Back to previous page


Post Most

D.C. area students face variety of classrooms, from high tech to temporary

By and and Jeremy Borden,

As administrators walk through empty halls and plan for a school year just around the corner, the state of those empty classrooms varies widely across the region.

Some educators and students will go to brand-new buildings, filled with state-of-the-art technology. Others will return to older campuses in need of renovation and repair. Some might settle in for a lesson in a trailer or mobile classroom.

Throughout the area, educators grappling with limited financial resources are nonetheless working to provide an engaging learning environment for 21st-century students.

In the District, new classrooms are, for those who have followed the issue over the years, a sight for sore eyes after decades of dealing with aging structures. Mary Filardo, executive director of the District-based 21st Century Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on school construction, said the group has pushed D.C. officials to fully fund the school system’s modernization plan.

That has taken different forms throughout the city. Growing Ward 3 has had new school construction, while the expansion of charter schools in other areas has led school officials to partner with charter leaders to find ways to reuse old D.C. school sites, Filardo said.

Some schools are deemed too antiquated to renovate. Historic Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington will be knocked down to make way for a new high school. H.D. Woodson in Northeast Washington was rebuilt and opened last year.

During former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s administration, the city prioritized improving classrooms to attract and retain teachers. Now, entire structures are getting makeovers.

“It’s been so important for the teachers, the students and the families,” Filardo said.

Schools in the Maryland suburbs, such as Prince George’s County, are also facing major renovations, and new campuses can’t get built fast enough in rapidly growing Northern Virginia.

Since 2000, Loudoun County’s school enrollment has more than doubled, to about 68,000 students. The number of students in Prince William County public schools has also increased and is projected to reach nearly 84,000 this fall. Those numbers still fall far short of Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, with more than 177,000 students.

The escalating influx of new students over a comparably short time has posed a significant logistical and financial challenge. To keep up, Loudoun has opened 38 schools since the 2000-01 academic year: 22 elementary schools, eight middle schools and eight high schools. This fall, two more will open — Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Leesburg and John Champe High School in Aldie — and three others are under construction, officials said.

“There’s certainly the pressure that growth will continue,” said Kevin Lewis, director of construction for Loudoun public schools.

Finding appropriate school sites has been increasingly difficult. Elementary and middle schools in Loudoun have historically been one-story buildings, but new schools are two stories with a more compact structure, Lewis said.

A stroll through Loudoun’s most recently opened high schools — Woodgrove in Purcellville and Tuscarora in Leesburg — highlights the outcome of efforts to keep pace with enrollment and provide an engaging educational environment. Tall ceilings, broad hallways painted in neutral colors and state-of-the-art classroom technology abound in the sprawling buildings.

Prince William schools officials also focus on the school environment itself when creating a new space where students will learn. New schools are outfitted with cutting-edge technology, such as interactive boards, and aesthetics designed to stimulate and inspire young minds: soothing pastel hues, enclosed outdoor courtyards that allow natural light to filter in and high windows above rows of lockers.

Michael Bishop, principal of the 283,000-square-foot, $92.6 million Patriot High School in Nokesville, said opening the school offered new challenges even for a veteran educator, such as the kitchen for Cafe Synergy, which hosts the school’s culinary arts course.

“I didn’t know a darn thing about culinary,” Bishop said. “I’d never run a restaurant, so I had to learn.”

The new classroom kitchen for future top chefs reflects today’s trends, with a huge cooking space that rivals a Ruby Tuesday, as Bishop puts it. Those evolutionary steps are evident across the curriculum: Shop has become engineering and robotics, and basic computer and typing classes are replaced with courses that emphasize more in-depth technical skills.

As educators plan to open Ronald Wilson Reagan Middle School in booming Haymarket, they’re also planning for the inevitable. In two years or less, the school might be filled to capacity.

Still, fresh environs are exciting.

“It’s nice to start over,” teacher Deb Wolfe said as she set up her new classroom at Reagan Middle recently.

But some Prince William students are still spending time in classroom trailers, or mobile classrooms. There are 203 in use in Prince William, reflecting the county’s growing pains.

Dave Cline, an associate superintendent who oversees financial and construction issues, said Prince William’s trailers could be eliminated for $175 million, money the school division doesn’t have.

The system spends $60 million to $80 million annually to keep pace with the addition of 2,500 students every year, money that is typically spent on building renovations in the older, more developed eastern end of the county and new schools in the western part, Cline said.

Although enrollment throughout the rest of the region is steady or growing, Prince George’s schools have faced the opposite problem. The system had a nearly 10 percent drop in enrollment from the 2010-11 academic year and last year. The county opened one new school, Greenbelt Middle School, on Monday. Despite recent enrollment challenges, school officials said enrollment is projected to grow in coming years. To accommodate that, the construction of four schools and major renovations are underway.

Even without a soaring enrollment, the cost of school construction and renovation projects is a constant obstacle, Prince George’s officials said.

“The primary challenge to school construction is rising costs and insufficient funding,” said Briant Coleman, spokesman for Prince George’s schools.

The best part of a new building is creating a new culture and the excitement and anxiety that comes with welcoming students for the first time.

As she strolled an empty hallway at Reagan Middle, Assistant Principal Amy Alexander looked forward to the possibilities. “I just can’t wait for the students to get here,” she said.

© The Washington Post Company