At Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, parents were so tired of waiting for D.C. school system officials to renovate classrooms that they took matters into their own hands.
One weekend last month, parents hauled materials into the Northwest school and built a wall to create a closed computer lab inside a vast room where several teachers must hold classes at the same time. The next Monday, school officials turned up -- not to do any construction, but to inspect the parents' work for code violations, witnesses said.
A few weeks later, school system workers finally started erecting walls to create individual classrooms, but parents were told that there was enough money to fix only one-quarter of the school.
"It is pitiful how they have been toying with us about the walls," said Bruce-Monroe teacher Ramiro Acosta.
That's the way the school year has gone at many of the 147 buildings in the D.C. system. Parents and teachers were hopeful that Superintendent Clifford B. Janey -- who deplored school conditions as soon as he took the job in September -- would quickly find a way to make basic repairs. But those hopes were dashed as the pace of change has proved to be stubbornly slow, many parents said.
The pattern underscores the challenges Janey faces in trying to fix some of the most decrepit public school buildings in the country -- and keeping faith with parents, teachers and students whose patience is exhausted from unmet promises made by his predecessors over the past 15 years.
The physical deterioration of the schools has long been a problem for the system, which for decades deferred basic maintenance, and experts have estimated that it could cost several billion dollars to bring all the facilities up to an acceptable condition.
But money is hardly the only issue. Even when major D.C. school construction projects have been funded, many have been mismanaged and have come in over budget.
The department that handles routine maintenance has been in disarray for years, with too few workers and supervisors. Such disorganization led to a situation at Bruce-Monroe in which an entire wing of the school was ordered evacuated a few weeks before the end of the 2003-04 school year because work was said to be imminent. Nothing happened for more than a year, and school activists never could find out why.
Top school administrators say they have made important progress this past year in assessing the problems and starting to rebuild the decimated facilities department.
Hundreds of problems at schools across the city have been fixed. At Coolidge High School, for example, leaks that forced the closure of several classrooms were repaired. And the system is now ready to fill a half-dozen key vacancies in the facilities department, including chief architect and the head of construction, according to Thomas Brady, the school system's chief financial officer, who came to the city last year from the well-regarded Fairfax County system.
But at Coolidge and other schools, many problems still await remedy.
"I know people are frustrated," said Cornell S. Brown Jr., who became executive director of facilities management seven months ago. "And they have a right to be frustrated."
Frustration was on display this month at Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest, where only minor work was done this year to the heating system, which leaves classrooms either freezing or broiling during the winter. Brown, standing in front of a broken window in a classroom, told a group of parents that the major heating repairs promised for this summer were not going to happen and that new windows to replace 75-year-old models would have to wait until 2006.
Parents groaned. One father, Frank Borris, said that Shepherd children who visit suburban schools don't understand why their school is in such poor condition. "It makes you feel like you are a little less loved," said Borris, chairman of the facilities committee of the school's PTA.
Five years ago, the school board approved a capital improvements plan that called for the city to spend some $300 million a year on school facilities, but the city government has provided far less than that. About $147 million is allocated in the 2006 budget for capital projects in the schools.
The D.C. Council recently authorized $6 million in extra funding for summer maintenance projects, and it approved a measure that provides the potential for millions more.
But questions remain about whether the school system can handle a big influx in money for renovations and repairs. It is unclear, for example, whether all of the $6 million intended for use this summer will be spent on time; work on many projects was not underway early this month.
School officials admit that they do not have the staff and management capability to perform significantly more facilities work right now. D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), head of the education committee, said she expects it will be two years before the system can competently handle a bigger workload.
A lot more waiting is on the horizon for Bruce-Monroe teacher Ann Sweeney, who teaches first-graders how to read in an open space she shares with two other classes with little more than cardboard barriers -- a legacy of an era when educators thought open spaces were conducive to learning.
"Sometimes my students will say, 'I can't hear you,' " Sweeney said. "And in first grade, that's a disaster because they are learning phonetics."