May 15, 2014

Orr Parents Call "May Day"

East of the River DC News (Reposted)

But Two Schools of Thought Emerge

By

Virginia Avniel Spatz

Orr parents protest Orr Principal Niyeka Wilson
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 Orr continues to suffer these drawbacks, as modernization funds were withdrawn year after year, leading some to believe that the school is secretly slated for closure or repurposing.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.

Mar 25, 2014

DCPS Networking Event for DC Teachers & Service Providers


By Candi Peterson

 
 
 

Please be advised that DCPS is hosting an event open to all current WTU members who are interested in learning about some of the new initiatives in DCPS’ Targeted 40 or Middle Grades schools (only those schools will be represented, but all WTU members are welcome).
 
The event will feature two simultaneous panels on these topics, and open networking time. Please Save the date for DCPS Hiring Fairs during May 20, May 29, June 7, June 25,  and July  10 and July 21.The locations will be announced at a later date. Please share this email with WTU teachers and service providers in your schools.

 WTU just received notice of Wednesday’s event. Sorry for any inconvenience.

 DCPS Networking Event for Targeted 40 and Middle Grades

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
5:30 – 7:30 pm (Candidates should arrive by 5:30pm)


Kelly Miller Middle School
301 49th St. NE
Washington, DC 20019

Mar 21, 2014

Orr Parents Tell Councilmember Catania: Our Children Deserve Classrooms

tellin-stories-parents-councilmember-march2014


By Candi Peterson

 I've covered the story about Orr elementary school  in SE Washington, DC since I visited and learned of special needs students being taught in a vault and a music classroom with 42 students, much to my horror back in January 2014. I attempted to no avail to get the mainstream media including Bruce Johnson to cover this story. I even posted photos of the Vault classroom but Chancellor Henderson told Bruce Johnson there was absolutely no validity to my claims despite photos and my actual live reporting that I stood inside the vault classroom. Certainly there's no denying that I am a newsworthy credible source dating back to the Michelle Rhee days. Afterall I my blog received note worthy mention in Michelle Rhee's book, The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on The Nations Worst District.

Here's an update on a recent meeting parents held with Councilmember David Catania, and also chairman of the Education Committee and mayoral hopeful. Allyson Criner Brown, Associate Director of Teaching for Change who works with the parents of Orr in a partnership and advocates for modernization of the school wrote me the following email about the meeting with Mr. Catania: " Hi Candi, We had a very good meeting with David Catania. Parents took him on a tour of the building and I asked the teacher of the vault classroom to leave the Masterlock key so we could take him into the vault. He and his staff were stunned. We had about 30 parents that evening, plus kids and staff. Maybe 80 people or so in all. His staff said they'd never seen turnout like that in Ward 8. The principal welcomed Catania before leaving. We alerted his staff about our concerns with the principal but we didn't address them that night. Parents noticed Principal Wilson didn't make arrangements so she could stay for the meeting. Have a great weekend, I'll be in touch.-Allyson"

Too Bad Principal Niyeka Wilson couldn't stay for the meeting. Shame on her.

Cross posted from Teaching for Change:
 Orr (DCPS) parents invited David Catania, Councilmember and chair of the Education Committee, to hear their stories and tour the building which badly needs modernization. Nearly 30 parents attended with their children, along with teachers and members of the local community. Parents expressed their concerns about the safety of the playground; stagnant air and poor natural lighting; places where the building is crumbling; and, most significantly, the open floor plan (in which there are no walls separating classrooms or hallways). The modernization was slated to begin eight years ago but has been delayed every year since.

Teaching for Change, a partner with the Orr Parent Center, helped plan and facilitate the event which featured parent leaders. A father talked about how his three-year old daughter wandered off from her classroom in her first week of school and could not be found for nearly an hour. “Where could she have gone if her classroom had walls and a door?” he asked the Councilmember. A teacher discussed how the open-space classrooms presents enormous challenges for himself and others, particularly where classrooms are separated only by a rolling chalkboard or less. A mother shared that her daughter’s asthma flares up so badly that she and the school have a plan for her daughter to be moved from the third floor to the first floor when she has episodes. Another mother shared how the school had not only wrapped itself around her son in Kindergarten, but also supported her; she recently earned her GED after getting information and support from Orr’s well-known Parent Center.

The consistent theme among parents and teachers was their love for the school and the staff, but yet the urgent need for the school to be modernized. Councilmember Catania thanked the parents for sharing their stories and pledged to be a champion for Orr’s modernization.

Read more about this story here “No Place to Hide: Orr Elementary Needs Modernization Now!”
More photos.

Teaching for Change has been a community partner of Orr Elementary since 2010. Our work with parents at Orr is funded through generous grants from The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, and an anonymous foundation.

Mar 19, 2014

DCPS IS Violating the Law!


Dear Members of the WTU Bargaining Unit:

 It has come to our attention that DCPS has disseminated a survey to members of our bargaining unit asking among other things, whether you approve or disapprove of extending the school day by one hour next year.

 WTU is the sole and exclusive bargaining representative for the purpose of negotiating all matters related to rates of pay, wages, benefits, hours of employment and working conditions for all employees in the WTU bargaining unit.  It is an unfair labor practice for DCPS, any employee in a management position in DCPS or any member of the WTU bargaining unit to violate the bargaining rights granted by law under collective bargaining. (View Article 1 on PAGE 8 of the WTU Collective Bargaining Agreement).

If you are asked to complete a survey, it is necessary that you do the following immediately:

 1.  If the question pertains to any of the above, write in "subject to collective   bargaining".

2.  Record who asked you to complete the survey and the date and approximate time.

3.  Keep careful records of any acts of intimidation, coercion, or threats to solicit a particular response to items in the survey.

4.   Notify your WTU Field Specialist immediately with your information by calling:  202-293-8600 and forward all surveys to our attention.

 Educators in the WTU bargaining unit are law abiding members.  Demonstrate this to others.

In Solidarity,

Candi Peterson
WTU General Vice President

Feb 19, 2014

Uncertain Future for DC's Mamie D. Lee and Sharpe Health School due to Delays

River Terrace Elementary School 
By Candi Peterson

2/23/14 Update: A letter from Dr. Beers, DCPS Chief of Specialized Instruction sent to parents on February 20 confirmed the delay in River Terrace's opening. Beers letter failed to mention that DCPS teachers and school staff would be displaced.
Link to parent letter

DC Public Schools plans to renovate River Terrace Elementary School have been delayed due to an unusual find of native American Indian artifacts discovered during an excavation. Officials from the Office of Specialized Instruction along with Cluster XI Instructional Superintendent, Terry DeCarbo announced at an impromptu meeting Tuesday that plans to merge disabled students from Mamie D. Lee and Sharpe Health schools won't happen until august 2015 while construction crews continue to excavate the site.

Both schools educate severely disabled students. Last school year in 2013, the consolidation of these schools was announced and expected to be completed by August 2014. An outcry from parents was the backdrop at school meetings held to discuss the impact of school closures and consolidations in different wards throughout the city. Among the most vocal were Sharpe Health School parents who expressed concerns that River Terrace was not accessible to disabled students, placed students at great risk due to polluted soil and water at a nearby power plant, and is located at one of the most dangerous metro stations (Minnesota Avenue metro). Lost to students from both schools would be long time established partnerships, a therapeutic pool and experienced veteran teachers and staff who have helped students achieve despite incredible physical and mental challenges.

Teachers and school staff of both schools were notified of the meeting called by DC Central office officials with only 24 hours advance notice. The meeting at Mamie D. Lee was held at 2:30 pm since staff end their day earlier than normal traditional school hours due to an earlier start time. Sharpe Health school meeting was held immediately following at 3:30 pm. Notice of the meeting by the school district failed to contact representatives of Washington Teachers' Union (WTU), Council of School Officers (CSO) AFSCME, or Teamsters. A teacher at Mamie D. Lee on watch patrol notified my office  so I was able to attend.

A power point was shown but not provided to attendees outlining the strategic plan to proceed with interviewing staff for the consolidated school. Members of the Central office hiring team explained that although students would stay put for another year at their respective schools, plans were underway to locate River Terrace's administrative team and school staff by August 2014. Mr. Brooks, hiring manager said in one of the sessions; "We know this is incredibly difficult and with the utmost respect we come to you... It is a very good chance we can help you find something else."

Teachers and staff were handed out Frequently Asked Questions  fact sheets. One in green for WTU members and a yellow fact sheet for administrative and support staff. DC teachers can expect pink slips effective the last day of school June 19, 2014 which gives Highly Effective and Effective teachers 60 days from that date to find a new position (August 18, 2014) or face possible separation. Administrative and support staff will face a Reduction in Force (known as RIF) on August 19, 2014. If these staff members don't secure a position by that date they will face being separated from service.

Staff in both locations including the schools principals were solemn faced and perplexed about what they heard. One of the most vocal critics was Cheryl Gillette, Mamie D. Lee's building representative who has been an advocate for students challenging that the management decision to consolidate both schools will harm the districts most vulnerable students and displaces teachers with specialized training who go above and beyond in working with students intellectual and physical health challenges.

A DCPS former Sharpe parent who was in attendance at that meeting requested anonymity. She said "Ive seen staff come and go. What looks good on paper is not good in person. Y'all making decisions but you don't know these kids, these teachers know these kids." Maurice Asuquo, a blind teacher at Sharpe captured parent sentiment when he made a passionate appeal on behalf of DC's disabled students. Asuquo said; "I would be very disappointed if I find out someone wants to take this building (Sharpe Health school) from disabled students..... don't dump them behind a highway. I think it's dirty. Don't hide me behind a highway, don't expose me to chemicals. I appeal to the consciousness of those who care whether its the Mayor, Council member Muriel Bowser or Council member Vincent Orange. It's so unfair. People aren't listening to what we are saying. I'm going to speak up for the children."

Last year I had hoped district officials would come to their senses and remove Mamie D. Lee and Sharpe Health school from the school closure/consolidation list. Certainly there were a host of other options the district could have considered such as renovating Sharpe and housing both schools there in a long time established upper NW much safer neighborhood. No credible school system treats its most vulnerable population in this manner. Loosing your school is bad enough but robbing students of their long term teachers/principals/school staff who have been vital to their achievement is not in our students' best interest. I'm with Asuquo, somebody has to speak up for the children.

Feb 9, 2014

Orr Elementary School: DCPS Dirty Little Secret East of the River

Orr Vault classroom 2/7/14
Overcrowded music classroom at Orr 1/29/14


Orr Vault classroom 2/7/14
Orr vault class 2/7/14
Orr Elementary Vault classroom 2/7/14
By 
Candi Peterson

In a February 6 post on The Washington Teacher education blog, I wrote about the Inhumane Teaching and Learning Conditions at DC's Orr elementary school. Benjamin Orr elementary school is located at 2200 Minnesota Avenue SE Washington, DC 20020, 202/671-6240. Niyeka Wilson is the schools principal. Principal Wilson is no stranger to controversy as parents from the Parent Action Consort (known as PAC) recently wrote DC City Council members alleging that Wilson had written malicious comments on her Face book page disparaging an Orr parent and student with physical health challenges. Members of PAC called for the disciplinary action of Wilson. Reportedly, Wilson is now under investigation by DCPS. The results have yet to be reported.

My January 2014 visit to Orr revealed some horrific learning conditions for students at this once esteemed school. I witnessed conditions with my own eyes. While in the vault classroom, I observed evidence of a classroom with teacher's objectives, behavior chart, touch math chart, foundations sound chart and call and response posted in the room. It is reported by staff that special needs students receive pull out instruction in a vault, not intended for human habitation. In another space in the school, 42 students (which is well above the student-teacher ratio) cram into a fabricated music room like sardines with little room for both students and instrumental music equipment. One has to walk sideways around  furniture in the music room just to move about. It has been reported that students complain of soaring heat which reaches temperatures  as high as 93 degrees even on the coldest of days in this makeshift room without windows. Heat overcame me even for the short duration I stood inside.

News of my story found its way to DCPS Office of the Chancellor Press Secretary, Melissa Salmanowitz. On Feb 7, 2014,  Ms Salmanowitz wrote : "Ms. Peterson – I read your recent blog post about Orr Elementary School. I found several inaccuracies and I hope you can take a few minutes to correct them. The space you mention is not a classroom and no students are in that space. There are some other inaccuracies we would like you to correct. Specifically, There are no special education classrooms at Orr and certainly no classrooms in the way you inaccurately described them. Orr uses a push-in model where the special education teacher works collaboratively with the general education teacher in the classrooms. The space referenced in the blog is used as an office space and at no time are any special education classes being held in the space. The music classroom has 30 students, never more. While we agree Orr is in need of a modernization, we work closely to address any needs that come up in advance of their modernization. There is no way to lock the door from the inside as it has to be locked from the outside. We do need to replace the doors and the order has been approved and the school is awaiting the delivery and installation of the doors, which we expect very soon.  Students at Orr are safe. They are never in any harm, as your blog would suggest. What is actually happening at Orr is great teaching and strong leadership. Your post ignores all the wonderful things happening in the classrooms every day at Orr. Instead, this post is rife with falsehoods and we would appreciate corrections. Thank you, Melissa."

I'm not a bit surprised at the DCPS response, albeit dating back to the Rhee era; the DCPS strategy is to cover up the ugly truth and manipulate coverage of what's really happening in our schools. When backed into a corner- they (DCPS) hate to admit wrongdoing, falsify information to promote their own agenda and gloss over the problems and only cite the wonderful things they claim are happening.

An Orr insider emailed me to share that on Friday, February 7- central office staff visited Orr to take a look see at the vault. Seems some student tables were moved out of the classroom vault before their arrival. Sounds like a cover up to me. Allegedly Principal Wilson didn't open the door claiming she didn't have a key to the padlock. Hmmmmm.

A DCPS teacher at Orr who requested anonymity stated; " Not only is Principal Wilson failing to provide positive leadership but she is proving to be completely dishonest. How can we trust her to be the role model our school needs when she fails to admit wrong doing and tries to cover up her mistake? I truly hope DCPS is smart enough to realize what she's doing and doesn't become complicit in this cover up. This would be shameful."

Luckily for Orr, I've got pictures to prove what I reported. The picture of Orr's classroom vault shows students working on a laptop, posing in front of a number line and students enjoying a bite to eat. Featured in the picture is the vaults' rear back door as well as yellow covering of storage shelves and a yellow and green table (prior to removal ?)

 My camera lens wasn't wide enough to capture all 42 music seats but you get the picture because you can count in excess of 30 student chairs inside the music room, not 30 as Salmanowitz reports. Liar Liar, pants on fire!

Feb 6, 2014

Inhumane Learning Conditions at DC's Orr Elementary School: Learning in a Vault

Orr Elementary Vault classroom
By Candi Peterson

vault. a room or compartment, often built of or lined with steel, reserved for the storage and safekeeping of valuables, especially such a place in a bank.

At Benjamin Orr elementary school located at 2200 Minnesota Avenue SE Washington, DC 20020, 202/671-6240 some special needs students are subjected to inhumane learning conditions in a tomb-like vault. The school's principal is Niyeka Wilson.

Yes you heard right; special needs students at this East of the river school are being taught in a vault. Not intended for human habitation. An outside vault door, which if closed could lock and trap those within poses a scary proposition for some of Orr's elementary school students. If not for an exterior door, and the ingenuity of staff whom work there, who dismantled a side vent to allow for some ventilation and a teacher purchased fan, the heat soars even on the coldest of days.

At this same school, a visit revealed that a music teacher's classroom lacked adequate space for her musical equipment and 42 students who sit side-by-side like sardines squished in this cramped space. This certainly cant be conducive for inspiring students to learn instrumental music. Heat in this fabricated space (with no windows) soars as high as 93 degrees in the wintertime and causes some young minds to focus more on the sweat on their foreheads than their lessons.

With all the fancy DC Public Schools renovations that have been completed and still are underway, there remain conditions like these in our schools where students are forced to suffer due to an adequate lack of resources, in addition to poor judgment on the part of some school administrators who subject our must vulnerable students to inhumane conditions.

Despite the DC Municipal rule making- Title 5, A81 which states- " A school shall provide and maintain a physical plant with living and study conditions appropriate for programs of study offered and for the size of the faculty and student body. The physical plant shall provide a safe and secure environment for the school's students, faculty and staff, " these types of scenes still occur within our schools.

When parents send their children to school, they expect their children to have optimum conditions for learning. It's no reason schools like Orr, even if short on space couldn't provide better learning and teaching conditions. We all know that these types of conditions are not only harmful but unproductive as well.

If we are to be successful in raising the growing achievement gap in  DC's lowest performing public schools located East of the river, then we must do better than teaching our students in a vault or in make-shift classrooms with sweltering temperatures that lack adequate personal space. As parents and educators we can't allow this inhumanity.