At D.C.'s Phelps High, A Return to the Future

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

The greenhouse at Phelps High School is a shell of exterior brick walls and exposed steel beams. But by August, when a $63.8 million renovation of the school in Northeast Washington is finished, the space will have computer-controlled window shades and watering systems.

This futuristic school is a striking contrast to the decaying public school buildings across the city, many of which lack such basics as air conditioning and proper wiring to surf the Internet. Phelps's reopening this fall will mark two important milestones in the District: the launch of a long-awaited plan to bring aging schools into the 21st century and the retooling of vocational education.

The traditional sawdust-laden vocational classes that prepared a generation of high school students for dirt-under-the-fingernails trades had nearly vanished in D.C. schools with the push to get more students into college. Now they are making a comeback at Phelps and a handful of schools across the region, with a new spin on high-tech construction, college-prep courses and such white-collar professions as architecture and engineering.

"When you think of vocational education, you think of wood shop," said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who took horticulture classes at Phelps in the 1980s and introduced legislation that funded the school's reconstruction. "The 21st-century vocational education is what you see at Phelps."

For Phelps, the role is a step back to the future.

Established in the 1930s during segregation, Phelps offered black students training in such fields as horticulture, upholstery, masonry and plumbing. The school, built to serve the Langdon Park neighborhood, later grew into a sports powerhouse.

But vocational education lost favor during the civil rights era, when it was attacked by activists as an attempt to steer black students into blue-collar jobs and out of the college-prep track, where many whites were. During the 1990s, the school system shuttered several vocational high schools, including Armstrong and Burdick in Northwest and Chamberlain in Southeast. M.M. Washington in Northwest ceases operations next month. After years of declining funding, Phelps closed its doors in 2002.

But since then, the District has been in the throes of a construction boom, and not enough of those jobs have gone to residents, according to Brown and other city officials. The shortage of comprehensive training programs for construction trades prompted discussions of resurrecting Phelps.

Across the country, traditional vocational education classes have morphed into "career and technical education" programs emphasizing such fields as computers and communications. Some area high schools that have followed the trend are Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Silver Spring, which offers courses in automotive technology and computer network operations; the Arlington Career Center, which offers multimedia and forensics technology; and McKinley Technology in Northeast, which offers information technology and biotechnology.

The District also embraces the hybrid mission. Supporters of the new Phelps sought to expand its scope to serve college-bound students along with traditional trade students.

Phelps can offer job training "for students who don't want to go to college," Brown said. At the same time, it can prepare students "to go into engineering and architectural programs at GW, Georgetown or Howard."

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee agreed, noting that the old-style vocational education was a tool to pigeonhole students into "tracks."

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