After ruinous fire, Takoma Educational Center students start 2011 in new site

More than 100 firefighters responded to a three-alarm fire at the school in Northwest Washington.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 9:50 PM

One week ago, the Takoma Educational Center's new home had no heat, running water or kitchen facilities to feed its 328 students. Asbestos lurked in spots, and 48 classrooms needed to be cleaned, painted, furnished and decorated for grades pre-K through eight.

The good news was that the former Meyer Elementary School, at 11th and Euclid Streets NW, which closed in June 2008, was still a building with "solid bones," said Anthony DeGuzman, director of the D.C. school facilities office.

District officials were left scrambling over the holidays for a new facility after a three-alarm fire Dec. 22 caused $2 million worth of damage to the second and third floors of Takoma's building at Piney Branch Road NW. Students and staff were on vacation, but the fire, caused by a roofing contractor's blowtorch, left the structure uninhabitable for at least the rest of the school year.

It took a remarkable effort to restore Meyer, but the school opened on time Monday morning for Takoma students.

"C'mon in, guys!" said D.C. Schools Chief of Staff Lisa Ruda, who joined D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Takoma Principal Rikki Taylor and teachers on the front steps to welcome the busloads of students who will be shuttled the four miles from Takoma every morning.

Some seemed a bit wary about all the hoopla, which included balloons that adorned the freshly painted hallways and gaggles of D.C. school officials roaming around with name tags that said "ambassador."

There was a big push to offer reassurance to students, some of whom watched Takoma burn and might be disoriented or anxious about the change. Counselors will be at the school this week to talk to children who might have issues.

"We want to make sure kids are comfortable about the transition," Taylor said.

While her sixth-grader, Justin, tucked into his scrambled eggs in the refurbished cafeteria, parent Stephanie Thomas was full of praise for how the District handled the quick move.

"They did an excellent job," she said. "I know it's going to be a successful transition." Justin said he missed walking on the cool-looking covered bridge that connected wings of the Takoma Educational Center campus.

Workers led by Keystone Plus Construction pulled round-the-clock shifts starting Dec. 28, when D.C. officials decided to reoccupy Meyer, named after Eugene Meyer, grandfather of Washington Post Chairman Donald E. Graham. The school was one of 23 closed in 2008 because of underenrollment. Officials selected it as a temporary site in part because its 400-plus capacity would enable Takoma to keep all of its students in one place.

D.C. officials estimated that the cost to renovate the 50-year-old building was $1.5 million. A new boiler was needed, floors were re-tiled and pipes that hadn't carried water in more than two years needed to be examined and fixed. Although kinks were left to be worked out - a radiator in a preschool classroom was blowing cold air, and a few clocks were out of order - it looked like a miraculous job.

Keystone was bolstered by a brigade of volunteers from the school system's central office, who enlisted out-of-town holiday visitors to scrub lockers and clean desks. The Takoma D.C. Neighborhood Association agreed to serve as a conduit for donations to help replace supplies and materials lost in the fire, some accumulated by teachers over many years.

"The volunteers were huge," DeGuzman said. "It's a facility, but we needed to make it a school."

The fire did contribute one unintended blessing: Takoma's 1970s-era building has an "open classroom" design that did away with walls. It's a feature that Taylor despises and was eager to eliminate.

Takoma now has walls, albeit acquired the hard way.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company