At Bruce-Monroe in NW, Heralds of Transformation

Second-grader Erik Campos Ventura, 6, arrives at Bruce-Monroe Elementary.
Second-grader Erik Campos Ventura, 6, arrives at Bruce-Monroe Elementary. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bruce-Monroe Elementary in Columbia Heights opened its doors to students yesterday with huge, colorful "Bienvenidos" and "Welcome" banners and a new wing that had been in the works for more than four years.

This month, the wing was completed under the D.C. public schools' facilities "blitz" program, an initiative designed to complete long-delayed repairs and renovations at certain schools. The wing gives the school two fifth-grade classrooms, two third-grade classrooms, two Head Start classrooms, a library, a computer lab and a special education resource room. The wing is the first step in a long-awaited transformation of Bruce-Monroe from an open, no-walls-style school to a building with more traditional enclosed classrooms -- long desired by school administrators and parents.

As the school's staff celebrated the new wing, it also acknowledged that much work remains to be done to put Bruce-Monroe on a par with the most modern schools in the system.

Principal Marta Palacios said that there are still three more wings to enclose but that the new wing is an encouraging start.

"For years, they never paid attention to us," said Palacios, who has been principal for six years. She said her dealings with the administration of new Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have given her "a feeling of hope and enthusiasm because we see the results. Once we request something or complain, it's fixed -- or least we get a reply. There's more accountability."

Other work executed this month at Bruce-Monroe included new plumbing, fresh paint, repairs to a playground retaining wall and new lights in the classrooms. Such school supplies as copy paper and folders were delivered over the weekend, Palacios said. The custodial staff worked through the weekend and until 1 a.m. yesterday to get the school ready for opening day.

Still, the conditions of Bruce-Monroe, in a working-poor Latino immigrant and African American neighborhood, were a surprise to first-grade dual-language teacher Lynn Hommeyer, who last taught at Key Elementary in the affluent Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington. There, she said, involved parents included Bush administration and World Bank officials, most of whom cooperated in annual fundraising drives that collected almost $100,000 a year to supplement Key's budget. There, a well-appointed playground and garden and state-of-the-art school are givens.

At Bruce-Monroe, with its cracked asphalt playground, dated and damaged furniture and spotty air-conditioning, the school is dependent solely on the central school system office for its budget. Many of the parents work two, sometimes three low-skill, low-wage jobs, making participation, much less financial support, difficult, Palacios said.

Hommeyer and her 20 first-graders began school yesterday on the second floor of one of Bruce-Monroe's older three open-classroom wings -- the air-conditioning nonexistent, the 1970s furniture cracked and worn. The barest bit of air came in through a narrow window panel that was hanging outside its frame, precariously attached to the jam by a piece of blue cable.

"It's too hot in here," said 5-year-old Hector Hernandez as he sat on the floor with a box of plastic blocks.

"Yes, it is," Hommeyer agreed.

"Maybe we can write a grant to get some fans?" she proposed to a visitor.

"This is really a different standard from my old school," said Hommeyer, who wants to explore the possibility of a partnership with the Key PTA to help fund some of Bruce-Monroe's needs, as well as private foundation grant programs. "Why can't all our schools be beautiful places?"

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