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.
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.
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?