Whittier Education Campus (Courtesy photo)
Whittier Education Campus (Courtesy photo)

UPDATED, Sept. 14, 1:47 p.m. EST

Though D.C. government officials touted the completion of an unprecedented number of work orders in District public schools this summer, community members say at least one public school hasn’t experienced the fruits of that labor. 

For weeks, teachers and students at Whittier Elementary School in Northwest have struggled to comfortably engage the learning process in classrooms with broken HVAC systems. So much so, that when outdoor temperatures surpassed 90 degrees, some teachers stopped lessons amid students’ cries for cool air. 

Climate change, caused by the addition of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, is increasing the urgency of D.C. public schools’ HVAC problem. 

The heat wave that hit last week, just as students and teachers kicked off the school year, set records as the hottest five-day stretch the region has ever experienced in September. Climate change made some of the week’s weather five times more likely to happen than it would be otherwise, according to an analysis by Climate Central

The District may experience three or four times more emergency heat days — when it feels like 95 degrees or hotter — by the 2050s compared to 2015 levels,  a report commissioned by the city government projected

Those extreme temperatures won’t hit all of D.C.’s schools equally. Areas with more green space and tree canopy experience far lower temperatures than places that have tons of asphalt. Because of that phenomenon, known as the “heat island effect,” some neighborhoods in Wards 1, 2, and 5 can get up 10 to 20 degrees hotter than some of the leafiest areas in Wards 2 and 3, an investigation by nonprofit Hola Cultura found

Angela Anderson, Whittier’s parent-teacher organization president, said at least three classrooms have been affected by the recent heat wave. On Sept. 4, she sent a letter to the Department of General Services (DGS) asking why work orders hadn’t been completed during the summer. 

“We’ve seen DGS staff come in and out of the building but not addressing our issues,” said Anderson, the parent of a third grade Whittier student.  “When it’s 100 degrees and teachers can’t get through lesson plans, why do we have to go on social media, write letters and call out council members … to get the attention we deserve? Imagine a four-year-old student being irritated [about the heat]. It looks very different from an adult who can articulate their discomfort.” 

The Fight for Proximate Swing Space 

In August, City Administrator Kevin Donohue said DGS had worked 80% of the way through a high-priority work order list that had been compiled during the spring. That list, he said, had 3,400 work orders across all District public schools, 3,000 of which had been completed by early August. 

A DGS spokesperson would later tell The Informer that the agency has taken steps to increase work order transparency and accuracy. They cited an upgraded work order reporting system in which DGS’ public dashboard shows school personnel when work orders have been completed or if a work order requires additional tasks. 

As of Sept. 14, Whittier has 25 open work orders, three of which are related to the HVAC system. In total, DGS has completed 1780 HVAC-related work orders in DCPS facilities this year. 

Since March 1, DGS has received 97 work orders from Whittier, 83 of which have been completed, including work orders submitted earlier. Out of the orders collected on March 1 and beyond, 15 dealt with HVAC issues. A dozen of those work orders were completed. 

“DGS engineers have been on-site assessing the small number of impacted rooms, and we will continue to work with the DCPS  facilities team to keep spaces within Whittier comfortable while repairs take place,” DGS said in a statement. “To further support HVAC concerns in our school buildings, DGS and DCPS have dispatched dozens of personnel to address cooling issues that arise, closely monitoring school temperatures and providing temporary measures like window units and spot coolers if there is a wait to receive necessary parts to complete repairs.”

Last year, students, teachers and parents converged on the front steps of Whittier to express concerns about building conditions. They spoke about the broken HVAC system, rodent infestation, asbestos, flooding toilets, and a leaky roof that complicated the academic experience in the nearly century-old building. 

The construction phase of Whittier’s modernization is scheduled to start in fiscal year 2026. Sharpe Elementary School on 13th Street in Northwest has been designated as the swing space — the building where students will learn during their school’s modernization process. 

Sharpe, which is more than two miles from Whittier, currently serves as a swing space for half of the students attending Truesdell Elementary School and all of the students attending Dorothy Height Elementary School. When construction starts on LaSalle-Backus Elementary School during the fall of 2027, teachers and students will also report to Sharpe. 

D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) secured this arrangement for Truesdell in 2022 in response to concerns about overcrowding at Roosevelt STAY and backlash from Truesdell parents who expressed concern about the designation of former Garnet-Patterson Middle School — located three miles away from Truesdell — as swing space during Truesdell’s modernization. 

In years past, Lewis George has conducted readiness tours and visits at Whittier, successfully advocated alongside the Whittier community for the acceleration of Whittier’s modernization and secured $125,000 for HVAC improvements. 

Even with funds set aside for a bus service that takes students between Whittier and Sharpe, some Whittier community members have taken issue with the outcome. They said they worry that the distance could dismally affect student enrollment and teacher retention, just as had been the case at Raymond Elementary School when students trekked a mile to their swing space, Meyer Elementary School, without transportation provided by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). 

Last year, DCPS’ central office rejected Lewis George’s request for a modular swing space complex near Coolidge High School in Northwest. School leaders similarly responded to Whittier’s parent-teacher organization when they asked for swing space in that area, which is under the control of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. 

Anderson recounted unsuccessful attempts by Lewis George to also secure swing space at a nearby church, and modular space in the field near the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fourth District station. She said that the Department of Parks & Recreation (DPR) opposed the setup of swing space at the Coolidge field out of regard for contractors that have paid for the use of the space. 

DPR Director Thennie Freeman hasn’t responded to Anderson’s emails nor that of members of the Whittier community, Anderson told The Informer. The Informer unsuccessfully attempted to gather comment from DPR about the contracts for the field near Coolidge or Freeman’s communication with Whittier community members.  

With plans for another protest in the works, some Whittier parents, like Alicia Bolton, remain adamant about pointing out what she describes as the racial and socioeconomic factors at play. 

For Bolton, a failure to address infrastructural issues and accommodate parents’ requests for proximate swing space violates the Planning Actively for Comprehensive Education Facilities Act. This legislation requires 10-year master facilities plans to consider each school’s facility needs and amends the requirements for the formulation of the six-year capital improvement plan. 

“This is still a system [where you get resources] based on your ward’s affluence and who you know. It’s unacceptable,” Bolton said. “The city can build a brand new high school while we fight for air conditioning and they can’t figure out how to build modular space.”

The Swing Space Battle in the Broader Context 

Lewis George said that since becoming chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Facilities and Family Services, she’s become intimately familiar with the precarious situation several District public schools face when it comes to securing swing space. 

In February, she introduced legislation requiring DCPS to provide free transportation for students traveling more than half a mile from their school to their school’s swing space. The minimum currently stands at one mile. 

Lewis George told The Informer that, under capital improvement plans brought forth this past spring, students and teachers at more than a dozen schools, some of which are located east of the Anacostia River, will have to travel to a swing space outside of their ward during their school’s modernization.

In total, 31 schools will be modernized over seven years. 

An arrangement that Lewis George mentioned as “the worst example on the horizon” involved Hendley Elementary School, located on Chesapeake Street in Southeast. When Hendley, a school with 92% at-risk student population, undergoes modernization during fiscal year 2029, families will have to travel nearly eight miles along a heavily congested DC-295 to attend the former Kenilworth Elementary School, their swing space in Ward 7. 

During the same time period, students and teachers attending Simon Elementary School in Southeast will be expected to travel seven miles along DC-295 to Davis Elementary School in Northeast, which has been designated as their swing space. 

Lewis George cited the D.C. government excess of the shuttered Ferebee-Hope Elementary School and other empty school buildings as a significant factor in the scramble for proximate swing space and the impending shuffling of students several miles away from their original schools.   

That’s why, for her, city officials must be mindful of the swing space, or lack thereof, that’s available when drawing up capital improvement plans for schools that have gone several years without modernization.  

“We have to figure out a way to not take buildings out of excess so that no schools are in situations like Hendley,” Lewis George said. “The Bowser administration needs to also be open to creating more modular spaces and expanding transportation regardless of the distance.” 

A Whittier Teacher Weighs In 

Sept. 30 marks the end of the contract currently in place between the Washington Teachers’ Union and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and D.C. Public Schools. 

Before the beginning of this school year, union leaders compiled recommendations for improvement to workplace conditions, with school safety counting among the more than a dozen items on the list. 

A Whittier teacher who requested anonymity pointed out that health also counted as a workplace safety issue. They expressed concern about how the HVAC system breakdown could exacerbate the spread of illness, particularly COVID-19. 

For teachers on the edge about the lack of COVID leave and their IMPACT evaluation, coming down with an illness could impede students’ academic progress and make the school year even more cumbersome, the teacher told The Informer. 

“The air quality is not healthy and people get sick. There needs to be a solution where classes aren’t filled to capacity and we have internal swing space,” they said. “It’s not fair. We have the right to teach in a safe and healthy environment but it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares about what is right and best for students and teachers.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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