A hopeful moment as new H.D. Woodson High School opens its doors

The eight-story “Tower of Power” is gone, and with it the escalators so balky that they made Metro’s seem reliable. So are the bleak stretches of windowless concrete that gave H.D. Woodson the look and feel of a penal institution rather than a high school in far Northeast Washington.

On Wednesday, District officials will cut the ribbon on a new $102 million Woodson, one bathed in natural light from expansive windows and a central atrium. Graphic panels running the length of the four-level main staircase will feature images touching on the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum and pay tribute to figures from Einstein and Edison to astronaut Mae Jemison and Euphemia Lofton Haynes, the first African American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics. Classrooms and laboratories that were either freezing or stifling in the old Woodson are now habitable and loaded with technology.

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Officials hope that when students begin classes Aug. 22 after spending three years in temporary spaces — ninth-graders at Ron Brown Middle School on Meade Street in Northeast, the rest at the former Fletcher-Johnson Education Center on Benning Road in Southeast — the new surroundings will help lift spirits and aspirations.

“It says something to the students and to the community that the District is serious about preparing its youth for the new, technologically advanced job market,” said Principal Thomas Whittle. “They see hope.”

The reborn Woodson in Ward 7 is part of a long-awaited renewal for public high schools east of the Anacostia River. On Monday, the Academies at Anacostia — the renamed Anacostia High School, now operated by Friendship Public Charter School — will celebrate completion of the first phase of a major overhaul. The Vincent C. Gray administration recently announced that Ballou High School in Ward 8’s Congress Heights neighborhood will be completely rebuilt, rather than modernized as originally planned.

In Northwest Washington’s Ward 3, Woodrow Wilson High School will reopen this month after a $124 million modernization. Janney Elementary underwent an overhaul that includes a new science lab, media center and underground garage. All the school projects are the product of a $1.8 billion reconstruction and modernization of the city school system started in 2007.

The old Woodson High School, named for Northeast architect and civic leader Howard Dilworth Woodson, was a source of pride for its high standards and sports dominance. But the tower that loomed over the Deanwood neighborhood became an outsized symbol of the District government’s dysfunction. It was hailed as a state-of-the-art campus when it opened in 1972, but when money for maintenance didn’t materialize, water from broken pipes cascaded through the building, and students trudged to class up the long flights of stairs because the escalators were frequently broken. The swimming pool was so grimy that a coach scrawled the words “dirty” and “help” along the bottom.

“It was a real nightmare,” said Aona Jefferson, who spent 34 years as a Woodson teacher, assistant principal and principal.

The new eight-lane pool, pristine and competition-worthy, will be available to the public, along with a 1,000-seat auditorium. The classroom levels look like those of a small suburban community college. Space can be reconfigured and subdivided for small groups and special projects.

The building is greener than a billiards table. Seventy-five percent of the roof is covered with vegetation to absorb rainwater and control interior temperatures. A harvesting system stores rainwater and backwash from the pool in cisterns and provides recycled water to the toilets.

Designers said they tried to infuse the new building with links to the past, down to the school’s red, black and green color scheme.

“There’s a tremendous pride here,” said architect Bill Spack of the firm Cox Graae + Spack. “It wasn’t necessarily love of the [old] structure as much as love of the community. We talked a lot about how we can reflect that pride in the new building.”

Although some studies show that students perform better in classrooms with lots of daylight, a gleaming new school doesn’t guarantee improved academic standing. Woodson has never made adequate yearly progress in reading or math scores in the eight years that the federal No Child Left Behind law has been on the books. Just 13 percent of the 163 sophomores who took the 2011 DC CAS read or did math at proficiency level or better. Students must also contend with a culture of violence in many of their neighborhoods. In April, Ra-Heem Jackson, a junior honors student and basketball star, was fatally shot near his Congress Heights home.

Whittle is concerned that the sleek new campus filled with expensive equipment and far more open and accessible than its battened-down predecessor, will be a target for neighborhood thieves, who stole football bleachers for the aluminum when the old school was razed. “The District has invested a lot of money in this school but very little in the security of it,” he said.

For the moment, the Woodson community is focused on celebrating. Ulysses McFadden, a 1979 alumnus, visited one day last week as workers scrambled to finish up before Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting. He liked what he saw.

“I feel very proud of it,” he said. “It’s a small touch of the old school, but not too much.”

 
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