Woodson High School Construction Delay Has Community Concerned and Suspicious

A wrecking ball slams into Woodson High on Oct. 30. The new Woodson's opening has been delayed to 2011.
A wrecking ball slams into Woodson High on Oct. 30. The new Woodson's opening has been delayed to 2011. (By Dominic Bracco Ii For The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and other District officials gathered at H.D. Woodson High School last July to announce its impending demolition, they brought drawings of its gleaming, $110 million masonry-and-glass replacement, with abundant natural light and geothermal heating and cooling. Construction was to start in January, with the building ready for students in August 2010.

But the new Woodson, promised to the families of Ward 7 for better than a decade, is still barely on the horizon. Construction has yet to begin, and officials now say it won't be open until 2011.

School construction chief Allen Y. Lew attributes the delay to problems with the design, which he said "doesn't come across as exciting to me." He said he might also take advantage of the flat economy to send the project out for a new round of bidding, which could produce a better price.

The delay has fueled community suspicions that Woodson will never reopen or that if it does it will be an elite, application-only school not open to all within its attendance boundaries.

About 530 sophomores, juniors and seniors who would have been at Woodson are at the former Fletcher-Johnson Education Center on Benning Road in Southeast Washington, and 260 freshmen are at the Ronald H. Brown Middle School on Meade Street in Northeast.

"This is like a slap in the face to us," said Mary Jackson, a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner with two grandsons at Woodson's temporary home on Benning Road.

Officials say that the sentiments are unfounded and that although Woodson is envisioned as one of the District's Science Technology Engineering and Math schools, it will also be a neighborhood school.

Community leaders say that the lack of communication from the District on the status of the project has only compounded the distress.

"I am totally, totally upset," said Sylvia Butler, part of a passionate alumni community, who has two children who were members of Woodson's first graduating class, in 1974. "It's a shame and a disgrace that they tore the school down and don't let the community know what they're doing."

The uncertainty over Woodson is one of several questions surrounding the District's five-year, billion-dollar school reconstruction and modernization plan, originally unveiled by Lew's office last September but returned to the drawing board by the D.C. Council with instructions to provide more details on timetables and projected costs. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said "significant gaps remain" in the revised plan submitted last month. Other community groups, including one working with the District on a redesign of Eastern High School, have complained about a lack of information from officials.

Lew, questioned about Woodson at a council budget hearing Tuesday, described the problems as "hiccups" in the design and construction management process. He said that over time, the plans devised by the architects, the Texas-based SHW Group, seemed to drift from the original vision.

"It was going from a kind of transparency design, from more glass to a lot less glass," he said.

Lew brought in another architectural firm to consult but said he still wasn't happy. He said he is prepared to open the project to a design competition. He did something similar with the design for the planned modernization of Wilson High School in Northwest, vetting 21 proposals before selecting Cox Graae + Spack Architects of Washington last week. "If we're going to proceed, we should proceed with something that's special," said Lew, who expected to have a new design by July.

Derk Jeffrey, a principal at SHW, expressed surprise in a statement, saying that the original design had the enthusiastic support of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Jeffrey said that late last year the firm was asked to reduce the price of the project by $20 million and the size of the building to one that would accommodate 900 students, not 1,300.

"Since then, we have worked closely, effectively and expeditiously to meet [Lew's] needs in a deadline-intensive environment," Jeffrey said.

Gray said that striving for the right design was well and good but that the years of delay and lack of communication with residents was unacceptable. Under questioning, Lew and his team acknowledged that the "school improvement team," a community group formed to work with officials on the project, had not met since December.

"It's unconscionable to have treated the community this way," Gray said. "I really don't want to have this conversation six months from now or a year from now."

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