Warm Welcome as Simon Elementary Reopens

H.D. Woodson Senior High senior LaTisha Barnes said her school time has been unproductive this week.
H.D. Woodson Senior High senior LaTisha Barnes said her school time has been unproductive this week. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

With its two boilers running smoothly and its 250 students warm, Simon Elementary School in Southeast Washington reopened for classes yesterday morning. It is the first of four D.C. public schools to resume lessons after being forced to close this week because they lacked heat. School officials said Ludlow-Taylor Elementary in Northeast will reopen Monday.

"We are glad we are back in our building -- it's like being home," said Sean Davis, Simon's instructional facilitator, after two days of classes at the nearby Patricia R. Harris Education Center. "You know where everything is. You know where your books are. You don't have to ask where the bathroom is."

Almost 1,800 students were transferred to other facilities because of heating problems, a situation that disrupted instruction, angered many parents and revealed again what some people consider deplorable physical conditions at some D.C. schools. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey ordered $900,000 in emergency repairs of heating and plumbing systems at 34 schools, including the four that closed. Many students at schools that remained open were shifted to other rooms because of heating problems in sections of buildings.

The problems also have raised questions about why the schools' equipment has deteriorated so badly. School system officials said their 10-year master facilities plan for repairs and replacements, which the Board of Education approved last month, addresses the shortcomings over time.

"We've been drawing down from that plan. . . . I don't think we were operating with the idea that things were going to fall apart. We were making repairs as fast as we could and doing maintenance as fast as we could with the small staff we have," said schools spokesman John C. White. The system hired outside contractors to expedite the repairs.

White said most of the affected schools have been troubled by leaking radiators, broken pump valves that failed to pump air into classrooms, broken heat coils and burst plumbing pipes rather than by broken boilers.

Workers were busy yesterday at the schools that remained closed. At Ludlow-Taylor, they installed a temporary boiler, and "it's ready to roll," White said.

At Johnson Junior High in Southeast, workers were repairing pipes that had burst in the freezing temperatures, but White could not say when it would reopen.

White also was uncertain about a timetable for students to return to H.D. Woodson Senior High School in Northeast, the only high school that was closed. "Nobody knows," he said, adding that Woodson might take the longest to repair.

Woodson has had structural problems for years. Construction of a new school was set to begin in 2002 but has been delayed. In the meantime, officials decided not to undertake substantial repairs.

"Therefore, we got progressively worse," said Woodson Principal Aona Jefferson.

School system officials invited reporters yesterday to Woodson's replacement site, at Evans Education Center, formerly Bruce Evans Junior High, in Northeast, eager to show that reports from students that they were spending all their classroom time chatting on cellphones and talking with friends were exaggerated.

"Children will say what they say. . . . When we have disruptions like this, of course there is criticism," Jefferson said.

At Evans, which is now home to a charter school on the third floor, Woodson students spread out over 19 classrooms. In what was usually the business and finance class yesterday, students were studying math instead.

Jamal Lowe, a 15-year-old sophomore, said things were calming down as the week passed. "You just have to get adjusted to coming here every day," he said. "We still have our basic ritual of learning."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company