A Landmark's Looming Demise

Joelil Thrash, 18, reflects on the building where he has spent three of his high school years. Woodson High School in Northeast D.C. will be torn down this summer. Video by Kevin D. Clark/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Over the summer, graduating senior Donnay Redd will see his beloved H.D. Woodson High School -- nicknamed the Tower of Power -- reduced to a pile of rubble.

Like many students and alumni, Redd has mixed feelings. For 36 years, the school has been a looming presence in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast Washington and a source of pride for generations of students -- so much so for Redd that he has tattooed the building onto his right arm.

What he'd like to forget, he said, are the broken water fountains, restrooms, air conditioning and escalators that for four years have forced him to climb and descend countless steps daily.

Woodson opened in 1972 as a state-of-the-art high school with a swimming pool, escalators and air conditioning. Named after Howard D. Woodson, a 1950s and '60s community activist, the school was built in response to neighborhood demand from parents who wanted their children to have a high school of their own so they wouldn't have to go all the way to Eastern, Spingarn and Anacostia.

But over the years, the school system grappled with one budget crisis after another, and Woodson, along with numerous other schools, deteriorated. City officials will tear it down in a few weeks and construct a new building, which will open in 2010.

Woodson, at 5500 Eads St., is the third-newest high school in the system and, with nine stories, the tallest.

"That's the killer," said Redd, referring to the trek he had to take to the top floor last year for an algebra class because of the perpetually broken escalator. "It's a long walk. Some days I said forget it. Out of five days, I went two. Class started at 12:50; I'd get there at 1:15."

"I think [tearing down the building] is for the better," added Redd, 18, who graduates today. "I'm all for it."

The concrete-slab building has been derided for resembling a high-rise prison. The school has repeatedly failed to meet academic targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law, prompting Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to replace Principal Gwendolyn Jones, who started in the fall. Vulgar graffiti is scrawled on a stairwell wall, and some ceiling tiles in the cafeteria are missing. In February 2007, the school closed for several days because it had no heat.

But Woodson didn't start that way. Advocates for the school "wanted to build the biggest building in far Northeast D.C. and dedicate it to the children there," said Byron W. Woodson Sr., grandson of the man for whom the school was named.

Woodson's founding principal, Napoleon Bonaparte Lewis, and his successor, James W. Curry, made racial pride an integral component -- red, black and green were the school colors -- and set high academic and behavioral standards for students.

"The aim was to build character," said Stan Mullins, who taught health and physical education and was a track coach from 1972 to 1999.

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