Anacostia teachers are demanding better work environments but will they get them?
By Cate Burgan
Anacostia Senior High School is one of four public schools in Anacostia, D.C., and the only high school. Photo by Ayah Mahana
D.C. Public School (DCPS) teachers in Anacostia started 2022 off with protests, walkouts and demands over their unsafe working environments –– and they said they’re not stopping until they see change.
Just three weeks into the second semester, Anacostia High School educators abandoned their classrooms to express their frustrations to the administration about their fear for safety in the school.
This rally was one of six days in the #ItsNotSafe Week of Action planned by the DC Caucus of Rank and File Educators (DC-CORE) –– a caucus of the Washington Teachers Union. Teachers across the city were fighting against the DCPS administration, claiming they didn’t feel safe in schools with the surge in Omicron cases.
But the Anacostia teachers were fighting for more than just stricter covid policies from DCPS.
Two days before the walkout, gunshots struck the Ward 8 high school as a teenager was running inside to flee the bullets. No one was injured, but officials did not immediately make an effort to fix the shattered glass on the door or holes in the side of the building.
“To my knowledge, repairs to the door have begun,” the Ward 8 School Board Representative, Carlene Reid said in an email on Feb. 6. “However, the teachers have outstanding concerns that still need to be addressed.”
Reid attended the walk out at Anacostia High School and said that all educators who are unionized –– 35 out of 43 total –– expressed their concerns about the functioning of the heat in the building, plumbing issues and student behavior.
In the 2020-2021 school year, Anacostia Senior High School enrolled 326 students in grades 9-12. Photo by Ayah Mahana
“As a staff, we came together and said, ‘Well, that’s enough. We’ve had enough,’” world history teacher Brandi Byrd told News4.
“We know our kids deserve better. We know we deserve better,” geometry teacher Chris Whigham added.
According to a 2020 study done by The Century Foundation, school districts with large numbers of Black and Hispanic students need more funding. The lack of money jeopardizes the opportunity to succeed. The study also shows this to be true for places with large numbers of children in poverty, with disabilities and who are learning English.
Ward 8 has the most crowded school system, the highest amount of poverty and the highest concentration of Black people compared to other wards in Washington, D.C.
Nearly half of the DCPS schools in Ward 8, including Anacostia High School, dealt with steep budget cuts in 2020. Anacostia saw more than a 30% decrease in funds per student from the previous year. It was granted a budget of just over $8.5 million –– still the highest in the ward, but $2 million less than some schools in Ward 3.
This underfunding is particularly dangerous for high risk level schools.
According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, students who are at-risk have been identified as homeless during the academic year, are in foster care, are high school students at least one year older than the expected age for their grade or qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Anacostia High School is made up of 98% Black students and 100% of economically disadvantaged students. Currently, they sit at the number one school with the highest risk level –– meaning their students have the most need for mental health services.
According to DCPS, half of the allotted budget is intended to serve students considered “at-risk.” Instead, these funds are being used to pay core staff, rather than being used as intended — to provide supplemental services to help students succeed, said Nathan Luecking, a former mental health provider at Anacostia High School.
“If I had a magic wand to wave, I would sustain investment in housing, transportation, violence interruption, healthcare, increase in wages and access to different kinds of careers,” Luecking said.
He said it sounds like a lot, but after working with the high schoolers at Anacostia for seven years, Luecking said he believes that’s what it would take to curate better mental health overall and a more efficient learning environment in Ward 8 schools.
“It’s simple but it’s complicated. It’s simple because there’s a pretty definitive set of problems that need to be addressed,” he said. “It’s complicated because nobody in power seems to have the will or motivation to want to do anything to fix it or disrupt the systems that are contributing to these conditions.”
Teachers, activists and politicians have thoughts about how to build sustainable learning and working environments –– but it all comes back to DCPS.
Jessi Salute, a second-grade teacher in Ward 8, teaches at Stanton Elementary School. Photo by DCPS
“It’s just us and the kids and that’s it,” said Jessi Salute, a second-grade teacher in Ward 8.
After 19 years of teaching in the district, Salute doesn’t have much faith left that DCPS will create policies or provide services, like tutoring, to implement better environments for both the kids and the teachers.
“There is no high-impact tutoring in a meaningful way,” said Salute, after explaining that DCPS promised to pay for outside tutors to come in and help kids catch up from learning loss during the virtual period due to the pandemic. “It hasn’t happened and it’s February. I tutor on my own twice a week, but you can’t count on full time teachers to do that extra work. That was not how it was supposed to be.”
Laura Fuchs, a co-founder of DC-CORE and a high school teacher in Ward 7, isn’t sure if DCPS will make any positive, sustainable changes when it comes to schools east of the Anacostia River. But she still shows up and advocates for what she believes in: a school system that is reasonable and serves everybody.
Laura Fuchs, co-founder of DC-CORE and teacher at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7, participates in day two of #ItsNotSafe Week of Action on Jan. 18, 2022. #RedforEd was a day to show solidarity for the caucus’ demands of paid covid leave and more covid protections for staff and students by wearing the color red. Photo by Laura Fuchs
“It’s very rare for DCPS” to serve everybody, Fuchs said. “I do believe a lot of the things we have now are because we were so active. Illegal labor actions got [DCPS] to see that they at least need to throw us a bone. They couldn’t get away with it and that’s what they wanted.”
When asked in June 2022 if any changes were made within their schools, no one responded.
But will Ward 8 teachers always have to risk their jobs by doing illegal labor actions –– staging sick-ins, walking out of their classrooms and driving to administrators’ houses –– just to get their voices heard?
According to a survey conducted by EmpowerEd DC –– a non-profit working to bring about a more equitable education system by centering the voices of educators –– the morale of teachers is at an all time low. Eighty-three percent of DCPS teachers said their optimism was worse than in previous years, with 14% saying they plan to leave before the end of the year, and 18% at the end.
It seems that these protests are working in the educators’ favor short-term, but it’s unclear if anything sustainable will come of their calls for action.
At the beginning of 2022, it came to my attention that a lot of teachers in the D.C. Public School system were upset with how they, their kids and their buildings were being treated by those with authority. In fact, this had been going on for a while.