Feb 20, 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
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.