At Cardozo school, high hopes for a cultural transformation to match physical one

(Amanda Voisard/ The Washington Post ) - Eleventh-graders Kendifer Herrera, 18, left, and Alejandro Figaro, 18, right, embrace as school begins at Cardozo High School on Monday in Washington.

(Amanda Voisard/ The Washington Post ) - Eleventh-graders Kendifer Herrera, 18, left, and Alejandro Figaro, 18, right, embrace as school begins at Cardozo High School on Monday in Washington.

Headlines have carried bad news about the District’s Cardozo Senior High for decades, directing attention to its low graduation rates, fistfights and shootings. But this year, as it opened Monday as the renamed Cardozo Education Campus, school officials are determined to reinvent the school.

The young principal replaced most of the staff and beefed up the administrative team to control student behavior. And the school just moved into its new $130 million home, a stunning gut-job renovation of a grand old edifice perched on a prominent ridge in Columbia Heights.

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Gone is the crumbling interior, with dingy halls and windows that were stuck shut. Teachers hope that the new building, with its broad corridors, central staircase and skylights, will inspire students.

“There’s a different vibe in the air, and I really believe that it’s going to be a different year,” said Tanya Roane, who is beginning her second year as Cardozo’s principal. “Once we get the culture and climate right at Cardozo, academic achievement will follow.”

Cardozo embodies the challenge that traditional public schools — and neighborhood high schools in particular — face across much of the city. The school is in a gentrifying neighborhood filled with affluent young families, but enrollment is down from five years ago as parents have increasingly chosen selective magnet schools and fast-growing charters.

The school brimmed with optimism Monday. Volunteers offered an energetic welcome, chanting as students made their way up the front steps, down a red carpet and through an arch of purple and white balloons.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) paid a visit, telling a classroom of 12-year-olds that they were making history as the first sixth-graders at Cardozo, which expanded to middle school this year.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson said that the school showed promise under Roane’s leadership last year, when Cardozo was housed in temporary quarters nearby. “Now in a real building, she and her team will be able to make the magic happen,” Henderson said.

The 1916 building commands a sweeping view of the city, from the Washington Monument to the Capitol and beyond. For decades it held an elite all-white school, Central High, swelling to more than 3,000 students before enrollment began to dwindle in the 1940s.

In 1950, city officials closed Central to make way for Cardozo, an all-black school that had far outgrown its original building.

The building slowly fell into disrepair. Furniture broke and was not replaced. Rodents scurried in and out of holes in the wall. The swimming pool sat unused and dirty, and Cardozo basketball teams haven’t played a home game since 1954 because the old court was smaller than regulation size and its emergency-exit doors opened to a 60-foot drop.

“It felt like a prison,” said Dana Davis, a 2006 Cardozo graduate who toured the building in mid-August. “Now when we walk in, it feels like a school.”

Classrooms are loaded with technology. The new gymnasium is ready to host games. A swimming pool is on the way.

“We got all the bells and whistles, so you got no excuse not to be the best students in the country,” English teacher Frazier O’Leary, who has taught at Cardozo since 1976, told a group of juniors Monday.

Fewer than a third of Cardozo students were proficient in math and reading on the latest round of citywide standardized tests. About four in 10 graduated on time in 2012.

Sophomore Asher Young, who acknowledged that he spent much of last year skipping class, said he was “speechless” when he walked through the front door Monday.

“More kids are going to stay in their classrooms instead of being in the hallways,” said Young, 18. “As soon as you come into the building, you feel motivated already. Last year there was no motivation. Now it’s like you can do it, you can make it through high school.”

Poverty is so pervasive that the entire school qualifies for free meals. One-third of students are in special education, and nearly that many are learning English as a second language. Neighborhood rivalries follow teens into class, sometimes sparking violence. Truancy is a chronic problem.

School officials are working to reset expectations for behavior at Cardozo, where it has not been uncommon for knots of students to wander the halls and for fights to break out during lunchtime.

Forty-seven students who were repeating ninth grade are now attending alternative schools, a move teachers said could help change Cardozo’s culture.

There are new rules, and there are more administrators, deans and security guards to enforce them. Electronics are no longer allowed inside; security guards collect cellphones each morning as students enter the building. Uniforms are required, and anyone who shows up in street clothes gets a loaner outfit for the day.

Many staff members said they welcome the discipline and think that Roane has what it takes to reshape the school’s culture. But it’s clear that the path won’t be easy to navigate.

O’Leary’s orderly English class erupted Monday morning when one student, without warning and for no apparent reason, stood up and attacked the boy sitting next to him. The ensuing scuffle — with punches and overturned desks — lasted a matter of seconds before O’Leary broke it up and escorted the boys to a security guard. Within two minutes, O’Leary had returned to his classroom and resumed his lesson.

While school staff said such classroom disruptions are rare, the episode shows the challenge that Cardozo faces as it tries to transform.

Some teachers said they are concerned about how they will deter and deal with serious altercations this year. The school used to have two dedicated police officers, but it now will share “roving” officers with other schools. The Metropolitan Police Department made the shift in part to provide coverage to a growing number of charter middle schools, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said.

“The quality of services will not change,” Crump wrote in an e-mail. But science teacher Wagma Mommandi said that although she has full confidence in school administrators, she is concerned about the new police policy.

“I want to have an officer in the building, it just makes sense, everyone feels safer and more secure,” Mommandi wrote in an e-mail. “Calling 911 isn’t really a fast enough option if there is a true emergency.”

Roane said she thinks her team is equipped to handle situations that arise.

Cardozo has been rebuilt to house 1,100 students. This year, the school’s projected enrollment is just less than 700 — including the students it absorbed when its feeder middle school, Shaw at Garnet-
Patterson, closed in June.

Many parents have refused to send their children to Shaw and Cardozo, often choosing instead to enroll in a charter or private school or move to the suburbs. At Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle, for example, parents have been pushing for officials to change the destination middle school for their children from Shaw to Hardy, in Georgetown.

“For 10 years we haven’t sent kids to Shaw,” Ross parent Jonathan Grossman said during a PTA meeting last spring. “We’re not going to send kids to Shaw.”

But teachers and administrators are optimistic that the building, and the work that happens inside the building, will change perceptions of the school. Already, it seems to be making a difference for some parents.

On Monday, the mother of one sixth-grader said she felt confident — after touring the school and seeing the middle school’s third-floor quarters — that her son would be kept separate from older teens.

“I wasn’t going to let him come at first, but they assured me that he would get a top education and that he would be safe,” parent Rita Houston said.

Monique Edwards-Kellam, another parent of a sixth-grader, said she, too, is excited about the opportunity for her daughter to take a range of electives that wouldn’t be available at a regular middle school.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said of the new Cardozo. “It’s an excellent start to a bright future for these kids.”

 
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