Frustration at Anacostia High boiled over Wednesday, with the entire teaching staff walking out of class midmorning to protest building conditions — conditions teachers say city officials should have addressed with greater urgency.
Teachers said the cafeteria was flooded and no toilets were working when educators arrived at the Southeast Washington school at 8 a.m. Teachers made a last-minute decision to organize a 9:30 a.m. walkout. The school system said repairs to toilets were complete by 10:15 a.m.
The demonstration, teachers said, reflects mounting vexation over unreasonable expectations placed on teachers and disparities between the city’s wealthiest neighborhood schools and poorest. Anacostia is in a low-income swath of the city, and more than nine of every 10 students at the school are considered at-risk — defined as homeless, recipients of welfare or food stamps, and those more than a year behind in high school.
The brief walkout in D.C. emerged as teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky strike for improved pay and working conditions.
Some Anacostia students joined the hour-long walkout, and a few stayed in the auditorium supervised by an administrator while others left campus.
“The issue is bigger than just plumbing,” said Ronald Edmonds, a history teacher at Anacostia who also serves as the school’s representative to the Washington Teachers’ Union. “It’s about disrespect.”
Anacostia Principal Eric Fraser emailed staff just after 7 a.m. Wednesday to inform them of the faulty plumbing. He said that the water flow stopped Tuesday evening and that city agencies were working to fix the problem. Staff and students, Fraser wrote, could use the restroom facilities at Kramer Middle School, about two blocks away.
“We have not yet confirmed alternative arrangements for the meantime but have reached out to Kramer MS who we assume will provide us access to their staff restrooms should anyone need one between now and then,” according to the email obtained by The Washington Post.
Although some bathrooms reopened near the start of the school day — the morning bell rings at 8:45 a.m. — teachers said they were dismayed that classes began with not all restrooms functioning. About 40 percent of the student body requires special education services, with some in wheelchairs and requiring assistance to use the restroom.
Teachers and students said that if the school was in another part of the city, the problems would have been addressed more quickly, parents would have been informed beforehand and classes would have been canceled.
“If it was any other school in the District, they would have closed school,” said Tamone Carter, a junior. “That’s unsanitary.”
Amanda Alexander, the interim chancellor of the school system, went to the school about noon Wednesday to speak with students and faculty. Anacostia High, which has about 450 students, underwent a $60 million renovation in 2013.
“Repair staff worked throughout the evening and night to identify the issue and make necessary repairs,” the school system wrote in a statement. “The Department of General Services is assessing all DCPS facilities system-wide to proactively address any similar issues.”
D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) joined the teachers during the walkout. He said his constituents have been anxious and frustrated since a graduation scandal emerged in the school system this winter. A city-commissioned report revealed that one of every three graduates from the District’s public schools received their diploma despite having missed too many classes or improperly taking makeup classes. At Anacostia, nearly 70 percent graduated in violation of city policies.
“The students and teachers need support from the leaders of the city because of the constant neglect happening at Anacostia,” White said.
Teachers, many of whom would not give their names, said they readily work long hours each day to help their students, and the graduation scandal — on top of an evaluation system that ties teachers’ salaries to their performance — has put even more pressure on them. They said showing up to school with broken plumbing and little warning felt like another injustice.
“The idea is that teachers and principals have viewed the performance evaluation system as putting a chokehold on whether they are allowed to speak out about conditions that are just not right,” said Elizabeth A. Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “They are just not willing to be a part of that and today showed that.”
In the last 15 minutes of the protest, students and teachers linked arms at the front of the school and chanted, “Anacostia Matters,” “Our children matter” and “Our teachers matter.” About a dozen police officers lingered around campus during the demonstration. Karima Bilal, a spokeswoman for the D.C. police, said the significant contingent of officers was normal for a protest, and because the demonstration was peaceful, some of the police quickly left.
Fraser, the principal, attempted to get teachers back into their classrooms by telling them the bathrooms were working.
The school system’s “expectation is that business goes on as usual,” Fraser said. “And I want to be clear, that is my expectation as well.”
The teachers, however, finished their hour-long walkout before resuming classes.