Lessons in Reality

Young idealists arrive to teach at Washington's Coolidge High. And learn how frustrating efforts at reform can be.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007; Page A01

A hush came over the parents and visitors who filled the makeshift rows as Calvin Coolidge Senior High School Principal L. Nelson Burton took the podium. Along the wall, dozens grew still. Bright lights cast a sheen on the brand-new paint job, and the new hardwood floor gleamed with high polish.

"It's an exciting year in D.C. public schools!" Burton told the Back to School Night crowd, and there were nods and murmurs of assent.

He ticked off an impressive list of Coolidge's new and improved. A renovated teachers' lounge; a new community resource center; $1.3 million in paint, plumbing and roofing; almost $3 million for a new track-and-field area. Six Advanced Placement classes were added, and $15,000 was found to send almost 20 percent of the teachers to AP training. Zero tolerance was the new law -- no phones or iPods -- and for the first time, Coolidge required uniforms.

"Our kids look like ladies and gentlemen when they come to school," said Terry Goings, president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization.

Yes, yes they do, the crowd responded.

"Thank you for your faith in public schools," said Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education.

"This is going to be the best high school in the District!" said Greg Roberts, a 1975 Coolidge alum whose D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust donated funds.

"There's a new energy level in this hallway," said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), posing for pictures at the resource center. He has made school reform the top priority of his administration. "You can just feel it."

There is a struggle going on at Coolidge, and at schools across Washington. A battle every day for the will to be something better against a mud-suck of chaos.

Both sides are powerful.

Sometimes it's hard to say which is winning.

Sometimes it is frighteningly clear.

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