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A Lesson From a Winner Of a Teacher

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C01

The National Teachers Hall of Fame induction ceremony had been kept secret. John F. Mahoney, a math and robotics teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District, was supposed to be surprised. Perhaps, as is typical on such occasions, he'd gush with gratitude upon receiving the award and maybe even cite it as evidence of the city's commitment to education.

But Mahoney, who taught at Sidwell Friends before going to Banneker four years ago, had a surprise of his own. During a school assembly Tuesday that included several city officials, the 57-year-old Quaker declared: "For over 50 years, the District and federal governments have effectively ignored the children of this city. . . . The government is rebuilding schools in Iraq but is ignoring the schools where its own employees send their children. . . . The greatness of D.C. will, in the end, not be measured by its museums, its convention center or its baseball team but by how it deals with its future -- by educating its children."

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Mahoney was the talk of the school. His remarks provided students and teachers alike with a much-needed antidote to a nearly nauseating overdose of hype that accompanied last week's return of professional baseball to the city.

"I liked how you said we didn't need a new baseball stadium when our schools are falling apart," April Barnes, 15, told Mahoney outside his classroom Friday. "We need new materials, and they are not putting the money where it counts."

Mahoney asked her to tell me about the girls' restroom.

"There's not always tissue in there," April said, sounding disgusted. "We need tissue."

Noah Ward, 17, and Tiffany Robinson, 16, were all smiles when they saw Mahoney. Both are members of the school's robotics team. Mahoney is a faculty adviser. The team's achievements -- which include the creation of a six-foot-tall robot -- played a central role in helping Mahoney become one of five teachers nationally and the first from the District to be inducted into the Teachers Hall of Fame.

"You've got people downtown with ideas about education that are affordable but unworkable," Tiffany said. "When students say: 'This is what we need; this is what works,' they say we can't afford it. Money for a new baseball stadium, just not for school supplies. But it's still children first, right? Excuse me if I almost forgot."

Noah added: "We've got holes in the ceilings with buckets underneath to catch the dripping water. We've got broken radiators and Internet access for only about an hour a day. Now, instead of giving the students and teachers more support, they're talking about cutting teachers and staff. It's the opposite of being helpful."

Mahoney introduced me to Barbara Bennett, chairman of the World Languages Department and a founder of Banneker in 1981. "She's the one who really deserves to be in the Teachers Hall of Fame," he said. Then he pointed to the windows in her classroom.

"They look great, but they're real cheapo," he said. "You can't open them."

Bennett said: "We call them 'the guillotines' because if you do manage to get one open, it won't stay up. It'll fall down on you."

The floors creaked in the office where Vernita Jefferson works as head student counselor. "Termites," Mahoney explained. "Someday the whole floor is going to cave in."

Bad as conditions are at Banneker, there are seven other D.C. high schools that are even worse.

Patricia Long Tucker, the principal, was pleased even as she bemoaned the crumbling ceiling near her office. Mahoney's award and remarks had done wonders for school pride. But there was something else. For years, she had been trying to get the burned-out house lights in the school auditorium replaced. Students could not be seen during evening assemblies, and there was never enough light to take good photographs. Then came the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with the mayor and school superintendent scheduled to stop by for photo ops.

Suddenly, the school auditorium was slated to get new lights -- virtually overnight.

Maybe that'll be Mahoney's legacy: that he brought light to Banneker, and in doing so helped illuminate the hypocrisy and potential of a newly rich city and its poor old schools.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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