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D.C. Schools Blitzed With Paint and Plants
3,200 Volunteers Help Beautify Campuses

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Molly Johnson dipped her roller in a pan of paint and transformed the walls of the nurse's office at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington from drab off-white to sunshine yellow.

"It's very bright and cheerful," Johnson said, admiring her handiwork. "If you're feeling not so hot, it's good to come here."

Johnson, a 39-year-old marketing director, was one of 3,200 volunteers with paint brushes and shovels who spent yesterday beautifying 39 D.C. public school buildings.

It was an ideal day for outdoor leisure, with temperatures in the 80s, but volunteers were toiling for a cause. The projects, sponsored by Fannie Mae and Greater D.C. Cares, which coordinates volunteer projects, included painting offices, classrooms and banisters; planting flowers and mulching trees; and creating murals on outdoor walls.

The project was started 16 years ago to address an urgent need.

D.C. public school buildings have deteriorated over the years because of deferred maintenance, funding cuts and mismanagement of capital programs. On average, the buildings are more than 70 years old, and many have had leaky roofs, faulty plumbing, dimly lighted halls and ventilation systems that have left classrooms too cold in winter and too warm in spring and summer.

Volunteers who have participated in the project in previous years said they have noticed a big improvement. Last summer, the city spent $200 million to paint walls and upgrade windows, roofs, bathrooms and lighting at 70 schools. Other people see what's lacking.

Some "volunteers come in and say, 'This school is in disrepair,' " said Jennifer Farland, director of Fannie Mae's office of community and charitable giving. "What I tell them is, 'This school has come a long way. It's baby steps. It takes the community to come out and help the school.' "

Fannie Mae financed a $4 million renovation of Ballou's football field. The old one had potholes and flooded. The new field has artificial turf, goal posts and bleachers.

"We built an NFL-quality field. . . . That is the same [type of] track used at the Olympics," said Allen Y. Lew, executive director of the D.C. Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, who oversaw the work.

The field "was falling apart," said Lew, who supervised construction of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Washington Nationals baseball stadium. "We have before and after photos. It is horrifying looking at the before photos."

Lew is required to submit a master facility plan this month to the D.C. Council outlining how he would spend more than $1 billion to modernize schools over the next decade, but he said he is seeking to delay its release until the fall. He said he will hold public meetings this summer to explain the work. He also plans another repair "blitz" this summer for schools that will be low on the list for full-scale renovations.

One of the first projects, the construction of a new Woodson High School in Northeast, will begin next month. Lew said he aims to make Woodson a green school with solar power and geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems.

Lew said he coordinated with the volunteers to ensure that yesterday's projects would not conflict with work to be done this summer.

Unlike at Ballou, volunteers at nearby Simon Elementary School were mainly working outside. Some planted marigolds around the school sign while others painted hopscotch squares and a map of the United States and other countries on the playground's blacktop.

"The kids will be excited to see people care," said David Johnson, 37, an information technology consultant who was painting Russia in green. "Hopefully, it will pique their curiosity about the world and inspire them to travel a bit."

Siobhan Canty, head of Greater D.C. Cares, said her organization would like to do more for the schools. But she said she hasn't received as much cooperation as she would like from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

"We hope today is the start of a conversation with the city about how we can be an asset to their efforts to revitalize the D.C. school system," she said. "Real work is needed to develop partnerships."

This week, Greater D.C. Cares will hold a book drive for school libraries, technology training sessions for teachers and sessions for PTA members on how to be organized. For information, go tohttp://www.greaterdccares.orgor call 202-777-4447.

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