With Less and Less, Some at Eastern High Just Try Harder and Harder

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

T he jewels of Eastern High, a school once so esteemed and popular that it turned students away, have been buried in neglect.

The choir, which once toured the globe collecting accolades, is in limbo. The baseball team has had to play most of its home games across town at Banneker High because no one bothered to mow Eastern's own field, which lies but one block from RFK Stadium.

The band, once a powerhouse that marched in three presidential inauguration parades, "kind of fell off," says Sandra Odom, president of the Band Parents Association. Despite rusting 40-year-old instruments and "the raggedyest uniforms in the world," the Blue and White Marching Machine would send nearly all of its graduates to college.

But the band "hasn't done anything this year," Odom says. Membership is down by half. "Kids used to come out of middle school knowing an instrument, but they cut the budget of the arts, so now they come to high school without the basics. Some of these kids come from the roughest places. Band was the only thing that kept them focused. Those kids were hungry for it."

A decade ago, Eastern attracted a student body of nearly 2,000. Now it struggles to reach 800. The school has had six principals in seven years. D.C. School Superintendent Clifford Janey has proposed putting Eastern out of its misery and reinventing the 83-year-old building as the D.C. Latin School, with a focus on foreign languages and the humanities.

"It's as if your best friend died and we've been in mourning for years," says Reynauld Smith, a history teacher at Eastern for 20 years. "The air's been sucked out of the place."

Yet "there's still a contingent of kids who are serious about education, come early and stay late and get involved in any activities we still have," says Smith, whose Advanced Placement American history class was cut back from a full-year course to a single semester this year, making it impossible to cover the curriculum, sentencing the kids to low scores on the AP test. "There's still a ray of hope here."

Here are three of them: Brittney Wright, who just won a Trachtenberg Scholarship that will pay all her costs at George Washington University starting in the fall; LaToya Welch, whose Gates Millennium Scholarship gives her a free ride at Syracuse University; and Natasha Metts, who won a Herb Denton Scholarship that will pay her way at the college she chooses.

"It can be challenging to hear people put you down because they say Eastern isn't a good education," says Welch, who lives in Northeast and decided to attend Eastern over her neighborhood school to be in its choir.

Wright, who was also attracted by Eastern's choir and band, knows all about the choir's tragic decline but says, "I try not to focus on factors like that. The things other schools have should be available to anyone, but the fact that we have to fight for everything makes us stronger. Life is not going to be handed to you. It's not fair, but that's life."

Smith took Metts and four other students to the Dominican Republic last month for a Model UN competition. Eastern's team won second place and got one of its resolutions passed.

"It was my first plane ride," says Shelia Lewis, a junior who credits the extracurricular program with pushing her out of her shell and teaching her how to organize her thoughts.

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