know?

    How did the “defective budget and planning system” fail?

    Is there some kind of formulaic planning/funding schedule you are talking about in your piece? If so, can you explain it a little?

    Has school funding been allocated to a lesser priority somewhere else?

    Do high achieving schools merit facility renovations more than other schools?

    What are “minimum 21st century standards?”

    What are the citical benefits that common instructional and physical spaces provide and modern educational specifications demand?

    Will funding for Hearst renovations be decided by City bureaucracy, or will funding for the school be determined by the Mayor and the Council?

    Is there a phrase or word missing here?

    Then, and despite administration assurances and a paper trail, due to a funding roadblock that risks more delay.

    If the Mayor is to fund modernization so that all schools are built for the 21st century, does it matter what order he goes in?

  • “Students in trailers” and a school building with no no cafeteria, gym or central meeting space”?

    Sounds like this school is a good candidate to be closed in the next round of school building closures. We’ve got enough buildings taht we have to close many of them, why pay to expand one when we are closing others of bigger size?

    • Because they’re in different neighborhoods? I don’t know if any of the proposed schools to be closed are near this one, but I’m assuming they aren’t. They choose schools to close due to the lack of students; this one sounds like it has the opposite problem.

      • There was more criteria than simple attendance levels (current and expected growth). Number of schools in area, building operation costs as well as building standards, and other criteria.

        This building doesn’t have the basics a building needs to operate as a school and is not an in-boundary elementary school (according to the OP).

        It might be better for the school system to use an existing building that has the facilities needed with minial upgrades, rather than build the facilities needed here.

        It might be, it might not be. Hopefully, this is a criteria that was looked at. But alas, it wasn’t. Ward 3 is having zero school closures in this round.

    • At least 4 other elementary schools in the 3 mile radius around Hearst are already at or over capacity and all have waiting lists for their pre-K program. There is no lack of student population in the neighborhoods around Hearst. What Hearst lacks are the proper facilities demanded by DCPS’s own minimum standars – “educational specification” for elementary education.

      • And? Why does this specific school need 22 million? At the current enrollment rate of 257, that’s over 85K per child.

        Would it be better to move the school out of Ward 3 into an existing building that could cost less to refurbish than 22 million dollars?

        That was my question. The OP clearly states this school is attended by city-wide students – it has only 19% in-boundary rate, so my option isn’t a horrid idea.

        • Identified,

          Charter schools spend millions all the time building additions to schools. After reading the post I can’t see why these kids can’t get a cafeteria and out of trailers. How can Mayor Gray defend this?

          Also, I question your mathematical skills. I assume that the renovated building will serve more than the current students. You need to multiply 257 x 25 (years) and then divide that into $22 million.

          • Why are you assuming that enrollment will hold steady at Hearst for 25 years? Nothing in my 20 years of living in DC indicates to me that school enrollment at any school holds steadily like that, as a general rule.

            If the 19% in-boundary figure is correct, it appears that the surrounding neighborhood is not terribly interested in sending their children to this school. With 81% of its students out of boundary, why not build a new $22 million school in an underserved ward where real estate is cheaper, sell this school to a developer to pay for that cost and have a more centralized school for all these kids trucking from all over the city to get decent schooling. How often do you hear of schools in Ward 7 or 8 bringing in students citywide? Why not build some great schools there?

  • In response to some of the queries, particularly those posed by Anon at 2:31:

    Why invite the Mayor? Every District authority who has seen the school is struck by the appalling conditions imposed upon staff and students. At this point, the decision to provide supplemental, current year funding rests with him (only then would it go to the Council for approval, as it’s over 1m). As such, and noting the gravity of the decision before him, he should experience conditions first-hand. Even better if it’s a rainy day – kids stuck in trailers commute to shoddy bathrooms in the main building, tiny kids balance lunch trays up two flights of stairs – or across the driveway – to eat at desks or sometimes on hallway floors (after-care eats on the floor, daily), understand how autism therapies are conducted in hallways , see how administration tries to manage security and access to an antiquated building and multiple trailers, watch kids dodge traffic in the driveway, or conduct all-school meeting outside on the basketball court because there’s nowhere they can all fit…

    How did the defective budget and planning process fail Hearst? Tough to summarize the dysfunction but here are some highlights: The deficient $9.3m figure for Hearst’s renovation is based upon outdated Master Plans developed by the City in 2008 and 2010 that each proposed a capacity of 250 students — one PreK class, and 6 classes for K through 3rd grades – and called for the renovation of the original building and a 20k sf addition. However, in 2009, alongside the District’s Master Planning process, Hearst actually began an expansion to include 4th and 5th grades and an additional special education class – ultimately 5 new classes and 50 new students. Yet, the Master Planning process failed to take any of this expansion into account. The December 2011 “Education Specifications”, developed and approved by the City and its expert consultant, updated specifications to accurately reflect Hearst’s then-reality — 300 students and 16 classrooms — and called for renovation of the existing building AND an additional 28k sf of space. But the City’s budget process, operating in parallel, never caught up with Hearst’s numbers (the Mayor has cited the CIP, which was based on the MPs). It also completely ignored calls, dating back to 2008, to create additional permanent space.

    Worth noting that the 2010 Master Facilities Plan identified Hearst as ‘poor’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ on 7 of 10 systems criteria, including basics like plumbing, electric, ADA compliance (especially striking since the school hosts a magnet special education program). Ratings are from 2008, but without any comprehensive updates, they still apply. You can see it here. http://web.archive.org/web/20101110093258/http://opefm.dc.gov/pdf/master_facility_plan/Hearst_Elementary_School.pdf

    On funding/timing/phasing, the City is already way behind on its original plans, which projected a finish by August 2013. The first of several RFPs details scope, phasing, timelines, etc. It also has useful needs assessment and project background info, including to the December 2011 Educational Specifications. This document was really the first accurate snapshot of student population and classroom count, yet even today it’s 300-headcount is under as today’s count is 310.

    Amendments to the RFPs illustrate the timeline slipping. Original RFP here http://dc.gov/DC/DGS/DGS%20Services/RFP%20Mann%20and%20Hearst.pdf

    The RFP includes a link to the 2011 Ed Specs (which also address your questions about modern ed standards – as if requesting adequate space to learn, eat, convene, and exercise is something new-fangled for a school?) https://leftwichlaw.box.com/shared/static/7neshvxi1b0rx4dfskhi.pdf

    Thanks for your interest, and hopefully your support.

  • If the school is so overcrowded, why do they keep letting out of boundary students attend? Shouldn’t they stop letting out of boundary students attend so that numbers aren’t so high?

    • It is not only a matter of overcrowding and too many students. The school is not up to code in many areas and has no cafeteria, gymnasium, or any type central space. Even if you reduced the number of students it is still in need of major renovation just to meet the basic needs of its current students.

  • Ethics and best practice standards aside, isn’t it against special education law to provide therapy services in hallways, where others can see? I’d think that being forced to eat on the floor is a heath code violation.

    • I get the point that the students don’t have a proper cafeteria, but why are they sitting on the floor to eat — couldn’t they sit at their desks and eat?

  • Why not establish “Hearst at Garrison” and move the school closer to the center of gravity of its student body?

    • The vast majority of Hearst students are from Wards 3 and 4, neither of which is near Garrison.

      • I thought somebody said they are from all 8 wards.

      • They’re closing McFarland Middle. Put Hearst there if 20% are inbounds and the student body is split between Ward 3 and Ward 4 with students from all parts of the City.

    • Spot on! Looking into the future, we’d also need to create Deal Annex @ Garrison and Wilson Annex @ Garrison, because the OOB parents getting their kids into Ward 3 schools are taking the long view, with middle school & high school in mind. I applaud the money going into Cardozo (instead of Hearst) … because we need to make sure neighborhood schools throughout the city are successful.

      • It shouldn’t be an either/or. Dc has plenty of money. DC is spending millions of dollars every year opening up new charter schools. This school has a long successful history and parents have a right to send their children there. Instead of closing Hearst down and then spending millions to open 5 more charter schools next year, the city should spend the money to renovate this school properly.

        These are appalling conditions.

  • Hearst is a school that has evolved over the last several years, from one that only went to third grade to a full-service elementary school that also has a strong program for special needs children. Although the in-bound percentage is lower overall, it is continuing to climb with every new class (the rate in pre-k now is about 35%). It wasn’t that long ago that other area schools, like Murch, Ross, and Stoddart also had a high out of bounds percentage, and now the incoming classes are almost all in-bounds. If Hearst were to close, where would all of us who are currently in-bound go? Surely not to the already over-crowded schools that surround us.

    • To an out of boundary school? Like 81% of the current enrollment at Hearst does now?

      • It is the choice of that 81% to go to an out-of-boundary school, they still have the choice to go to their in-bounds school. I live in-bounds for Hearst and I choose to go to my in-bound school, I should not be forced to go to an out-of-bound school.

      • The point is that if Hearst closes, those families need to be in-bound to some school. None of the nearby schools have the capacity to take in all the Hearst in-bound families (and all the potential families that are now choosing to send their kids somewhere else).

  • So, with each class, the student body of Hearst becomes more based in Upper Upper?

    Sorry. I’ll support my neighborhood school then, thanks.

    • So some people think Hearst should be closed because it serves 80% out of bounds students, but others object to the notion of more in-bounds families going there. Clearly the school can’t win.

      Look people, I think we all understand that many DC schools are in need of renovation. Hearst was put on the list because it did not meet code in many areas, has no common space, and was expanded in 2009 to add a 4th and 5th grade, which the current building was not made for. There is a city-wide schedule for school renovations and many schools are on that list. No one is saying the Hearst deserves renovation more than other schools. We are just asking for the renovation that the city committed to and that the school community has been planning for for the last two years. We hope that all other schools scheduled for renovation also get the funds they need. But I don’t think it’s fair to imply that no schools in Ward 3 deserve to be modernized.

  • You wonder if you couldn’t do a “students by ward” analysis of schools across the city and see where the shortest average school to commute to would be from those locations, and then renovate a school there and put Hearst’s student body in it.

  • Hearst is a community, and in spite of it’s facilities issue, is a successful school. The kind we need to support.

    As to why there is not enough money available for renovations, DC has a city-wide facilities issue.

    DCPS operates 120 campuses, but only needs 80, based on current enrollment. A proposal to close 20 is pending. Routine facilities costs drain its operating budget, so capital projects lose out.

    Meanwhile, many charters – even the successful ones – are starved for space, because their enrollment has grown.

    DCPS now enrolls 55% of the student, charters 45%. The competition is healthy, but running two parallel school systems requires more collaboration.

    With charters here to stay, and great DCPS schools like Hurst, we need to make sure that facilities dollars go where they are needed most. Efficient facilities management means more school dollars for the real work of teaching.

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