Community feels pinch of school closing
December 2, 2010 10 Comments
Parents and activists rally to rebuild a Columbia Heights elementary school while seeking to hold leaders to past promises.
By Matthew Boyle
Bruce Monroe Elementary School was what neighbors called the “safe establishment” for children in its Northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Then, suddenly and abruptly in 2008, the District school system shut it down.
With promises from the school district that the dilapidated Bruce Monroe would be rebuilt by 2011, community members were counting on a new school. Then former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee hit residents with a bombshell. The new school probably wouldn’t be coming anytime soon.
“I promised based on what [the financial situation] looked like at the time,” Rhee said, according to the Washington Post. I didn’t expect the capital budget to take a hammering.”
In its place, the District built a park. With that in mind, some parents and community leaders are disappointed with the city’s decision to replace what they say was a fully functional elementary school with a new city park.
Residents and business owners on Georgia Avenue near Columbia Street, the intersection where Bruce Monroe Elementary School used to be and where Bruce Monroe Community Park sits now, are upset. They want the school back for their kids.
Dyana Forester, a family-schools advocate at education activist group Teaching For Change, said the school was “the hub of the neighborhood.”
EmpowerDC, an activist group in D.C., banded together several parents of children from Bruce Monroe Elementary School to form a community movement aimed at trying to get the school rebuilt quickly. The Parents and Friends of Bruce Monroe Elementary School, a branch movement under EmpowerDC, attempt to make the District’s school system keep its 2008 promises.
Forester said outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty and Rhee promised to rebuild the school, but never planned it into their budget. Parents, she said, had been led on for months under false pretenses, and thought the city government was trying to help them.
“They were working under the impression that the school was going to be built in 2012,” Forester said. “It wasn’t until January of this year that we found out the school was going to be used as a double-level parking lot for Howard University Children’s Hospital. It was going to be used for a parking lot.” That’s one of many rumors now swirling. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray has said that he would like the school built sooner rather than later, but there’s nothing in the budget until 2018.
“The same city officials that were meeting with us to talk about the planning of the school were talking to Howard University about building this parking lot,” Forester said.
The parking structure protests worked, Forester said, as city planners have since dropped those plans. But, she said, the city still didn’t rectify the situation.
Parents were confused why city officials built a $2 million park on a site pledged for the new school.
“‘What do you mean, an interim use?” Forester said parents asked. “Our school was supposed to be built by 2012. That’s what you told us.’”
The school closed in 2008, and its students have attended Parkview Elementary School several blocks away.
“They don’t want black kids to go to no school, so those kids have to go to school way across town,” Nathaniel Jones, a former area resident, said. “Probably, half of them are going to start fighting every day and not go to school or get beat up and be scared to go to school.”
Jones grew up in the neighborhood but now, many years later, lives in Maryland. He said he moved because the rent prices shot up and the community is so run-down. He still comes back every few days to socialize and hang out with everyone he knows in the community. Jones wrote and self-published two books about his struggles with local government and doesn’t expect the District to rebuild Bruce Monroe Elementary School, even though he said they said they would.
Jones said the city built the park “for white people. That’s for white people. That ain’t for us.”
The city originally said its reason for knocking the school down was for under-utilization and that the building was in need of repair. At Parkview Elementary, though, there have been reports of rodent infestations in the school’s cafeteria and problems with the building’s infrastructure.
His resentment of the city’s establishment runs deep. Jones doesn’t trust what the politicians tell him. Others in the area had similar sentiments.
Dawud Washington, who also moved to Maryland as an adult but grew up in the neighborhood and, like Jones, visits the neighborhood on a regular basis, said the city duped the community by saying a new school would be built.
“Historically, when a school building was demolished, usually, it would be done with a new school opening,” said Washington, who is a practicing lawyer. “Dunbar High School, for example, when they tore the old Dunbar down, they had the new one already built.”
Forester said parents are flexible with a timeframe for Gray’s administration to rebuild the elementary school, but that residents are going to push Gray to keep the promises he made as the city’s chairman.
“There’s definitely a commitment,” Forester said. “Now, we just got to make him put his money where his mouth is.”