Amid the general success of the opening of public schools in the nation's capital, I heard reports of overflowing toilets in new trailers at Lafayette Elementary School, according to a source in the fourth grade.
This might seem insignificant in a system with more than 40,000 students in 125 schools, but it highlights a serious problem the city refuses to confront: schools in white wards west of Rock Creek Park are overcrowded and overflowing into trailers, compared with many half-empty schools in the city's eastern wards that are predominantly African-American.
The city's public schools need rebalancing, reverse busing, new schools in Ward 3, or boundary changes, at least. "It's very political," says Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who adds DC Public Schools and the city "have a head-in-the-sand approach that will lead to worse conditions."
The toilet in question is in a new trailer installed this summer next to Lafayette, in D.C.'s Chevy Chase neighborhood. Lafayette cannot educate its students in the original brick building. The basketball courts have been home to trailers for years.
According to figures compiled by Cheh's staff, five schools in Ward 3 have had to resort to trailers. Among them:
-- Middle school Alice Deal in Tenleytown was recently rebuilt and designed for 985 students. Enrollment this year is 1,189, so it added six trailers this summer -- on the outdoor basketball court.
-- Murch Elementary, just west of Connecticut Avenue on Reno Road, has five modular classrooms -- on its lawn.
-- Francis Scott Key Elementary in Palisades has two trailers for its fifth-graders, according to Cheh's office.
Don't get me started on Wilson Senior High. The District's flagship high school last year underwent a $115 million renovation, designed to accommodate 1,550 students. Projected enrollment this year is 1,750, which puts it almost 15 percent over capacity. Rather than add trailers, Wilson could be forced to increase class size or cut programs, such as Advanced Placement Spanish Literature.
"We have been successful in attracting families back to our schools," says Cheh, "but if we don't solve the overcrowding, it will start to degrade the experience."
Wilson's boundaries extend from the Potomac River and the Maryland line clear down to Capitol Hill and Southwest neighborhoods along the Anacostia River. They cover about one-third of the District. Some students near the Anacostia have to travel eight miles to Wilson; meanwhile, newly renovated Eastern High is two miles away.
"Does that make sense?" Cheh asks.
Boundaries have not changed since the 1970s. Cheh has introduced legislation to establish a commission that would study them and recommend changes. No response from her colleagues.
Cheh says School Chancellor Kaya Henderson is "just not doing anything about it."
A school spokesman responded by email: "School boundaries are an issue we are working to address."
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.