First Day of School Has Students Abuzz Across the District and Maryland

Public schools across D.C. and Maryland welcome students back to class.
By Bill Turque and Tim Craig
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The spotty air conditioning sometimes drove spring and summer temperatures to 100 degrees in Ferebee-Hope Elementary School's gym.

There was no audible fire alarm system. Kids played on expanses of dingy, moldy brown carpet. The 1970s-vintage "open classroom" design, which eliminated walls to foster closer collaboration among teachers, created only chaos.

The school, in Ward 8's Woodland Terrace neighborhood, was, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said, "probably the darkest and most depressing school we had."

But Monday was a new day for the school that Principal Sharron Stroman calls "the Hope." A crash $5.2 million renovation this summer, part of a $1 billion overhaul of the District's 125 schools, created 29 bright, cheerful classrooms with touch-screen "smart boards." The carpet is out; brand-new heating, cooling and fire suppression systems are in.

"We are going to do right by the children of the south side," exulted Stroman, dressed in the school's burgundy and khaki colors.

For thousands of District students, Monday was not only the first day of classes but also the first in newly renovated buildings. The work includes more than $100 million worth of improvements to School Without Walls Senior High School; Deal Middle School; Wheatley Education Campus; and H.D. Cooke and Savoy elementary schools.

Schools in Prince George's County opened for the first time under the leadership of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. Charles and Frederick counties also began classes, along with some schools in Anne Arundel County. By week's end, classes will resume throughout Anne Arundel and in Calvert and St. Mary's counties. Schools in Montgomery and Howard counties reopen Aug. 31, and most Northern Virginia schools begin Sept. 8.

The District's first day of school was also notable for the arrival of two new children, 9-year-old twins Andrew and Matthew Fenty. The mayor had previously sent the children to a private Montessori school that runs through third grade.

Fenty had long pledged that the boys would enter the city system once they reached fourth grade. But on Monday he declined to discuss what he called a private matter. "I don't want to comment on my kids, and I don't want to invite others to comment on my kids," Fenty said.

In choosing Lafayette Elementary, the Fentys passed over West Education Campus, their Crestwood neighborhood school, located three miles away across Rock Creek Park. Lafayette, in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, is one of the District's most coveted elementary schools, with a more affluent and ethnically diverse student body -- and significantly higher test scores.

It is not unusual for students in the District to apply to schools outside their neighborhoods. Less than half of D.C. students go to their "in-boundary" schools, and many families enter a lottery to win spots in the higher-performing schools west of Rock Creek Park. But many grades at Lafayette have been largely closed to out-of-boundary enrollment in recent years, because neighborhood residents are filling the slots.

The Fenty twins' enrollment marks the first time a D.C. mayor has a student in public schools since Christopher Barry, son of then-mayor Marion Barry, attended city schools in the 1990s. Former D.C. mayors Anthony A. Williams and Sharon Pratt did not have school-age children. Christopher Barry, who was raised in Southeast Washington, also went out-of-boundary to attend schools in upper Northwest.

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