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View From the Classroom: 'We Couldn't Get Anything We Ordered'

By Sari Horwitz and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 16, 1997; Page A25

Bell Multicultural High School -- like many D.C. schools -- has operated for years on a shoestring, even though the school system has nearly $600 million to spend each year. The red-brick school in Columbia Heights was short last year of virtually everything that teachers need to teach.

Custodian Gilbert Benjamin checks out a deteriorating ceiling at Anacostia High School.
(Post photo by Dudley M. Brooks)
"We couldn't get anything we ordered -- from books to art supplies to computers," said Maria Tukeva, principal of Bell, where half of the 650 students are Latino, about 23 percent are African American, 10 percent are Asian, 10 percent are African and 7 percent are from the Caribbean basin.

When Bell Multicultural's textbook budget was cut last year, Tukeva said, she was short of books for math, world history, D.C. history and other courses.

"We have to share books," Jessica Alvarez, a Bell senior told Mayor Marion Barry at a meeting last year. "That's very hard because some people go faster and some people go slower. . . . One night you get the book. One night another person gets it."

To deal with the shortage, Tukeva said, "we had to make a lot of Xerox copies." And when she ran out of paper and couldn't get more from the central office, she began rationing and recycling it. Tukeva said she went begging to Potomac Electric Power Co., one of the school's corporate sponsors, and the company helped get more paper.

But there were more shortages elsewhere. Tukeva ordered repairs two years ago for four broken water fountains. None ever were made. Bell also lost its athletic trainer during soccer season last year because of budget cuts. "They finally sent someone once a week from another school," Tukeva said.

Last summer, Tukeva spent two hours every day telephoning or driving downtown trying to ensure that she would have supplies by fall. "I only took off one day for vacation this summer," she said. "I worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day to make sure I had what I needed" and still wound up short of books.

Tukeva also ordered modular work stations for science classes two years ago because the school doesn't have a science lab. "In spite of daily phone calls and letters begging and pleading, we could not get anyone to move," she said.

Ultimately, administrators told Tukeva in July that the equipment would be purchased. But she discovered they were going to buy the wrong work stations. By the time she was allowed to order the correct ones, it was September, and the company couldn't make them by Sept. 30, the last day in the fiscal 1996 budget. Tukeva was told by school officials that after Sept. 30, she no longer would have the funds to spend.

Bell science students still struggle to do experiments with makeshift tables.

With the hiring of Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr., Tukeva said, "you can ask for something, and then you get a response and it moves."

Tukeva ordered window shades 2 1/2 years ago for use by teachers who work with overhead projectors. They came last month.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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