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D.C. schools get a fresh start, thanks to volunteers

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With the first day of school two days away, D.C. public school officials on Saturday made a final push to spruce up 105 campuses with the help of more than 4,100 volunteers.

The annual Beautification Day was all about last-minute details. The volunteers — the biggest group since the event started six years ago — painted doors, planted flower beds and replaced chalk boards with dry-erase boards. The workers included members of the Washington Capitals hockey team, the D.C. United soccer team and the D.C. National Guard, as well as a son of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“To be here at a school named after my dad and to see the themes and points of his life up on the walls is special,” said John Marshall, 53, who helped paint a mural inside Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Northeast.

The start of the school year has become a closely watched event in the District as a basic test of competency for the school system’s leadership. This will be the first full school year presided over by Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Mayor Vincent C. Gray, whose defeat of former mayor Adrian Fenty was widely seen as a referendum on the hard-charging style of his handpicked schools chief, Michelle Rhee. Henderson was Rhee’s deputy.

Some buildings need more freshening up than others. Last week, the school system reopened Wilson High School in Northwest after a $115 million renovation and opened the new airy H.D. Woodson High School, which replaced a grim — some have even said “post-apocalyptic” — 1970s-era tower.

By contrast, Spingarn is 70 years old and looks it. Tiles are missing. Paint is peeling. Windows need to be replaced.

The main mission of the 50 or so D.C. National Guard members who went to Spingarn on Saturday was to paint doors.

In a first-floor stairwell, Staff Sgt. Valerie Robinson, 31, of Clinton carefully put blue painter’s tape around a door frame.

Robinson attended night classes at Spingarn while she was in high school, which enabled her to graduate on time from Luke C. Moore Academy. She joined the Guard after high school and credits it with setting her on the right track.

Working with her was Maj. Derek Demby, 43, of Baltimore. Demby was her commanding officer during her last deployment to Iraq three years ago. Within days of arriving, a member of their military police unit was killed by a makeshift bomb.

“That part of combat was stressful,” Robinson said. “But it made us a better unit.”

Over at Marshall Elementary, Capitals forward Matt Hendricks steered a garden tiller outside as a couple dozen volunteers dressed in identical red Caps T-shirts waited to start planting.

Hendricks, who lives in Minnesota, just happened to be in town. Players don’t tend to stick around in the off-season. But new principal Sharon Wells, 36, made good use of him. After he finished tilling, he was sent to install shelves.

Hendricks was part of the reason that John Marshall ended up crouched upstairs, dabbing paint on a wall.

“When I have to tell something about my dad that is not in the history books, it’s that he was a big hockey fan,” said Marshall, a former Virginia state trooper who later served as Gov. Tim Kaine’s secretary of public safety.

Thurgood Marshall learned to love the sport after his sons took it up. John Marshall remembers his father ferrying him and his brother, Thurgood Marshall Jr., to the now-closed Washington Coliseum in the late 1960s for practices. John Marshall continued playing hockey in college and now coaches youth hockey at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast.

Wells said she teared up when she heard the former justice’s son was coming to help out. The Caps, who adopted the school for the year, are also donating a smart board — a digital chalk board. And the volunteers built a table that will be used to teach robotics.

Such projects would likely have taken much longer and cost more to complete without outside help, Wells said.

“I feel like I’ve been sprinkled with fairy dust,” she said.

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