Murch Elementary needs modernization now

The Northwest Current, February 19, 2014

By Laura Fisher Kaiser and John Paty

In 1928, a rare tornado tore through Washington, DC, and ripped the roof off one of the decrepit temporary school buildings that sat at the corner of 36th and Davenport streets. This finally prompted Congress to approve money for an “eight-room extensible building.” Even so, parents still had to lobby extensively to get the school built. However, from the moment Benjamin W. Murch School opened in 1930, the school was overcrowded. A batch of new “cottages” was hastily erected until another wing could be built, which took three years.

Sadly, 85 years later, little has changed. These days, Murch students find themselves in a building that is alarmingly overcrowded and obsolete. And, again, our community is begging government leaders to keep their promise to create a high-quality education environment and quit delaying the long-needed modernization of Murch. 

A population boom in Ward 3 and years of bureaucratic neglect have created the perfect storm for an antiquated campus that is unhealthy and unsafe. Since 2010, our student population has mushroomed 18%. With 628 students, Murch is the second the largest elementary school in the District and could soon be the largest. Yet our official capacity–which includes one “temporary” structure that has been on site since 1988–is 488 pupils. A third of our classes are housed in a growing collection of trailers, which lack restrooms and take up large swaths of precious playground and parking space. The trailers’ awkward presence also exacerbates a traffic choke point where the staff parking lot, garbage and delivery trucks, and pedestrians converge. This is an accident waiting to happen.

And our campus is way out of compliance with many other city and federal standards. DCPS guidelines call for 150 square feet of space per student. Murch has 76 square feet per student. Classrooms in the main building boast only two electrical outlets. There is no central HVAC system. WiFi is spotty at best. The building is not handicapped-accessible. Small-group work and even some testing take place in hallways and stairwells. Some students must cross half a city block to get to a bathroom. The entire campus lacks the electronic security systems that are standard in today’s schools. To enter the building, teachers and students must wait to be buzzed in a side door. (Our historic courtyard entry is blocked by portable classrooms and a locked chain link fence.) With no cafeteria, breakfast and lunch are served in the hall—and eaten there as well or in the classroom.

Not surprisingly, these conditions are taking a toll on Murch’s long record of academic excellence. Although Murch was one of the U.S. Department of Education’s first Blue Ribbon schools, test scores have suffered in the past few years. Many parents feel that this decline is directly linked to the diminishing educational effectiveness of our learning space.

Our hardworking, dedicated teachers and administrators are also negatively affected as they must continually find work-arounds for our substandard campus, robbing our students of valuable instruction time. With their cars double- and triple-parked in the undersized lot, they must dash out during the day to shuffle cars as needed. Several closets and bathrooms have been converted into staff offices. There are only two tiny unisex restrooms for adult staff and visitors.

We fully support the tremendous effort to improve learning environments in all DC schools. We are ecstatic to see so many schools blossoming around the city in their state-of-the-art facilities. However, our school community remains genuinely puzzled as to what objective analysis led to a decision to delay renovation of Murch for the second time last year while accelerating other projects.

Over the past few weeks, we have taken that question to the Mayor, the City Council, and DCPS. Our message is clear: The situation at Murch is critical and untenable – and must be addressed immediately.

The only long-term solution is to modernize our campus without further delay. We are asking city officials to work with our community to:

1) Begin planning right now so that we have time to engage appropriate stakeholders.

2) Get shovels in the ground by June 2015.

3) Complete the renovation of Murch in 2016.

Ben Murch’s favorite quotation was, “Give to the world the best you have and the best will come back to you.” The Murch community has lived up to these words for years. Now it’s time for our city leaders to do their best by Murch. It is our sincere hope that they are not waiting for another freak tornado to be the instigator of change.

Laura Fisher Kaiser and John Paty are co-chairs of the Murch Elementary School Improvement Team

Copyright © 2021 Laura Fisher Kaiser