All photos by Heather Schoell.
Katelyn Hollmon, a student at Eliot-Hine Middle School, cried when she testified before the DC Council last year, saying she and her classmates shouldn’t have to attend a school that reminds them of the homeless shelter where several of her friends live. “Just because we’re kids doesn’t mean we don’t have rights… It is not enough to believe in us. You must invest in us also,” read her testimony.
We often look at investments in education in terms of expenditures per student and academic program. But there’s another key piece of the puzzle: the poor condition of our school facilities.
Over the last decade, Capitol Hill’s Eliot-Hine Middle School has struggled. Enrollment and test scores have declined, but so has the building itself. Film blocks its windows, preventing natural light and fresh air from entering classrooms, and making it difficult to open them in case of an emergency. The heating system is full of dust and dander, and makes the classrooms so unbearably hot that the school has to turn on its air conditioning as soon as the heating system goes on in the fall. And that leads to another problem: Noise from the A/C units makes it too loud for teachers and students to communicate.
According to the District, many of these problems don’t exist. In 2008, as a part of the “school blitz” associated with the merger of Eliot Middle School and Hine Junior High School, Eliot-Hine was allocated $8 million for new windows and additional work was done throughout the building. According to DGS data used by the DC Council to prioritize capital spending in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, the condition of Eliot-Hine was rated “good,” the same rating as neighboring Stuart-Hobson MS, which recently completed a $40 million renovation.
Last spring, after proposals to further delay the modernization of Eliot-Hine came forward, the community stepped up. Social media was filled with photos of restrooms with trash bags covering urinals, broken doors, and mold. Local ANCs wrote letters and the community spoke out at District Council hearings. Despite these efforts, the Eliot-Hine modernization was, again, delayed, this time to FY2019 and FY2020 (meaning construction will end on August 31, 2020).
However, the Mayor heard residents and the District took immediate action. Last spring, restrooms got repairs and ceilings and radiators were painted, among other repairs.
Still, many underlying conditions persist and other promised improvements — science labs, new furniture, and new technology in classrooms — have yet to be completed.
“Eliot-Hine is old and falling apart,” Malia, a 4th grade student who attends one of Eliot-Hine’s feeder elementary schools told the DC Council Education Committee last year. “Half the toilets don’t work. I don’t like using the bathrooms there; they are too disgusting to use.”
Underlying problems are resurfacing. Ceilings are again damaged and mold is returning. The heating and A/C systems continue spread years of accumulated mold, dander, and dust. Rodents continue to infest the building.
And it’s not like the community isn’t aware, nor is the problem that it doesn’t care. Over Spring Break, a group of parents, with the support of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, organized the Eliot-Hine Extreme Bathroom Makeover, where they cleaned, painted, and put up mirrors in two restrooms.
Just last week, Eliot-Hine asked the community for help with preparing the facility to host Watkins Elementary next school year while its building is torn down and replaced.
DC can have safe, smart, and healthy schools for all students
The most disappointing part of the story of Eliot-Hine is that billions of our tax dollars have been spent and countless students still attend inadequate facilities. Across the District there are more than 20 schools that have not been renovated, and others, like Eliot-Hine, that fail to provide even the basics for our students. Last summer, the DC Auditor released a report stating that the District’s school modernization program lacks accountability, transparency, and basic financial management. In short, we have failed our students and our taxpayers. While we can rehash the poor decisions of the past, it is more important that as we move forward we make our first priority that all school facilities (1) comply with applicable safety codes, (2) have adequate heating, air conditioning, acoustics, lighting, ventilation, and meet other basic needs, and (3) meet basic academic programming requirements. Furthermore, decisions about where our District’s school modernization dollars are spent must be made in partnership with the community and our decision-makers must be held accountable. Moving forward at Eliot-Hine In late March, Mayor Bowser announced her plan to pump an extra $220 million into school modernization over the next two years as part of a $1.2 billion plan. The Mayor announced that her office will be using more realistic cost estimates and that 98 of the District’s 112 schools will be modernized by 2022. This is progress, but it still leaves crucial community involvement and transparency out of the planning process. On March 1st, DCPS and DGS convened a School Improvement Team (SIT) for Eliot-Hine (of which I am a member). Our government agencies came to the first meeting of the SIT with a proposal for a 480 student facility that incorporates space for Eliot-Hine’s Radio/TV course, expanded music programming, and various other amenities at a price tag of approximately $30 million. While nearly everyone in the community would be pleased with this outcome, this process fails to address the problems with school facilities planning. Since reaching an enrollment of 348 students during 2011-2012, Eliot-Hine’s enrollment has plummeted to a projected 188 students for 2016-17. Given the continued growth of our District’s public charter sector, as well as enrollment projections provided to the Maury ES SIT, as that feeder of Eliot-Hine prepares for an expansion, that state “students in 4th and 5th grade will continue to utilize the lottery to access PCS and DCPS alternatives rather than continue to Elliot-Hine MS,” it is unclear how Eliot-Hine will return to these old enrollment figures. Even if Eliot-Hine meets these projected enrollment numbers, it will mean that there is still a great deal of under-utilized space within the facility.
Planning cannot happen in a vacuum. Rather, we must engage the community, per the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, to “secure input into the studies on school capacity, utilization and attendance zones.” I believe we must also determine if there are additional amenities that the broader community can use. At Eliot-Hine, this could mean lending the second gymnasium to neighborhood elementary schools that lack a full-sized gym or for school-wide performances; a new 9th grade academy for Eastern High School, which is nearing its building capacity; a partnership with the DC Youth Orchestra, Challenger Center for Space Science Education or another organization that serves students from across the District; or co-locating with a charter school. The possibilities are endless and should be discussed.
The fact that the Mayor and Council seem to be much more focused on the school modernization capital budget is a positive sign, but major concerns about out-year projects remain. A number of questions remain, especially in terms of community input. The process should begin with community input and the District’s leaders should develop plans that include specifics for each school and the broader community of schools. Only then should architects develop a budget that will fulfill those plans and meet all relevant educational specifications. Without comprehensive community planning on the front end, the District’s school modernization budget will continue to be largely a shot in the dark. We can and must do better for our students.
If you want to get involved in the school modernization process, you can testify before the District Council at the DC Public School and Department of General Services FY2017 Budget hearings on April 14 and April 22 respectively.