Ballou High School in Ward 8, built in 1958, was modernized last fall to rave reviews from the community. (AFRO File Photo)
District of Columbia residents are generally pleased with the government’s pace and determination of the public school system’s modernization program, however there are parts of the city where the process has yet to begin. The District, like many urban and suburban school districts across the country, is in the process of modernizing schools with the latest technological equipment and environmental design.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), the chairman of the Committee on Education, said that school modernization is taking place but not at the same levels throughout the city.
“Some parts of the city are seeing their schools modernized,” Grosso said,” while others are not. We have 24 schools that have not been touched by modernization and the city is committed to seeing that takes place.”
The District of Columbia public school (DCPS) system has 114 elementary, middle, high and institutions for students with special needs such as those who are mentally challenged and incarcerated juveniles. Many of the District’s public schools were built in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, including Dunbar High School (1870), McKinley Tech High School (1926) and Anacostia High School (1937).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the city’s school population began to decline as residents moved to the suburbs. Some schools, mainly elementary, were closed as a result. The school superintendents from the 1970s to the mid-1990s focused on increasing academic standards instead of the modernizing the physical facilities of the schools.
In the 1990s, the District was in a financial crisis and under the jurisdiction of a presidentially-appointed financial overseer known as the control board. During that time, schools were repaired but not refurbished or modernized because of the lack of money.
Then D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said new schools were vital for keeping residents in the District and attracting new residents, and began the initial stages of modernizing the schools. His successor, Adrian Fenty, who served from 2007-2011, started the process of modernization with a 15-year, $3.5 billion campaign to refurbish the city’s rotting school buildings.
Since the Fenty administration, a number of schools have been modernized such as Ballou High School. However, some schools in selected neighborhoods still have not been modernized.
Orr Elementary School, located in Ward 8, first opened in 1974 and, until a month ago had not been budgeted any money for modernization. There have been years of protest from parents over the school’s notoriously bad conditions, including cockroach and rat infestation, the malfunctioning cooling and heating systems, and poor air quality. D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) said that Orr will finally get what it is due.
“Orr will get $1 million in the fiscal year 2016 budget and will get significant increases for the fiscal year ‘17 and ‘18 budgets,” May said. “In total, we are going to modernize Orr at the level of $40 million.”
May said that Orr, however, should be re-built completely. The council member said that she is also working to see that Garfield Elementary and Kramer Middle School stay on track for modernization.
In Ward 7, the only public high school, H.D. Woodson, founded in 1972, got a major makeover in 2011, but Cinque Culver, president of the River Terrace Community Organization and vice chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, said little has been done to refurbish the ward’s schools. “I don’t think that there is intentional discrimination to overlook Ward 7 in the school modernization process,” Culver said. “I do think it is a direct reflection of the leadership of Ward 7 that more hasn’t been done.”
D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) disagrees with Culver, emphasizing that her ward is doing fine in the modernization process. “We added three more schools in the 2016 fiscal year budget for modernization,” the council member said. “Sometimes, members of the community don’t get the full picture. We are competing with schools in other wards for modernization funds.”
Alexander said that funding school modernization has taken a creative turn, with public-private partnerships taking shape. She said Houston Elementary School in Ward 7 is being modernized with some funding from the Comcast Corporation.
D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) is unhappy with the pace of school modernization in his ward.
Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School, built in 1932, is currently undergoing a $121 million, two-year facility modernization that has seen several delays and its students are attending nearby MacFarland Middle School.
“We want to see improvements made at Roosevelt and I would like that done as soon as possible,” he said.