On the asphalt road in front of Dunbar Magnet School, parents and students held up homemade signs and chanted in front of news crews on Friday, July 23. Their repeated message, directed at a school system they believe isn’t taking them seriously, is simple: “Make Dunbar Safe.”
The circumstances that led to that moment, however, aren’t as simple. After years of students, teachers and staff being sick more often than in other schools, parents are coming together to convince the Mobile County Public School System to deal with what they say is a decades-old mold problem that has only gotten worse.
In a statement last week, MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips said the school system has not encountered mold during the renovations, though they have committed to air quality tests that will determine whether classrooms are safe for use.
Dunbar’s B building, where teachers and parents allege many of the problems are, is a historic building, dating back to before the Civil War. It’s age is also a hazard, as asbestos, mold, termites and rotting floors threaten the health and safety of students and faculty, according to interviews with teachers and parents.
During the beginning of the 2019 school year, the roof caved in over a computer lab during a heavy storm while school was in session. Insulation and ceiling tiles fell on students as water rushed in. The roof was repaired during the 2020 school year, which Dunbar students and teachers spent at Kate Shepard Elementary.
William Wolfenden, an eighth grade student at Dunbar who has advocated for his school during the protest and at a recent City Council meeting, said he missed the roof caving in over him by only one or two periods. He’s also noticed an increased frequency of sickness among teachers and students when compared with schools he’s previously attended.
“We want the mold taken care of, because we’ve had teachers, staff, [and] students that have been sick for years from being in these buildings,” parent Brandy Goleman said during the protest on Friday.
In interviews with Lagniappe, Dunbar teachers have claimed they have faced constant health issues while at Dunbar — persistent sore throats, itchy rashes, heightened allergies and coworkers who were out for months at a time with pneumonia.
Parents and teachers say these problems have existed prior to the roof caving in, but have gotten worse over time. These health issues are consistent — until they leave the building, they said. During last year at Kate Shepard Elementary, parents and teachers say these health problems vanished. Those whose students went online last year had a similar experience.
Sheila Osborne-Beck has a granddaughter currently attending Dunbar, but she believes the same health problems now are to blame for her daughter’s sinus issues, which she developed while at Dunbar 14 years ago and has been fighting ever since.
“They say that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, and we want to believe that … as far as fixing the school versus patching it up,” she said. “But this time, we’re going to need proof because we’ve been fighting this fight for years.”
Osborne-Beck is a dialysis patient, and she worries that the families of Dunbar students are also at risk of becoming frequently sick, especially if they have compromised health like she does.
After her daughter left Dunbar and began attending Davidson, the nasal problems she had developed during those years got better, but it wasn’t until years later, when she said she saw the extent of the mold problem at Dunbar, that Osborne-Beck thought Dunbar could have been the cause.
She still decided to send her granddaughter to Dunbar. Parents say the school has worked wonders for their kids, giving them opportunities they would otherwise not have and accommodating student needs in ways previous schools had not.
Dunbar is a performing arts school. Students have access to dance, choir, theater, and music classes, to name a few. Goleman pulled her kids from private school to attend Dunbar.
“We love our school,” Osborne-Beck said. “We don’t want to lose our school. But we don’t want to go into the school with things the way they are.”
Wolfenden said that as soon as he walked in, Dunbar felt like home. But he believes, like many parents and teachers, that coming to Dunbar in its current state requires a choice between health and education.
Bobbi Jo Jorgensen, a parent whose child is about to start his first year at Dunbar, was not aware of the issues at Dunbar before electing to send him there.
“I’ve heard it’s a really great school and my son is really into music and arts, and I know he’s going to do phenomenally here,” Jorgensen said. “But had I known about all of this, I don’t know if I would have elected for him to go here.”
As the first day of classes comes closer, parents have organized together to bring greater attention to the issues they see with their school. Last week, after voicing concerns at a City Council meeting, they were able to meet with School Board Commissioner Sherry Dillihay-McDade, along with other MCPSS administrators, to voice their concerns. Parents expressed their frustration with the meeting, during which they say administrators “passed the buck” for blame and did not share the same concerns over the presence of mold in the building, though they did agree to test the building for mold and share that information with parents, as well as quarterly air quality testing.
“It’s not that we don’t believe [what MCPSS has said], we want to see the proof,” Goleman said. “We want to see the reports for ourselves so that we know that whenever these kids go back in, we can trust what they’re telling us.”
Parents at the meeting were shown the results from asbestos testing that had been recently conducted and showed that asbestos levels were at an acceptable level.
Dillihay-McDade said by the end of the meeting, parents and administrators agreed that students, faculty and staff would not be allowed in Dunbar if it was not deemed safe to do so. She said it is the job of maintenance staff at each school to get rid of mold once it has been found. Leading up to its reopening, maintenance staff from across the county system are working in Dunbar to prepare it for the first day of school, she said.
According to Dillihay-McDade, Dunbar is “on a list” for infrastructure projects, but the district does not have the funds and is waiting on money to come in from the federal government.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure that all of our schools are ready to receive students on August 11,” she said. “We want to make sure that all of our schools are safe, that all of our schools are clean.”
Administrators agreed to give parents a walk-through of Dunbar before Aug. 11 following the recent construction and maintenance work. If parents do not believe the school is safe for their children, many have already discussed not letting their children inside and instead protesting in front of the school.
“We are fighting as hard as we can for everyone,” Osborne-Beck said. “We’ve told them we want [the air quality reports] before the teachers have to go back in there on the fifth. But I can’t guarantee that’s going to happen. It’s just not enough time.”
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