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For D.C. Schools, A Pretty Good Day 1

Students walk along M St. SW to Amidon elementary school this morning.
Students walk along M St. SW to Amidon elementary school this morning. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)

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By Michael Birnbaum and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All of the District's 123 public schools opened on time for their approximately 50,000 students yesterday as work crews scrambled down to the wire to complete a $200 million program of renovation and repair.

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There were scattered problems, but it was a smooth first day for a school system that is adjusting to massive change, with more than 40 new principals and senior administrators. Twenty-three schools are gone, closed by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee because of low enrollment, and 28 others were redesigned to receive thousands of children from the shuttered buildings.

Some schools needed extensive renovation to accommodate pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Despite concerns that work would not be completed in time, the "receiving schools" were up and running, by most accounts.

"The District of Columbia has opened so many school years with broken promises," said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who joined Rhee at the newly renovated Sousa Middle School in Southeast Washington. Now, "someone from the top is saying that our schools will be second to none."

At Eliot-Hine Middle School, where workers struggled to meet renovation deadlines, parents offered high praise for the outcome, which included an impeccably renovated auditorium.

"It's lovely. I loved it," said Carol Colbert, who had just escorted her grandson, Demetrius Costley, 14, into the Northeast Washington school to begin eighth grade and was thrilled with the changes. "It is such a great improvement."

Although classrooms appeared ready, some schools seemed ragged around the edges from just-completed work. At Browne Education Center, a school in Northeast that runs from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, the library was filled with boxes. The odor of fresh paint wafted through the stairways, and five dump trucks filled with asphalt were parked on the tennis and basketball courts.

"We're very pleased with everything so far, even in a school like here at Browne, where we were up to the wire in terms of getting ready," said a visibly tired Rhee, who arrived back in Washington from the Democratic National Convention in Denver late Sunday and toured five schools yesterday.

As for the clutter, she said: " You pick any school across the country. There will be boxes in a classroom there."

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former D.C. school board member, also praised the schools he toured yesterday. "Looks spotless in here," he said of Amidon-Bowen Elementary in Southwest, a combined school created by the closing of Bowen.

Perhaps the most serious situation unfolded at Powell Education Center in Northwest Washington, where parents said they were prevented by school administrators from meeting teachers. Dolores Gomez, a parent, said there was considerable confusion at the school, with class lists unavailable and staff behaving in a rude and uncooperative manner.

About 9 a.m., staff members ordered about 20 parents to leave. "They tried to get us out of the building," said Blanca Perez, the mother of a preschooler " We were doing nothing bad, like screaming. We were just trying to wait until the children were safe."


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