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School Pictures: Crisis at Coolidge

Amid Disrepair, Students 'Just Can't Think'

Sweltering Heat, Faulty Bathrooms Top List of Woes

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page DZ10

This is why 10th-grade student Marvin Austin says he sometimes finds it hard to concentrate on his work at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School:

It is always too hot, there is only one functioning water fountain, the lighting is too dim to see well, and most of the bathrooms don't work most of the time, forcing students to race around the three-story building looking for a functioning toilet. Some are late for class; others wait -- uncomfortably -- for the school day to end.


Coolidge High Principal Cecil Robinson, looking at water damage in a bathroom ceiling, warns that "when a school is in disrepair, there is a lack of pride." (Larry Morris -- The Post)

Help Us Focus On Your School: This periodic series explores the conditions in D.C. public schools. If you know of a school in poor -- or pristine -- shape, let us know. Our mailing address is District Extra, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail us at dcextra@washpost.com.

_____Discussion_____
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Valerie Strauss was online to field questions about D.C. schools.

_____School Profiles_____
At Shepherd Elementary, Failing Windows Offer a Sorry View
At Coolidge, the Flaws Run Deep
At Dilapidated Bruce-Monroe, Empty Promises Are a Constant
Full Report: School Pictures

_____More_____
Photos: D.C.'s Troubled Schools
Forum: Talk About D.C. Schools


_____Audio_____
At a luncheon with Washington Post reporters and editors, new D.C. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey outlined his position on key issues regarding the troubled system:
Management Policies
Course Schedules
Superintendent's Role
School Facilities

_____D.C. Schools_____
Cultivating Kindness Toward Animals (The Washington Post, Apr 7, 2005)
D.C. Hired Principal Who Harassed Subordinate (The Washington Post, Apr 7, 2005)
25% of City Teachers Short on Credentials, Janey Says (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Diverse U.S. Throngs Mourn Leader, While Thoughts Turn to His Successor (The Washington Post, Apr 4, 2005)
More D.C. Schools News

"Sometimes I just can't think," said Austin, 15.

School engineer Lamont Hopson says he takes Austin's points, but he is more worried about the things the students can't see:

The school, built 70 years ago, still has cancer-causing asbestos in its walls, and the electrical wiring is original and blows out lightbulbs as fast as janitors can put them in. He said he doesn't know what to make of the basement and sub-basement, where room after room sit empty, with crumbling paint, broken walls, watery floors covered with patches of growing fungus. They were left empty well over a decade ago.

Out of sight from students, too, are six spacious, well-lighted rooms on the top floor that have been "condemned" and closed, mostly because of leaks in the roof that allow rain to pour down on the beautiful original oak floors, causing planks to buckle and walls to crumble.

"They say, 'Children First,' " said Keith Beasley, assistant custodial foreman, referring to a slogan once adopted by the D.C. school system. "I can't tell." His children attend school in Oxon Hill.

Once Coolidge, on Fifth Street NW, was a beautiful, filled-to-capacity school with spacious rooms and soaring hallways decorated with marble and solid wood doors. The huge student theater had a state-of-the-art lighting panel.

Today the theater's curtains are ripped, the walls have long-standing water damage, and bulbs are missing from the panel. The theater conditions are symbols of the deterioration caused by years of neglect from officials who promised, over and over, to fix the problems but did too little, according to school staff members, parents and administrators.

Gregory Williams, director of the Facilities Management Department of the school system, said he realizes the Coolidge community is fedup .

"I can understand how they feel about being shortchanged," he said. "Unfortunately, our annual capital budget needs are about $400 million, and we are getting about $100 milion in our budget. So that other $300 million just gets deferred. . . . I agree the school needs more work."

But parents and other Coolidge stakeholders say deferred maintenance isn't the only problem. Even when facilities personnel come to the school, they often bring no tools and never return to fix the problem, they said.

And they say there are questions about how, and in what order, problems are tackled. For example, Beasley said, last Friday, rain leaked onto a newly installed heater, causing damage that would not be covered by the warranty. In another room, an easily fixable hole in the floor has kept that space unusable for two years.

Williams noted that the school has had some improvements, including new windows installed a few years ago. New Principal Cecil Robinson said about 96 percent of those are working, although many do not have metal guards outside that should have been part of the installation. Williams also said some doors have been fixed, but some security doors have broken locks that must be chained; numerous doors inside do not close properly, and many have no handles.

Student enrollment has slowly dwindled, in large part because of the conditions, teachers and administrators say. Once the school was filled to its capacity, with more than 1,000 students. Last year, it had 795 students. On Sept. 30, the official preliminary count was 62 fewer, down to 733. In October, the number stood at 674.

"How can a school be conducive to learning if we don't make the building climate inviting?" asked teacher Elaine M. Moore, who dreams about replacing the World War II-era storage cabinet she has in her class with a real closet. Then, she said, she could remove the orange plastic table skirts she purchased with her own money to hide unsightly boxes of equipment.

"Who wants to be here in these conditions?" she said.

Indeed, students sometimes act out, school staff members said, breaking lights or leaning on water fountains and at least one bathroom sink until they become separated from the wall.

Students say they get tired of the same old problems -- and non-working bathrooms is an old one. In 1996, a local builder became so disgusted after reading a newspaper story detailing school bathrooms with the stench of urine, missing toilet stall doors and other problems that he sent a team of workers to repair bathrooms at several schools.

But the problem didn't go away, and last year, fed-up high school students protested in front of the school system's headquarters on North Capitol Street, demanding better bathroom facilities. The D.C. Board of Education, moved into taking some action, voted 8-1 for a resolution requiring that at least one bathroom be open for boys and one for girls on each floor of every school. Students and administrators at school say there is no way to enforce the regulation.

Beasley and Hopson say most of the school's facilities problems are not caused by the students.

"This is about the adults," said Hopson, adding that he can't understand how city officials can talk about building a baseball stadium when Coolidge needs to be fixed.

"Do you know how many schools you could build with $440 million, if supervised right?" said Hopson, referring to one estimate of how much a new stadium will cost in the District.

The poor conditions fuel low enrollment, which itself makes it more difficult for the school system to commit large sums to fix Coolidge, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to renovate D.C. public school buildings.

Terry Goings, president of Coolidge's Parent-Teacher Association, said for years parents kept quiet about problems at the school, but those days are over.

"We are so sick of it," he said.

The PTA has planned the first stage of a "Beautification Program," scheduling it for this Saturday. Tired of waiting for the school system to take action, the PTA and school officials organized community groups to come to the school and start to tidy it up with donated mulch, leaf blowers, edgers, shovels, wheelbarrows and other equipment. Students will be there to help, too, receiving community service hours for their efforts.

Sometime next year, Robinson said, a second phase will involve painting inside, removal of graffiti and minor repairs -- all with donated time.

"When a school is in disrepair, there is a lack of pride," said Robinson. "We have to help change the school culture. And we have to get the school fixed."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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