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.
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."
School officials called the police, but no arrests were made. Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said officials had heard of some parental protest but could offer no details.
The school has been in some turmoil since the departure of its popular principal, Lucia Vega, whose contract was not renewed by Rhee. Her replacement, Mikki Crenshaw, who was appointed this summer, resigned last week. School officials would not comment on the reasons for Crenshaw's departure.
There were significant teacher shortages at two high schools, Anacostia and Dunbar, and school administrators and teachers union officials offered conflicting explanations. Officials said Anacostia had 14 absent teachers and Dunbar had seven.
Rhee and other officials said the teachers called in sick, but Nathan Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said teachers had not been placed by the central office in time for the opening of classes. "This was poor HR [human resources] work," Saunders said.
About 50 students spent at least part of the day in Anacostia's auditorium. They attributed it to poor scheduling.
"I'm supposed to have a math class. I went there, and it's an English class," a freshman boy said. A girl sitting behind him said there were problems with her schedule, too.
An Anacostia teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of getting into trouble with superiors, said the scheduling issues were compounded by changes in the building's room numbers.
"It is utter chaos here," the teacher said. "I think the ninth-grade students are suffering the most."
Hobson said that there were no scheduling problems and that the students in the auditorium were either new to the D.C. system and had not registered or had showed up at the wrong school. Rather than turn them away -- many came without a parent or guardian -- the school decided to keep them in a safe place. The parents will need to accompany the students to verify residency and complete the necessary paperwork.
At mid-morning, a false fire alarm sent hundreds of Coolidge High School students streaming onto the athletic fields.
D.C. State Board of Education member Mary Lord, who was visiting the school at the time, said the evacuation was orderly. Through a loudspeaker, Principal L. Nelson Burton told students that he would review security tapes and punish whoever was responsible. Within five to 10 minutes, students were back in class, Lord said.
Staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.