A Brand-New Start at Wise High

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

On Monday, more than 133,000 students in Prince George's County begin another school year. More than 40,000 of them are bound for high school. And 1,900 will inaugurate the impressive Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro.

In a county where the variable quality of school facilities divides communities into haves and have-nots, the Wise students will have a 5,000-seat gymnasium (larger than any other in the county school system), an indoor track circling the gym's upper level, an auxiliary gym, a 950-seat performing arts center with box seating designed in an acoustic-enhancing style similar to the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, an intimate black box theater, a weight room, a cardio fitness room, a mirrored dance room, an aerobics room, a band room, a vocal music room, three lecture halls, three computer labs (each with 30 new Dell desktops), a greenhouse and more. Lots more.

That is what $92 million can buy.

"This is a dynamite facility," said Frances Campbell, chairman of Wise's physical education department. "It's every physical education teacher's dream come true."

Asked to name the best feature in her department's wing, Campbell said: "I can't name one. There's just so much."

Campbell was exclaiming over the athletic facilities, but she might as well have been talking about the whole campus. What has been built on 55 acres on Brooke Lane, between Brown Station and Ritchie Marlboro roads, far surpasses the other 21 major high school campuses in the county.

Only the main building of Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale, which opened six years ago and has many of the same design elements, comes close to the quality of the 432,579-square-foot main building of Wise High. Many other high school campuses in the county are in fair, poor or even crumbling condition.

Funding for Wise High was controversial during the tenure of former schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. He pushed to obtain an additional $6.5 million for the gymnasium over the objections of County Council members, raising the school's total cost to $92 million. Critics said that the gym was an extravagance and that the money would be better spent on fixing up schools elsewhere. But Hornsby prevailed.

For new county schools chief John E. Deasy, Wise High is an opportunity and a challenge -- an opportunity to start a new high school's culture from scratch; a challenge to establish academic standards on par with the extraordinary physical structure of the campus. Deasy, who previously led school systems in Santa Monica, Calif., and Rhode Island, said he has never started a high school from scratch.

"It's not about the space," Deasy said. "It's about what they do with the space."

"They" are the school's 1,900 students -- freshmen, sophomores and juniors only in the first year -- and 112 teachers.

Deasy and Wise High Principal Monica Goldson gave a tour of the campus the other day as workers hustled to apply the finishing touches inside. The scent of fresh varnish filled the stage in the main auditorium; gleaming weight machines were being unpacked in a fitness room.

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