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NE School Begins Second Life

Kelly Miller Opens Doors as All-New Learning Center

By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page DZ08

Nearly eight years after its original building was closed, Kelly Miller Middle School reopens Sept. 1 as the first D.C. public middle school to be built from the ground up in decades.

The school, at 215-217 49th St. NE, stands as a gleaming exception to the shabby condition of many city public schools. Last week, workers were still applying finishing touches to the school, which will have the capacity for 600 students from the sixth through eighth grades.


Principal Robert W. Gill Sr. says Kelly Miller Middle School will offer students an "optimal environment" for learning. (Hans Ericsson For The Washington Post)

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Kelly Miller's 614-seat auditorium has stadium-style seating. The school library -- a "media center" -- has two-story-high windows, through which light poured on a recent morning. Inside the brightly lit gymnasium, the name of the school is inscribed on the waxed wooden floor in the school's colors: maroon and white, with gold trim. The 118,000-square-foot structure is climate-controlled throughout.

"This is a wonderful backdrop for learning," said Robert W. Gill Sr., who was named principal at Kelly Miller last month. "When students come here, they will really feel encouraged to learn. The temperatures are right. The lighting is right. They have an optimal environment."

Kelly Miller is nestled in an economically diverse neighborhood that includes tidy brick houses, but also tracts of vacant public housing slated for redevelopment.

It is built on the site of the former Kelly Miller Junior High School, an art deco building completed in 1949. It was designed by Nathan C. Wyeth, the architect of the Recorder of Deeds building and the D.C. Armory, two landmarks of Washington's architectural history.

Six days before Christmas 1996, then-Superintendent Julius W. Becton Jr. abruptly closed Kelly Miller, ordering its staff and 280 students to report to nearby Evans Middle School after the winter break.

Becton, a retired Army lieutenant general who ran the schools from 1996 to 1998 as the city emerged from a fiscal emergency, later ordered 10 other schools closed, citing their dilapidated condition and low enrollments. Kelly Miller was two-thirds empty when it closed.

Community pressure to reopen the school has been steady. A feasibility study recommended replacing the old school in late 2000, and demolition occurred the next year. A construction contract was awarded in February 2002. The opening of the school was originally slated for December 2003.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which works on school modernization and construction projects in the District under a 1998 agreement, helped oversee the project.

In most respects the design of the school is traditional. The main entrance opens into an administrative wing, with the library above. To the north is a wing that includes the gymnasium, cafeteria, music room and auditorium. To the south is the instructional wing, with sixth-graders on the first floor, seventh-graders on the second and eighth-graders on the third.

"I'm new here," Gill joked while giving a visitor a tour recently. "I'm finding my way around."

Gill graduated from Kelly Miller Junior High School in 1961. He said he remembered his three years there as among the happiest of his life. At the time, "We were the only junior high school that had a marching band," said Gill, who later served as band director and assistant principal at Cardozo Senior High School, principal at Roosevelt Senior High School and principal at Johnson Junior High School.

LeGrande Baldwin, who joined the school system in 1969 and was principal at the time of the old school's closing in 1996, came out of retirement to assist Gill and the school system with the reopening as a consultant.

Registration for students living in the school's attendance zone occurred from July 27 to July 29. The new school is inheriting about 425 students from Evans, at 5600 East Capitol St. NE, but the new 25-member instructional staff contains a mixture of teachers from Evans and from other backgrounds.

Evans closed in June, although its building will be used as "swing space" for a charter school and for other educational purposes. The principal, Joyce Thompson, has been transferred to Davis Elementary School as its new principal.

Improving academic performance at Kelly Miller will be Gill's first priority. Evans was recently rated "in need of improvement" after failing to meet test-score benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

In an interview at the school, Gill emphasized that the new instructional staff and the facility have the potential to raise test scores. "It is a different staff, different location, different situation," he said, adding that he has decided to require school uniforms and will institute college readiness and pre-career programs.

The school's namesake was a pioneering African American sociologist and educator who lived from 1863 to 1939. Born in Winnsboro, S.C., to a free father and an enslaved mother, Kelly Miller graduated from Howard University and, as a graduate student, was the first African American admitted to Johns Hopkins University. He joined Howard's faculty in 1890 and later founded its sociology program and served as its dean of arts and sciences.

An essayist and columnist, Miller helped to mediate the debate between Booker T. Washington, who advocated gradual reform as the best way to improve the status of blacks, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who advocated more aggressive opposition to racism. Miller also helped to lay the foundation for what is now the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard.


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