NW Parents Decry Lack Of Walls In School
Broken Promise Impairs Learning, They Say
By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page B01
Parents accused D.C school officials yesterday of reneging on a three-year-old promise to remodel their Northwest elementary school, saying their children are struggling to learn in a building that does not have walls to divide classrooms.
In a protest at Bruce-Monroe Elementary on Georgia Avenue, about 40 parents and students chanted, "No more lies!" and "We want walls!" in English and Spanish.
Officials said Bruce-Monroe is one of 23 schools in the city that does not have walls separating classrooms, the legacy of a national experiment in education. Parts of 11 other D.C. schools are constructed in a similar way. Teachers often use makeshift dividers, such as blackboards, to separate classes.
Parents at the 365-student school said their children have trouble learning because sound carries between classes and students are too easily distracted. Students learn little, parents said.
"They need more privacy when they get a test," said Maria Imcer, 27, who has three children at the school, Christopher, 7, Jose, 8, and Joseline, 9. "My children are not learning because they cannot concentrate."
Gregory Williams, interim executive director for school facilities, said he could not explain the delay in starting the construction. He speculated that the walls had not been installed because of budget reasons but said the $2 million project is slated to begin in June and last nine months.
"We're in the process of finalizing everything," Williams said. "I can't speak to why it has taken so long."
The school board member who represents the area that includes the school, Julie Mikuta (District 1), briefly joined the protest and agreed with the parents. "They've got a history of broken promises," Mikuta said.
Principal Marta Palacios, said she, too, is frustrated. Bruce-Monroe has been closed for summer school for the past three years to allow for renovations to take place. But instead of doing the work, the principal said, school officials have told her "one story after another" about why the renovations were not completed.
"I definitely support the parents because the walls are needed," Palacios said.
"Sometimes the noise becomes unbearable. . . . Teachers have not been trained to teach in this kind of environment."
Palacios said that about half the students are Latino and that many of them are struggling to learn English in a noisy environment. "How can they learn the language?" she said. "It's so noisy."
The school has what the principal calls "centers," which are three classes clustered together and divided only by the makeshift barriers. Palacios said about 20 students are in each class.
Bruce-Monroe is one of 15 D.C. schools that has failed to make adequate progress in raising test scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Palacios said a lack of walls contributes to the school's low achievement.
School systems across the country built schools with open floor plans in the 1960s and 1970s, under the theory that the design would encourage students and teachers to collaborate during informal lessons driven by students' interests. Many districts across the country that adopted that design are installing walls and creating standard classrooms. The District has been slow to do so.
"They promised the walls three years ago," said Carmen Hernandez, 45, who has two children at Bruce-Monroe, Patricia, 5, and Awilda, 8. "It's too hard to learn. It's too much noise around them."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company