D.C. Parents and Students Steamed Over Heating-Related Disruptions

By V. Dion Haynes and Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 9, 2007

Simon Elementary School Principal Adelaide Flamer loaded her 250 students and 26 teachers, along with aides, her security guard, a school nurse and a custodian onto four chartered buses yesterday and traveled 10 blocks to a school with heat.

LaTisha Barnes, a senior at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, sat in the library of Evans Education Center, a former middle school building, and watched classmates talk on cellphones rather than work on English and trigonometry lessons. Her school's water pipes burst Monday in the cold and had not been fixed. The entire student body, she said, passed the time talking in the gym Tuesday and Wednesday.

For the fourth day in a row, D.C. school officials scrambled to keep routines as normal as possible as they tried to repair boilers that failed during the cold snap. Nearly 1,800 students from four schools were reassigned to other facilities this week because of heating problems. The four schools were Woodson and Ludlow-Taylor Elementary, both in Northeast, and Johnson Junior High and Simon Elementary in Southeast.

More than 30 other schools had boiler malfunctions this week that left rooms or sections of buildings cold. School system leaders accused the city of not providing sufficient funds to maintain aging buildings. Parents blamed everyone.

As the D.C. Council weighs whether to give Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) control over the school system, parents across the city said they were furious that the heating problems have not been fixed, despite breakdowns year after year.

"I'm really upset, because my kids are not getting an education," said Darlene Williams, who has two grandchildren and a nephew at Woodson.

Some of Woodson's 800 students painted a chaotic picture yesterday of their week at Evans, saying that their education had been seriously disrupted.

Barnes, an 18-year-old with a 3.2 grade-point average, said she was so fed up with the D.C. school system's makeshift arrangements that she joined about 25 other students who walked out shortly after 10 a.m. "Everybody's sitting around doing nothing," she said.

She said she was organizing students to lodge complaints at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday and will return to Evans when real classwork is offered. "I'm a senior, and I need to learn so I'll be prepared for college," Barnes said.

A few Woodson students said they were mystified by the classes they were assigned to at Evans. One sophomore said she was being taught chemistry instead of the geometry she normally studies.

"I think it's crazy. We're not there to babysit children -- teaching and learning should be taking place," school board President Robert C. Bobb said last night when told about the situation at Evans. "If that's happening, heads should roll."

School system spokesman John C. White said that officials had planned to address heating problems in the 10-year master facilities plan, which board members recently approved.

On Wednesday, D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey announced a $900,000 emergency "blitz" at 40 schools, including the four that are closed, to repair boilers. White said that 10 contractors were working to fix the heating problems.

Schools have contingency plans to continue instruction at nearby facilities in case of emergencies, and those plans were implemented, White said. He said the situation for students has improved each day. "We put in the desks; we put in the books," he said. "And the teachers now have more of the equipment they need," including computers.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose district includes Ludlow-Taylor, said the breakdown in the heating systems is further evidence that the school system's maintenance program needs more funding.

"It's been routinely under-funded by the city," Wells said. "These are old -- very old -- buildings, and they need new air-conditioning and heating systems. It's clear that we need to manage the school budget in a very different way."

Woodson has been a long-standing challenge for the system. Opened in 1973, the seven-story, 250,000-square-foot building is one of the newest in the system. But ongoing structural problems with heating and plumbing systems are so serious that school officials decided more than seven years ago to tear it down and rebuild on the campus site, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which studies school facility issues.

Construction, slated to begin in 2002, was delayed after system leaders rejected the design, Filardo said. "The school was on a list to be modernized, and the school system thought, 'We don't have to maintain it. . . . We're not going to put good money after bad,' " she said, adding that a recent system assessment of Woodson showed that more than 300 components in the heating system needed to be replaced. "The school really got the shaft."

For Simon students, the reassignment went smoothly, said Flamer, the principal.

"We're just lucky to have a school with the ample space," she said about joining the 650 students at the Patricia R. Harris Education Center.

Her second-graders were lodged yesterday in a partitioned section of Harris's home economics classroom. The students seemed excited about the change.

"It takes a lot of energy to get yourself together and just get here," teacher Shukriyyah Muhammad said. But she had no complaints about the temperatures at Harris: "It's toasty."

Muhammad decided to use the experience as a learning tool. Propped up on a shelf was the chart her students made yesterday that showed the differences between Simon and Harris. Students said that Harris had "bigger hallways." But the most prominent note was that Simon was "cold" and Harris was "warm."

"We're not taking classes right now. We're just chillin', resting," said a 17-year-old Woodson senior as she waited for a bus with two friends.

"The only reason people are coming is for easy A's," said a 15-year-old freshman. "You just have to sign that you're here. Normally, we have to work."

Staff writers Michelle Boorstein and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.

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