Orr Elementary School is located in Ward 8 next to the Anacostia River. Its student population is 97% black, 2% Latino and 1% Asian. All students receive free breakfast and lunch. Many of the students who attend Orr have parents and other relatives who attended Orr as well. It is a true “community” school. Yet Orr’s facilities have remained exactly the same for generations now, and students and staff are not happy. With the help of Teaching for Change, Orr families and staff have been contacting the mayor’s and the Chancellor’s office for years in search of new funds.
The D.C. Council promised Orr funds for modernization in 2012. Last year, Teaching for Change and Orr parents successfully advocated for a $3 million grant to secure an architect to design a new school that would open for the 2017-18 school year. Due to the vast amount of renovations that would be needed, it was decided that it would be more cost-effective to build a new school than to modernize the current one.
Work on the new building was supposed to begin last fall. However, in the fall of 2014, Orr was informed that they would not receive their new funds for another year, and the new building would not be ready until 2018-19. But if the D.C. Council does not include funds for the architect in their final budget for school year 2015-16, which is due June 6, the entire project will be pushed back further—potentially indefinitely. Throughout all of this delay, Orr and Teaching for Change have been left in the dark about the project’s progress.
Conditions at Orr are reprehensible. Parts of the ceiling are crumbling, the building receives poor natural light due to its triangular shape, the ventilation system is outdated, toilets don’t work, and cockroaches and mice roam the halls. This past winter, the heat in the building was so low that on several days, classes relocated because the temperature in their usual rooms was 50 degrees or lower.
Although Orr is in the bottom 40 of D.C. schools, it has made some significant progress, most notably in its ESEA classification. In 2014 Orr moved from a “focus” school to a “developing” school. Enrollment has increased since the appointment of a new principal.
Despite this progress, Orr continues to be passed over while other schools continue to renovate and add on to their buildings. One project at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts is currently $39 million over budget and is the most expensive D.C. school renovation to date. Orr is one of the last two open-space schools that have yet to be modernized, according to a representative for Teaching for Change. The only other is West Elementary School—and while West has not been modernized, its conditions have been presumed to be much better than those at Orr.
While the city has made intensive investments in school modernization in the last seven years, D.C. Council member David Grosso also recently lamented that there are at least 26 schools that have not been touched. Many of them, like Orr, are east of the Anacostia River in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Despite Grosso’s concerns, funding continues to be delayed for Orr’s modernization. Orr has made their critical move in bringing their concerns to you, Council. Council, what’s yours?
(Ed. note: As of May 14, the D.C. Council's Committee on Education recommended a $1 million appropriation to Orr Elementary School for modernization. The Committee's budget proposal is available here. The D.C. Council will vote on its full budget proposal tonight, May 27.)
Amara Pinnock is an elementary school teacher in DC. Reach her via email or Twitter.