Orr Parents Call “May Day”

But Two Schools of Thought Emerge

Parents and students demonstrate outside Orr Elementary in Ward 8, May 1

“May Day!” was the call at Orr Elementary School on May 1. Orr parents, concerned about school leadership and facilities, say they'd gone through channels for months before taking to the street. Community members first addressed Principal Niyeka Wilson, followed by the instructional superintendent and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. They testified to the DC Council and brought concerns directly to Councilmember David Catania, chair of the Education Committee and candidate for mayor.

“We're at the point now where we need the public's help,” says parent Laila Patrick, who helped organize Orr's “May Day,” complete with signs, petitions, and drums. “DCPS and Kaya Henderson and Niyeka Wilson need to face the music.”

Some parents, however, were surprised and disturbed by the focus of the demonstration. Nearly everyone agrees that Orr, one of the last “open plan” schools in the District, is way overdue for modernization. Not everyone agrees about the leadership needed to envision a new facility.

Overdue Modernization

Orr, 2200 Minnesota Avenue, SE, is one of the last unmodernized DCPS schools. “Open plan” designs, without classroom walls, were meant to allow flexibility. But the design also means noise and distractions. Orr continues to suffer these drawbacks, as modernization funds were withdrawn year after year, leading some to believe that the school is secretly slated for closure or repurposing.

“The school community is justifiably frustrated with the continued delay of the modernization, a modernization that is badly needed in the Councilmember's view,” says Catania spokesperson Brendan Williams-Kief. Catania visited the school, following the mayor's defunding of renovations yet again, and is now “exploring ways to ensure that the renovations occur in a timely fashion.”

After protest, $39 million in modernization funds were restored. Allyson Criner Brown, manager of the Tellin' Stories Project which partners with Orr on parent engagement, says her organization expected to begin focusing on plans for the new building. Instead, parents raised leadership issues as a priority.

“She's Talking About All of Us

“I believe everything falls in place if you have a principal, that great leadership role, supporting us and representing us,” parent DaVita Robinson told the Education Town Hall radio program, a few hours before the May Day action. “If you have a principal who believes in the children and the teachers, then you'll have good morale, great teachers, great students, and the school being modernized.”

“Under [Wilson's] watch some of our best teachers, who have been there for years, [and are now] getting horrible evaluations, are planning on leaving....Under her watch our community is falling apart,” parent Isaiah Lyles said in recent testimony to the DC Council. “We assume she's busy because no one ever sees her. My daughter still doesn’t even know who the principal is, and it’s April.”

Cervantes Thomas, another Orr parent, told the Council about a Facebook comment Wilson posted demeaning the school community. “She talked about the parent as if she were nothing...”

The principal apologized and met with families, says DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz. But some community members saw no contrition or understanding.

“We told her that when she talks about a parent in our school she’s not just talking about them, she’s talking about all of us, especially our children,” Thomas's testimony said. “How can you run a school if you believe the people learning are inferior to you?”

“Feeling Her Way In

Tameka Young, who is active with her nieces and nephews at Orr, finds Wilson “respectful” and “down to earth.”

Young describes Wilson bringing one niece, whose behavioral issues had disrupted the classroom, into her office, telling the child: “I have work to do, and you have work to do,” and suggesting a 25-minute “power nap.” When Young arrived on the scene, her niece was asleep amid drawing materials in the principal's office; the strategy worked, and the child returned to her classroom.

“I have to tell you that, growing up, I would never have thought to go to my principal's office when I was having a bad day,” Young adds. “My niece does.”

Speaking of bad days, Young believes that everyone has them. “We're all human, and it seems to me that Ms. Wilson is being persecuted for having feelings.”

Similarly, Chicola Simmons, who has five children from pre-K to fourth grade at Orr, says, “I didn't take [the Facebook message] personal. A person has every right to say whatever she wants, as long as they don't do my children wrong.”

And Wilson has never done her children wrong. “She could be a little more active with the children,” Simmons adds. “But she's trying to feel her way in...Everyone was so used to [long-time principal] Miss Edwards who was with us forever.”

Two Schools of Orr Thought

Simmons, like many at Orr, is most concerned that the school “keep the programs that they have – the garden club, music, art gallery...that the children really, really like, and it's very beneficial.”

Patrick and Robinson told the Education Town Hall that budget decisions and the principal's leadership put treasured staff, activities, and partnerships, like that with the Washington Ballet,  at risk. Salmanowitz says this is not true.

In addition, Wilson drew criticism for moving a special education teacher into a windowless, steel-doored space. DCPS insists that the space is an office not used by students. But parents, teachers, and others report “the vault” is regularly used for special education students, since their teacher was relocated there, and that students fear it.

When Candi Peterson, Vice-President of the Washington Teacher's Union, called the space “a classroom” in her blog, earlier this year, Salmanowitz demanded a correction. Instead, Peterson published pictures documenting student use and accused DCPS of a cover up. Catania declared student use of the space “completely unacceptable.”

Criner Brown, whose organization has partnered with Orr since 2010 and “seen parent engagement grow exponentially” in those years, has watched parents take their concerns to the Council, through DCPS channels, and to the street.

“There is an impressive community at the school among the parents, staff, and collaborators that looks out for the well-being of the children,” Criner Brown explains. “Therefore, it is not surprising to us [that parents are speaking up about] the dramatic changes by the leadership that have had a negative impact on teaching and learning, including cuts to the music program, curtailing field trips...parents are speaking up and taking action about decisions they see impacting not only their own children, but all students at the school.”

But there are still at least two schools of thought among those speaking up:

Robinson is among those who consider “the vault” part of the evidence that Wilson “doesn't support her teachers or her students” and should be replaced. According to this group, leadership issues must be resolved before modernization planning can begin.

Young draws a different “vault” conclusion: “I've never even heard of it. But if they're using it, it's because of the way the school is shaped. The building needs to be replaced.”

David Holmes, of the Ward 8 Education Council, says his group “cannot say yea or nay” on any specific complaint but hopes to mediate a resolution.

Mayor Vincent Gray and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry did not respond to requests for comment. Per DCPS policy, Ms. Wilson re-redirected a query to the Chancellor's communication office.

Contact Teaching for Change, 202-588-7204 or teachingforchange.org, for information about the Tellin' Stories Project at Orr Elementary. Virginia Spatz serves as feature reporter for the Education Town Hall on We Act Radio, educationtownhall.org.