The Unbearable Lightness of Being [a Public School Family in DC]: Part 3

This Friday, June 17, marks the last day of my 9-year run as a Watkins Elementary parent. My first child started there in the fall of 2007, and my second will have her last day on Friday.

At the time I became a Watkins parent, the school had all its original windows, which leaked such that floors, walls, and ceilings were regularly ruined (and occasionally repaired); windowless and handleless metal safety doors occasionally chained shut while students were in the building because there was no good way to enter and exit, so doors were (unsafely) propped; door locks only on some, not all, classroom doors; heating and cooling on a relative basis, depending on the amount of sun, the time of year, and the ability of teachers to open windows to regulate interior temperatures.

Unrepaired bathroom sinks fell off walls; toilets failed. Several times, all 500 Watkins students were evacuated to the church across the street for gas leaks caused by deterioration of original equipment well past its functional life (the kids went to the church not because of weather, but because it was safer than evacuating to the school’s playground and field, where they might be hit by shrapnel if the school exploded). A few times, the school’s water was shut down for unrepaired leaks, and a few times classes held in the hallways when some classrooms became too cold to bear. Water fountains were hit and miss: not all functional, some plagued by leaks, and some with actionable lead levels years before the current lead in water issue.

This is the stuff my kids–and hundreds of others–experienced in 9 years in one unrenovated public school in DC, whose physical plant was basically untouched by any significant work since its completion.

In 2008, a city report graded eight of ten building systems at Watkins (many of them, not surprisingly, original) as either poor or unsatisfactory, including a failing façade.

Front of Watkins Elementary during window replacement, summer 2015; note the alignment of facade bricks to the right of the windows.


The 2008 report deemed that facade a “hazard.”

Nothing has been done to the facade of Watkins since that report. Last year, while working with volunteers who have maintained Watkins’ garden since its inception, I found a large, metal letter “M” resting in some plants near where that photo above was taken: the movement of the façade bricks is causing all the pins holding the letters in the school name on the front façade to be pushed out.

Over the decades, some Watkins classrooms had been converted into common areas: four classrooms became a library, with a hallway running in the middle, a project of local donations, design, and labor. Two classrooms became a small PE room. Shortly after I became a Watkins parent, there was a fundraiser to put in a teaching kitchen for the Foodprints program in what had been an unused science lab. (After a neglected library at another DCPS elementary was similarly renovated by parents and local organizations and subsequently demolished by DCPS, our principal extracted a promise that the Watkins Foodprints kitchen would not be ripped out by DCPS without replacement in its entirety.)

Only one space at Watkins was large enough to hold all students at once, its original multi-purpose cafeteria/auditorium/gym. That space is notable not only for its complete lack of soundproofing, but also for its function: by day, it is used by Watkins and, after 3 pm on weekdays, on all weekends, and all summer, it is a recreation center run by its actual owner, DPR.

(Yes, Watkins has been run as a public school for more than 50 years without the school actually controlling a single assembly space in which all its students can assemble. I have surmised that the Watkins multipurpose room may be the most used room in all DC, hosting hundreds of people from 8 am through 6 pm every single weekday and weekend since it was completed in 1962.)

In my 9 years as a Watkins parent, I have learned a lot. One thing I have learned is that nostalgia is a luxury.

One of many original bathrooms at Watkins Elementary 

After years of parents complaining, Watkins eventually got doors with windows and, last year, new windows. Light streams into places where it had not shone for decades, due to the cheap, plasticized, and partially opaque window panes that had replaced original glass as a cost-saving measure (see picture above).

As my term as a Watkins parent ends this Friday, the building itself will enter a new phase, when its renovation begins. After a decade of deferrals; underfunding; and appeals by parents, students, and teachers, Watkins has been granted enough funds—about $35 million–to ensure all classrooms meet educational specifications; to provide a fully functional HVAC system; to have multiple common areas by design; and to have plenty of natural light, windows that don’t leak, water fountains that work, and bathrooms that function well.

(The façade may have to wait: No one thought to mention it explicitly in the scope of work, despite that 2008 report.)

During the renovation, the Watkins community will swing to a nearby underenrolled school, Eliot-Hine, where plasticized, partially opaque windows; windowless metal doors; and old bathrooms abound. Eliot-Hine is over 80 years old, having had no significant repairs or upgrades for at least as long as Watkins has been in existence.

No word on when Eliot-Hine will get a renovation.

For years, I was told that discussing with elected officials the physical shortcomings of DC schools other than Watkins might mean that the Watkins renovation budget would suffer, as its funds were diverted to other schools.

For years, I was told that not showing gratitude to politicians for whatever we could wrest for Watkins might mean a denial of future funding.

Indeed, my education over 9 years as a Watkins parent was to learn that public education in DC is a closed, finite system of delicate checks and balances: a renovation here, staffing cuts there, gratitude noted, anger punished.

And always, always: kids ignored.

In 2014, Watkins went from having $0 for its renovation to $14 million; that money would have been entirely blown replacing bathrooms, tweaking HVAC, and replacing windows. That same year, a few parents and teachers gathered outside the Wilson Building, our city hall, to protest the deplorable conditions inside Watkins and other unrenovated DCPS schools. Passing by, Ward 7 councilmember Yvette Alexander—many of whose constituents attend Watkins—looked at that picture of the Watkins bathroom above and said, “You have $14 million.”

I have no words to describe 9 years of seeing hundreds of children every year—children!–being overlooked; disrespected; and generally forgotten in their own school by people entrusted with the civic funds to ensure that didn’t happen.

Nine years: half of a childhood.

Now that Watkins is getting renovated, with a budget that one can only hope fits the needs of the school, I want to write of success.

But this is not a story of success: it’s a story of the right thing not being done by our city for at least 50 years.

And that story is happening right now to thousands of our kids: at Eliot-Hine; at Orr; at Kimball; at Logan; at Garfield; and at scores of other neglected DC schools, whose renovations are years, and budget fights, and deferrals, and underfunding, away.

After 9 years of all of that as a Watkins parent, after 9 years of pleading, sending emails, testifying, phoning elected officials, meeting with them to get $35 million that cannot ensure a “hazard” is fixed, I must ask a simple question:

Why is it OK that our kids–overwhelmingly, DC’s poorest, most vulnerable children–continue to be educated in school facilities that are decrepit and potentially dangerous?

We have more than $2 BILLION in surplus tax dollars.

We have money to jackhammer perfectly functional concrete sidewalks to install brick sidewalks to increase property values.

We have money to pay $180,000 per hotel room to a major corporation.

Why must our kids and our schools go without?

For shame.

4 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being [a Public School Family in DC]: Part 3

  1. Valarie have you considered starting to write regularly for Greater Greater Washington or DCist or both? I know GGW is looking for writers, and all of your work is so well done, I’d love for it to get a wider audience. Just thought I would put it out there-


  2. Thank you for this post, Valerie. Well-written and thought-provoking, as always. It makes me very angry but also helps me see that we’re all facing these crazy struggles together.


  3. Thank you both. This is a roundabout response to Gina’s note:

    I started this blog in part because I thought that many media outlets in DC were not adequately representing the experiences of the majority of parents and students in DC’s public schools. Last year, for instance, after an op-ed in the Post on the “right” number of schools in DC by two members of the charter school board, several DC parents with years of experience in our public schools wrote op-ed responses, each one exploring a different aspect of that op-ed and attendant problems with it.

    Only one of those responses was printed, however–as a letter.

    In my experience, this is not at all unusual–and while neither GGW nor the Post (or any media outlet, frankly) can print everything that crosses their desks, substantive media coverage of issues in our public schools has shrunk in the last 2 years alone.

    (Sometimes this is actually funny: after I posted my first blog entry about lead in school water, for instance, a Post reporter, pulled from another beat to write a quick story about it, called me to ask my thoughts on the issue as a Montessori parent. When I told her I was not only NOT a Montessori parent, but had written what until then was the ONLY media story about it, she then asked why I did so. Erm, for the same reason she was?)

    Nothing is stopping GGW or the Post or anyone else from covering this stuff and the tons more that I simply have no time or brain power to deal with, but that is really important to cover.

    But for some lovely exceptions (hello, education town hall! hello, wamu!), they don’t. A few weeks ago, the DC auditor, for instance, came out with a scathing report about cost overruns and lack of accounting for the largest school renovation project in DC history. Did GGW cover it? Did the Post? Not that I could find.

    In the meantime, our schools and our kids go on, and I would love to have other people writing for this blog, because it is vital that we use our voices in all corners: we have no elected school board; we have a patently nontransparent use of data to judge schools and their performance; we have no clear planning for what schools we will have and where; and officials can be unresponsive to any and all of that. (This also can be funny: I have been told more than once by a variety of public employees with a role in DC public education that *how* a message is brought is as important, if not more so, than *what* the message is. So, my take-home is that the public voice is welcome, but only when speaking in the appropriate way. Hmm.)

    And now I will step down from my soapbox . . . but thank you!


  4. It’s appalling what parents in DC have to go through to comply with the compulsory education law! I think you speak for tens of thousands of others who are just as frustrated and anguished as you are and having someone speak out as you do in this blog will eventually lead to others speaking out as well.
    When there are enough parents and other citizens speaking out to form a critical mass, we’ll be able to change things for the better. I see signs of this already–it is no small thing that the Committee on Education is at least addressing the horrific situation with the school modernization program, nor that the mayor found 220 million more dollars for it in the 2017 budget, nor that the state superintendent at least temporarily put aside rules to allow competency-based education, nor that the DME attended a Board of Education meeting to answer to the peoples’ elected representatives on that Board about lead in school water–a highly unusual move on the part of school control mayors!
    These may seem like small victories relative to the enormity of the challenges arising from charter schools and the SOAR Act imposed by Congress along with the DC government’s imposition of mayoral control and all that’s followed in it’s wake, but they are victories nonetheless and I believe this blog, along with the various ward education councils and similar organizations have been the impetus for their development, proving that democracy can not be squelched, nor parents willing to stand by silently (or “appropriately”) while their children’s brains, bodies and futures are put at risk in the name of the very education needed for a good future!


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