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.”