After years of waiting, Jefferson Middle School Academy will get a much-needed face-lift. On May 31, the DC City Council voted to accelerate the modernization of the 77-year-old school to Fiscal Year 2018, with construction to begin as soon as possible.
Bricks and Mortar
District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) says that Jefferson Middle School Academy is one of the fastest-improving middle-schools in DC, boasting significant gains in reading and math among students, strong partnerships and family engagement and increased enrollment. But,parents say that success is not reflected in the bricks and mortar of the school.
Ivan Frishberg is a member of the Brent Elementary PTA. Brent is one of the feeder schools for Jefferson, and Frishberg has been a strong advocate for investment in the middle school. In order for Jefferson to keep improving academically, he says, the facilities need to be improved.
A litany of issues to the physical plant have arisen in recent years. The heating and air conditioning only work sporadically. Some classrooms have leaky roofs. The school lacks up-to-date technology throughout the building, including the science and computer labs.
Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who worked to get the acceleration included in the budget, agrees. “All the band equipment is stored in an unused shower in the basement. That’s not an appropriate place to store band equipment. Good modern buildings are what our kids deserve and what our parents expect.”
A Long History of Delay
Jefferson was first slated for modernization in 2008. It was rescheduled for 2012, and then again for 2016.
It was delayed again in 2016 when Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that, beginning with the 2017 budget, the city would move towards holistic modernizations rather than phased improvements. Schools would no longer receive partial improvements to portions that needed it. Instead, entire schools would be renovated as a whole.
As part of this change a standardized assessment was conducted, and schools were ranked according to their overall need for modernization. Jefferson’s ranking delayed planning for its modernization to 2019 with completion expected by 2022.
Ward Six middle schools have long been a focus of parent advocacy. Renovations to Eastern High School were completed in 2010 and many of the elementary schools have waiting lists. There are concerns that amidst this success, middle schools have been left behind and that has led to students dropping out of the public school system before reaching high school.
But parents of students at Jefferson and at elementary schools in the feeder system for Jefferson (Tyler, Van Ness, Amidon Bowen and Brent Elementary schools) fhave been fighting for the school, asking for transparency and communication from DCPS.
Increasingly frustrated by the delays, in March parents started a petition calling on the Mayor to begin Jefferson’s modernization planning in 2018 and construction in 2019. The petition has amassed 517 signatures to date.
To the relief of parents, on May 31 the city council voted to include funds to accelerate the modernization of Jefferson Middle School in the 2018 Fiscal Budget. Councilmember Allen worked with the Mayor and his fellow councilmembers to see the schedule moved up. But he said that the work of parents and the community was key.
“I think the parents have done a great job,” Allen said. “What I appreciate is that everyone worked hard not to pit one school against one another. Parents said that we all deserve it. That’s been one of my themes: we can work hard to modernize our schools,” he said.
Allen also said that there will be no consequence to the timing or funding of renovations to other schools as a result of the acceleration of Jefferson. He said that Council worked to find money from other sources to re-allocate to the modernization.
Time to Get to Work
Prior to the rescheduling of Jefferson’s modernization work, planning had already begun on modernization of its science labs. Construction is slated to begin in June. Deputy Mayor of Education Jennifer Niles confirmed that modernization activities will not interrupt the renovation. “It just means that we need to build around the science labs when we do the full modernization,” she said.
Parents are also pleased that Jefferson’s modernization will happen according to a ‘swing’ plan, which allows students to use half of the building while the other half is renovated, thus avoiding relocation.
A community discussion with the DCPS Facility Planning and Design and the Strategic School Planning teams on the topic of Jefferson’s modernization took place in January, and parents have been very engaged with that process. Parents will soon assemble an official School Improvement Team (SIT), which participates in the planning.
The schedule for moving forward is expected very soon. A DCPS spokesperson said, “DC Public Schools is looking forward to implementing another robust budget. Working closely with the Mayor, we will continue to invest in our key priorities, support all students, and prioritize excellence and equity.”
‘A lot of Excitement’
Allen says education is a focus and foundation of the community going forward, and that is as it should be. “You need to have a building that respects students and that you’re proud to walk into,” he said. “Over the next few years we’re finally going to see the kind of school buildings the kids deserve.”
Parents are thrilled by the recent developments and sudden progress after years of frustration.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Frishberg says. “Not only will the school get modernized quicker, as it should have been, it is a recognition of everything great that is happening there. It feels like the council and the Mayor see that, and it feels like this is a priority for what we need to keep going down that road.”