Parents and teachers at Whittier Education Campus walked out on Nov. 17. (Courtesy of WTU)
Parents and teachers at Whittier Education Campus walked out on Nov. 17. (Courtesy of WTU)

Contract negotiations between the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) have not only shed light on the issues of teacher pay and workload, but what parents and students have described as the dismal conditions of some District public schools. 

In their advocacy for teachers, parent groups continue to take D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and Department of General Services to task for broken HVAC systems, flooding toilets, rodent infestation and other issues that complicate the learning process. 

Such has been the case at Whittier Elementary School in Northwest, where community members recently congregated on the front steps in demand of a fair teachers’ contract. 

For some parents like Angela Anderson, this fight has also become a matter of teachers’ holistic health and wellness. 

Anderson, president of Whittier’s parent-teacher organization, recounted learning about a leaky roof that dripped water into the school radiator and caused teachers to develop respiratory infections. 

In years past, she and other parents also complained about a broken restroom shared by two Pre-K classrooms. Anderson said feces leaked from that restroom into students’ closets. 

As temperatures dropped in recent weeks, students and teachers at Whittier also have had to walk through a cold hallway in the aftermath of a boiler malfunction. 

Anderson said this has happened in an old building that’s wearing on the patience of overworked staff members. 

“A lot of our teachers live in the District and we know the cost is high,” Anderson said. 

“They’re struggling a bit to get to school and do what they need without the burden of living. Whittier doesn’t have a lot of teacher turnover. Our teachers have been committed but it’s hard to keep that commitment when you’re not getting paid. They try not to have that spill into the classroom.” 

On Nov. 17, parents and elected officials joined teachers on the front steps of public schools across the District as part of a “Day of Action.” This mass movement counted among the latest of attempts to raise awareness about ongoing contract negotiations and garner grassroots support for the teachers’ union. 

At Whittier, D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) advocated for teachers. Meanwhile, State Board of Education Ward 3 Representative Ruth Wattenberg, joined by her successor Eric Goulet, gave teachers at Jackson-Reed High School words of affirmation. 

It has been more than three years since District public school teachers had a contract with the city. Negotiations have been at a standstill for several weeks with most of the contention centered on pay and benefits, classroom conditions and planning time.  

Teachers on the frontlines point to an ongoing teacher shortage as indication that more needs to be done to attract and retain educators. 

Earlier in the month, when WTU members visited the John A. Wilson Building, Bowser doubled down on her assertion that she presented a contract that benefits District teachers. Throughout much of this year, WTU President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons countered that narrative, saying that teachers need a cost-of-living wage increase and a guarantee that they wouldn’t lose their planning time. 

Other concerns centered on school conditions that have perturbed parents. For instance, parents at Langley Elementary School in Northeast often take to Twitter or make phone calls to elected officials in droves to demand the completion of urgent work orders. 

Langley parent Dorie Turner Nolt said she and other parents execute this strategy once their principals’ attempt to get DGS on campus proves unsuccessful. Over the years, parents have also become a united front during D.C. Council hearings where they testify about the conditions that students and teachers often navigate. 

While the school community awaits capital improvement projects slated to start in 2028, parents organize for upgrades to the school bathroom, repairs to a broken front door and, as of last week, HVAC repairs. 

“Our principal can only make so much noise. It then falls on the parents to make the noise,” said Nolt, parent-teacher advocacy co-chair at Langley.

 “This is a pattern that’s emerging where schools are telling the city what they need and the city ignores them, and then we complain on Twitter,” she added.

 “We then bring in our council members and ANC commissioners. I shouldn’t have to copy D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) to get things done.”

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...

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