**FILE** Students from J.C. Nalle Elementary participate in the April 2023 Emancipation Day Parade. Nalle has been waiting patiently for a full modernization of a school building that, among other things, lacked a unified HVAC system. (WI photo)

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For more than a decade, community members at J.C. Nalle Elementary School have waited patiently for the full modernization of a school building that, among other things, lacked a unified HVAC system and periodically reeked of fuel.  

Though Nalle, and at least two other Ward 7 schools, are up in the queue, the impending modernization has highlighted other pressing issues concerning what some community members call D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) lack of stakeholder engagement during the process. 

“Nalle should’ve been engaged first, in spite of whatever school community needed to use the space,” said Caprice Casson, president of the parent-teacher organization at Nalle, as she spoke about a recent meeting in the school’s auditorium that left more than 150 students, parents, teachers and residents shocked, and even angry.

“The bigger issue came from DCPS wanting to take the entire field,” she added. 

During that June 11 meeting, DCPS officials revealed that the entirety of Nalle’s field and playground would be used to hold modular space — trailers that serve as temporary school buildings during school modernization projects. This revelation followed months of questions about the size of the modular space and whether other schools would use that space. 

In a June 7 letter announcing the community meeting, Lisa D. Putman, DCPS’ chief of operations, acknowledged that the central office had “not adhered to DCPS’ value of keeping school communities informed in a timely manner.” She later revealed a five-year timeline that included construction of the modular space (one year), and occupation of the modular space, first by Drew Elementary School, then by Nalle, in two-year increments. 

Though it ultimately wouldn’t come to fruition, community members also learned about conversations around the Anne Beers Elementary School community using the modular space for an additional two years. 

More than a week after the meeting, Casson and other community members continue to demand that DCPS conduct another community engagement meeting with advance notice. Though Casson noted that a meeting has been tentatively scheduled for July, she lamented that DCPS hasn’t formally confirmed a date or time. 

“We were not informed about [the information in] the presentation so there was complete outrage. We just ask for another community meeting,” Casson said. “Why wouldn’t we be at the table if [modernization] required this much displacement? We could ensure that the kids didn’t lose a safe, recreational space.” 

Lack of Transparency with Significant Consequences 

Another community member who requested anonymity told The Informer that Laena Lee, principal of Nalle Elementary School, had been pushing back against the construction of the modular space since January.  

They said that Lee had no knowledge of DCPS’ plans to occupy the entirety of Nalle’s outdoor space, including the playground. 

On June 13, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson sent DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee a letter insisting that construction be paused until DCPS works on, and communicates, a plan with the Nalle community that specifies how students will have access to outdoor recreation space. 

Mendelson also criticized what he called DCPS’ lack of engagement, demanding answers about a timeline of communication with the schools scheduled to use Nalle’s modular space. His inquiries focused on the selection process for modular space, including other sites that had been considered and reasons why DCPS didn’t select them. 

A Mendelson staffer told The Informer that no one from DCPS has responded to the letter as of close of business on June 18. 

On June 18, DCPS Deputy Chancellor Patrick Ashley wrote a letter to Nalle parents speaking about the “lack of community and transparency that led to anger and mistrust.” 

He told community members that, since the meeting, DCPS central office contacted the Department of General Services (DGS) to postpone all pre-construction activity that had been scheduled to start on June 11 until after the end of the school year, which was June 17 for students. 

In speaking about DCPS’ decision to build modular space on Nalle’s outdoor space, Ashley said that officials identified P.R. Harris Educational Center, Fletcher-Johnson Recreation Center, Winston Education Campus, and Oxon Run Park Modular Campus as other possibilities before determining that they didn’t prove suitable for students. 

Ashley noted that DCPS officials also considered swing spaces that are currently in operation in Southeast before realizing they would be unavailable. As it relates to Nalle, proximity to the tight-knit community, fiscal responsibility and the prevention of construction delays counted among the primary motivators for settling on that location, Ashley told community members. 

In his letter, Ashley said that DCPS and DGS are currently identifying additional options to expand recreation space for students during the modernization process.  

“Your voices matter, and I want to reiterate our commitment to maintaining better lines of communication throughout this process,” the letter read. “We want families to feel confident in the decisions that are being made now for the long-term benefit.” 

La’Mont Geddis, a former DCPS elementary school principal who currently serves as Nalle’s community schools director via the National Center for Children and Families, said that it’s incumbent upon officials to secure outdoor space for students. 

On June 11, Geddis counted among those who saw Nalle students at the engagement meeting waving signs asking for a place to play. 

“The higher-ups are forgetting that recreation is a strong part of education. You can’t separate the two,” Geddis said. “The students will miss out on physical education. When it’s hot, they will miss out on sports. And they will miss out on having green space in their community.” 

Geddis went on to mull how the denial of a field and playground would affect students in the long run. 

“The students are the biggest losers in this situation, especially with the students coming to kindergarten,” Geddis said. “When they come out in the fifth grade, they wouldn’t have had a chance to enjoy Nalle’s green space.” 

The Bigger Picture ߲ݴý School Modernization

Eboni-Rose Thompson, president and Ward 7 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education also attended the June 11 engagement meeting at Nalle. She told The Informer that she couldn’t recall another situation where DCPS constructed modular space on a public school’s field to be used by more than one school.   

“I understand that we are limited in swing space east of the Anacostia River, but I believe that DCPS, DGS, and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education should be able to work with the community to identify other solutions,” Thompson said. 

Ward 7 Representative and SBOE President Eboni-Rose Thompson (Courtesy photo)
Ward 7 Representative and SBOE President Eboni-Rose Thompson (Courtesy photo)

In 2012, Nalle completed what was supposed to be the first phase of a three-phase modernization process. 

By 2016 however, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser changed the approach to modernization, opting through the budget proposal process to handle each school in one fell swoop rather than in phases. 

Administration officials said they would prioritize middle schools and, for other schools, take into account other factors, such as the at-risk population, the percentage of in-boundary students, and enrollment projections. The , enacted that year, would require the amendment of six-year capital improvement plans and 10-year master facilities plan based on each school’s facility needs. 

As Nalle community members awaited their turn for a full modernization, Thompson continued to write letters to Bowser and the D.C. Council, ever critical about the order that projects happened across the District.  Given longtime efforts to modernize Ward 7 schools, Thompson said that a situation like this was bound to happen, especially in the absence of what she described as centralized planning for education and facilities modernization. 

As Thompson explained, all the key players — the mayor, D.C. Council, DCPS, DGS, and D.C. Public Charter School Board — work in their silos, oftentimes to the detriment of communities that are unable to wield political will to fast-track school modernization projects. 

“Ward 7 schools have been pushed to the back of the line,” Thompson said. “Now that many of them still need to be modernized, we’re running out of places to put students during modernization. We do not have anyone who’s looking across [the city] to see how many schools are opening, and how many schools are we modernizing at one time. We as a city should’ve been able to see this coming before a community meeting with parents.”

Sam P.K. Collins has nearly 20 years of journalism experience, a significant portion of which he gained at The ߲ݴý Informer. On any given day, he can be found piecing together a story, conducting...

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  1. As a former Nalle parent of four who has served in a several school level positions via the Nalle Parent group and LSAT board. I’ve volunteered, coached, and worked at Nalle as the Parent Coordinator with The National Center for Children and Families. Bottom line is I love and cherish Nalle ES, I have seen first hand the benefits of a community school where they teach the whole child and engage the whole family. Unfortunately I have also seen schools and communities like Nalle be at the brunt of officials decisions made on our behalf but without our involvement or input. I had the opportunity to speak at the DCPS/Nalle community meeting to many faces whom I had the pleasure of working with during my time at Nalle, and I’ll say now what I said then. This is not the first time Nalle has had to [fight] to have our voices heard, we won’t be treaded on with such disregard, and we are ready to protect our students, school, and community through civic action and thorough engagement and involvement in this modernization process.

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