First Day of School Abuzz With Change
Students Roll Into Renovated Area Schools; Work Continues at Some

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.

The Fentys' appearance generated a stir of approval from Lafayette parents.

Hedy Howard, whose child started pre-kindergarten Monday at Lafayette, said she doesn't care how Fenty enrolled his sons as long as he chose public school for them.

"I think there ought to be some privilege with the job," Howard said. "He is really supporting public schools, which is fabulous."

Her husband, Andrew, noted that many high-profile Washingtonians opt to send their children to private school. "He could have made the other choice to send them to private schools, like, well, other people," Howard said.

Asked whether he was referring to President Obama, who enrolled his daughters in the elite Sidwell Friends School, Howard said, "That is one example."

The refurbished D.C. schools represent the next step in the Fenty administration's ambitious overhaul of a system notorious for its decrepit, aging buildings. Last summer's objectives included basic fixes to 75 schools, including repairing boilers and replacing windows. This year, officials are moving their focus to re-creating schools that combine energy-conserving features and natural light with restoration of original wood floors and masonry.

During the next two years, major work is expected to transform Eastern, Anacostia and Woodrow Wilson high schools. After several delays, a new H.D. Woodson Senior High School is expected to receive students in 2011.

"I really believe we've turned the corner," school construction czar Allen Y. Lew said.

Before they moved to temporary space two years ago, School Without Walls students and teachers had to dodge plaster dropping from the ceiling. On Monday, they returned to a $37.7 million makeover that included restoration of the school's 118-year-old building on the George Washington University campus and a new four-story wing.

"Fabulous, first-class job," said Terry Lynch, whose daughter will be a junior this year.

Day One featured the usual hiccups. Parents at John Burroughs Elementary in Northeast, alarmed late last week by debris that remained from last-minute renovations, handed out masks to students. But city officials said the school passed air quality tests. A main break left students at Garfield Elementary School on Alabama Avenue in Southeast without water; they were bused to Winston Education Campus and Stanton Elementary.

At Laurel High School in Prince George's, the air conditioning didn't work in second-floor classrooms. A computerized information system left 300 students without class schedules and with no place to go but the increasingly stuffy gymnasium. And 16 new classrooms that were supposed to be finished for the first day -- part of a two-story, $28 million addition begun in 2008 -- sat empty and unfinished Monday.

Officials said the addition will be ready as early as next week. The school's first-ever auditorium, also part of the project, is scheduled to open in January.

In the meantime, teachers welcomed students back to the same temporary classrooms they used last year: 26 trailers crowded around the school's flanks.

Alexis Webb, 13, said she had more on her mind than the school's construction schedule.

"I don't want to get lost," she said as she stood in the foyer with a knot of other freshmen, watching upperclassmen stream in and greet one another with hugs.

Staff writer Emma Brown contributed to this report.

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