For nearly three decades Shaw Junior High School was referred to as "Shameful Shaw" because students studied in a government certified fire trap, played on crumbling stairways, drank from plumbing judged unrepairable and played basketball in a gym with a ceiling so low they couldn't shoot a jump shot.
On Wednesday, a new Shaw Junior High School opens two blocks from the old school, at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. It is a $13 million "open space" community school spread over 7 1/2 acres.
In it is an Olympic size swimming pool, a fully equipped television studio, and, among many other innovations in teaching, a home economics department complete with model apartments - department store versions of bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms and kitchens better furnished than the homes from which many of the student will come.
For all these special features, Shaw Junior High may still be the object of controversy, for the new building is an "open space" school. For the past 30 years planning sessions and heated debates were held over the pros and cons of "open space" schools.
When the 1,200 mostly black students enter the school from the front facing Rhode Island Avenue NW, they'll find themselves in a vast area called "The Commons." It is a lobby, actually, where some classwork, but mostly structured and supervised recreational activity, will take place.
Above and on both sides of "The Commons" are three huge circular rooms called housing units which hold 300 students each. These are the classrooms for 7th, 8th and 9th graders. There are no walls and the groups will be taught by teams of teachers.
School principal Percy Ellis fought to make the new Shaw facility an "old fashioned" traditional school with separate, walled-in classrooms. Keeping order in the school, he argued, would be seriously impaired by grouping 300 students in one room.
Proponents of "open space" education believe that less structured classrooms and classes allow students to develop creative potential as well as learn proper behavior through peer reinforcement.
Opponents such as Ellis believe that the opposite occurs more often than not.
"When the shovel went into the ground," Ellis said recently, "the fight was over." Soon after, Ellis demonstrated how he intends to incorporate his firmly held beliefs in traditional schooling into his "new era" school.
"Marge!" he yelled at one student aide, who was present to assist teachers with the school opening, "You chewing, gal. Say which!"
After a conspicuous gulp, and with slightly bulged eyes, Marge answered demurely, "Oh, no, Me Gum? Mr. Ellis, really."
"Don't allow no chewing. No smoking. No eating. No yelling. Don't say 'please,' either. If you say 'please' then they (the students) think, well, he'd just appreciate it if I didn't smoke. No way. No hats allowed, either."
The new school draws mixed responses from the students, many of whom have not seen all of its features - such as the new McDonald-motif cafeteria.
"I don't like it," said Sharon Taylor, 11, as she sashayed forth in hot pants and a hatler top in front of her home on nearby French Street NW. "I want the old school back. In that open space you gonna have everybody looking at you and you can't chew gum and you don't have no halls to run in."
Propping her hands on her hip, the seventh-grader continued with what she said was "the most disgusting thing" about the new school. "They ain't even gonna let us go outside. We gotta stay in all day. ITS A PRISON," she screamed.
"Now this open space concept," began Maurice Webster, a 13-year-old eighth grader, "seems to be a pretty good idea. I want to be an architect - I draw very weel - and I can see the advantages in space utilization."
Stroking his hairless chin, he concluded - to the contained chuckles of friends obviously awed by his articulateness - "it should prove to be an adequate learning experience."
"Oh, yes, yes," said Quentin Gilmore, 15, a friend of Webster's who was initially uncertain about open space facilities, "I think he's got a point."
Although the school was designed to accommodate 1,000 students, Ellis said 1,200 are enrolled. The problem may have to be solved by redrawing school boundaries, which would irritate the unfortunate residents who spent many years - some as long as 30 years - helping fight the bureaucracy to get the school constructed.
In many ways, the story of Shaw Junior High School parellels the rise and fall of the community named after it. Once a fashionable place, Shaw counted among its residents people such as the future Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) and Willie Woods, former All-Pro football player for the Green Bay Packers.
During the 1930s and early 40s, Shaw Junior High was the beginning of a "track" system where "smart" students went on to Dunbar High School and later Howard University, "the black Harvard."
The less successful students were "tracked" into vocational rather than acdemic programs.
Shaw once was a mecca for black entertainment and commerce. But it became a victim of the 1950's and 60's - suburban migration, a subsequent decline in city services, and, ultimately, The Riot of 1968.
"It was a top-notch school, still is," said one teacher, reluctant to admit that anything was wrong with the old Shaw Junior High, but aware that the prestigious progression from Shaw to Dunbar High and on to Howard by and large has become no more than a fond memory of the good old days.
"When the area went, we started seeing a different kind of student," the teacher added."No home training, most of 'em. So you had to spend more time in school keeping order."
The Shaw area is bounded by 15th Street NW on the west, by M Street NW on the south, by Florida Avenue NW on the north, and by North Capitol street on the east.
It is an area where more changes are under way now and these are symbolized by the new Shaw Junior High as much as anything. Within a four square-block area of the school, a massive restoration process is underway.
Although most of the homes that are being rehabilitated are supposed to be for their present occupants, many residents complain that they will not be able to afford them, and in time, will have to leave the area and the school they have been looking forward to for so long.
If that happens, it will bring still more change to a neighborhood which, like some other parts of the city, already has seen its share of stability, decline and renewal.
When the old school building put up in 1902, it was known as "Technical High School for Whites," later to become McKinley Tech. In 1928, it became the first junior high chool for blacks in the city, a memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the Bostonian killed leading the first northern black troops in the Civil War.