Ward 6 Middle School Modernization Plans Stalled

Parents Advocate for Immediate Changes at Eliot-Hine and Jefferson
Photograph By
Heather Schoell

Students plant about 47 trees around Eliot-Hine Middle School in 2015. 

About six hours into testimonies from nearly 200 District residents, local parent Peter MacPherson summarized the theme of the April 14 education budget oversight hearing  — parents, teachers and students want the DC government to invest in the physical plants now, not in six years.

“What we have seen is schools fall farther and farther behind,” said MacPherson, former president of the Capitol Hill Cluster School parent teacher association (PTA). “…The buildings don’t get any better, they continue to deteriorate.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser requested about $220 million for the 2017-2018 fiscal year budget for the modernization of several DC schools. But her plan also includes a shift from phased modernizations to full modernizations — upgrades schools will happen in one construction project, not a series of them. This new plan pushed back renovations on several schools, while some disappeared from the 2016-2022 modernization list altogether.

At the April 14 education hearing, people demanded DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the Mayor offer more transparency on the amended modernization plans for the dozens of schools in need across all eight wards.

“I want my school to be improved, I care about my school,” said a third grader from Ward 5 advocating for a quicker fix.

In Ward 6, a representative for Eliot-Hine Middle School at 1830 Constitution Ave. NE argued that the District failed to follow through on much-needed promises for several nearby schools including the merged middle school.

The modernization of 98 of 112 DC schools is not a small undertaking, though, said Committee for Education Chair and Councilmember David Grosso. Parents must take into consideration the competing demands on cost and time.

Pleas from Eliot-Hine and Jefferson Families

In 2008, parents of Ward 6’s Maury Elementary School at 1250 Constitution Ave. NE looked forward to renovations at the newly merged Eliot-Hine. Maury students feed into Eliot-Hine and the parents wanted the infrastructure of the middle school to match the quality of its teachers and programs, said Maury parent Joe Weedon.

But the District pushed back that modernization and in the latest update, Eliot-Hine won’t see changes until 2018 or later, according to DCPS’ Capital Improvement Plan Prioritization. Ward 6’s Jefferson Middle School Academy at 801 Seventh Street SW also needs significant renovation, but the city pushed its full modernization start to 2019.

“The facilities were supposed to have been renovated when my eighth grader was in third grade and it has been pushed…” said Eliot-Hine parent and volunteer Heather Schoell. “She will have graduated by then from high school. That’s a problem.”

Schoell sends both her sixth and eighth graders to Eliot-Hine because she knows the teachers and new International Baccalaureate (IB) program can help them get the education they need to succeed. But she worries about the school’s deteriorating building — inadequate lighting, broken bathroom stalls, sweltering classrooms in the middle of winter, air conditioning units that cause so much noise children can’t hear the teacher, and windows that can’t open for fresh air.

Similar conditions exist at Jefferson, according to several parents who testified at the oversight hearing. One parent, Christina Muedeking, spoke on behalf of her first grader attending Brent Elementary at 301 North Carolina Ave. SE, also in Ward 6. She wants to eventually send her child to Jefferson but fears the conditions of the school that won’t be renovated for several years.

“Jefferson is a strong school academically…” she said. “The city can build on that success if it provides the facilities those students and future students deserve.”

But another Eliot-Hine parent, Suzanne Wells, said at the hearing that she worries the marketing from the local charter schools will entice parents out of DCPS, and continued failures to deliver on renovation promises will force a further decline in enrollment.

These middle schools are struggling often through no fault of their own. They face intense marketing from Charter Schools,” Wells testified. “The condition of these buildings doesn’t help attract families.”

A Change of Plans for Investment

The DC Department of General Services (DGS) used to handle the modernization of schools, but years of failed communication and coordination led the District government to start an overhaul of the department, said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. DCPS gained more control over the renovation process in the shift.

“Operations at DGS are being overhauled for good reason,” chair Grosso said in agreement with Allen. “Right now it’s as slow as molasses.”

But problems have lingered, Allen continued. Data that DGS relied on to prioritize schools in the plan contained errors and inaccurate reports. Jefferson and Eliot-Hine is ranked at the same “good” condition level as the partially renovated Stuart-Hobson Middle School, which doesn't make sense to anyone who has walked through each building.

DCPS released their new criteria for full modernizations in the Mayor’s new 2017-2022 plan. Each renovation will take about one to two years for planning and two years for construction, said DCPS press secretary Michelle Lerner. The criteria divide into four weighted categories: Equity (40 percent), Student Demand (30 percent), Neighborhood Population (20 percent) and Building Condition and Educational Effectiveness (10 percent). Each contains subcategories:

·      Equity:

o   Percent of schools in ward that have been modernized (15 percent)

o   Percent of at-risk students (15 percent)

o   Percent of special-education students (7.5 percent)

o   Percent of ELL students (2.5 percent)

·      Student Demand:

o   Enrollment (10 percent)

o   Building utilization (20 percent)

·      Neighborhood Population

o   Number of kids in neighborhood cluster (10 percent)

o   Estimated relevant age population growth (5 percent)

·      Building Condition/Educational Effectiveness of Building

o   Cost of fixing systems/cost of new construction (5 percent)

o   Square foot per student, open plan and building history (5 percent)

During these planned renovations, some student populations will go to a “swing” building on another campus, Lerner said. For example, the students attending Watkins Elementary at 420 12th Street SE in Ward 6 will relocate to a temporary building being constructed in the summer of 2016 on Eliot-Hine’s 6.5-acre campus. When they move back, Eliot-Hine students will shift into that new building while their old building gets renovated. 

DGS and DCPS will fix problems at schools that need immediate attention, though, she added.

“We are always making sure that all the utilities are always working and will do any maintenance on that end, but we are really switching to this model of swinging the students out for a year or so,” Lerner said.

Speaking at the oversight hearing with Grosso, Allen said he thinks the updated full-modernization plan for Eliot-Hine and other schools shows true investment by the District, but a lot still needs to happen overall.

Fearing the Decline of Interest in Some Public Schools

Joe Weedon noticed fewer students in his daughter’s class at Maury this year. At the start of the 2015-16 school year, about 26 percent or 14 students didn’t return to the school for fourth grade. Instead, Weedon said their parents decided to send them to a charter school. 

Parents know the teachers at Maury’s feeder Eliot-Hine bring quality learning to the classroom, but Weedon said they move their children out of the system because of the environmental conditions at the middle school.

Enrollment at Eliot-Hine for 2009-10 was 413, 2012-13 was 281 and 2014-15 was 257, according to DCPS.

“When you go to the enrollment fairs and open houses, you’re confronted with a school that is severely lacking,” he said. “This goes up against a charter school that has a clear academic message.”

Eliot-Hine represents one of many DCPS schools with the same issue, many concentrated in the Wards 7 and 8 communities, Weedon said. But temporary fixes and delays in renovations can’t repair years of damaged reputations.  

In the spring of 2015, DGS and DCPS paid for repairs to the bathrooms, paint and cleanup of Eliot-Hine in anticipation of a visit from Mayor Bowser, Schoell said. Bowser promised the school science labs by the fall of 2015, but as of May 2016 the students still don’t have them.

“Maybe it’s not that big of a deal to them,” Schoell said. “But when you have an entire student body of kids looking forward to doing experiments and they’re told [DCPS] didn’t get the labs done…there’s a lot of disappointment.”

Weedon agreed and added that the lack of investment from the District deters parents from wanting to send their children to these schools. And as the enrollment numbers decline, so does the potential for the school to grow and succeed.

A Need for Community Engagement Going Forward

Starting in the summer of 2016, Eliot-Hine’s lot will get a new building meant for the Watkins students to study temporarily. Schoell, Weedon and Wells all said they are glad the District invested in a project that can house other schools during future renovations, including Eliot-Hine. But they still feel the city didn’t work hard enough to engage with their community on the plans.

“I’ve been extremely disappointed in the engagement around the Eliot-Hine community in this proposal,” Weedon said. “Before decisions were made there wasn’t a concerted effort to bring the Eliot-Hine and Watkins communities together.”

Councilmember Allen agreed that DGS and DCPS didn’t communicate well and still struggles. But with a new budget investment in the modernization, the results of the April oversight hearings and the overhaul of DGS, he said he thinks this shows the projects will push forward.

“It’s what the Eliot-Hine community has been asking for,” he said. “While the delays have been very frustrating, I think having the full funding plan is a real step forward.”

Students plant about 47 trees around Eliot-Hine Middle School in 2015.
The interior of a section of Eliot-Hine in the process of repairs. Air conditioning units sit in the windows to offset the buildings dysfunctional heating system.
Councilmember Charles Allen advocated for the new doors with glass windows on the entrance of Eliot-Hine, but the school still lacks adequate wheelchair access.
The annex building on Eliot-Hine’s 6.5-acre campus that the city will renovate in summer 2016 to house Watkins Elementary during its modernization.

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