International Night, a feast of food, music and dance held at the Phoebe Hearst Elementary School recently, was, like the school, a racial and ethnic melting pot.
While parents dished out samples of foods from Italy, the U.S., Thailand, India and African nations, their children, dressed in ethnic garb, danced, recited and sang for an audience of several hundred.
The event was one of many in celebration of "Phoebe's 50th," as students and teachers have dubbed the festivities commemorating the half-century since the little red brick school at 37th and Tilden streets NW opened its doors.
The school, built to serve a predominantly upper middle-class neighborhood, was dedicated to the memory of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst. The matriarch of the famous publishing family was a proponent of early childhood education long before it was fashionable. She founded the now-defunct Kindergarten College on K Street in 1897 and left considerable sums to both the American University and the National Cathedral School when she died in 1919.
At the school's opening ceremonies in November 1932, a giant six-foot marble and bronze aquarium was donated by her two grandsons for the kindergarten of the school, which was then considered among the finest buildings in Washington's public school system.
Today the Georgian-style facility with its imposing green doors is still surrounded by an affluent and predominantly white section of the city west of Rock Creek Park. But its population is an ethnic and racial mixture of 176 students, 75 percent of whom are minorities and many of whom are "out of boundary" transferees from Crestwood, Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant.
"At a time when other schools are struggling with integration, we have achieved it naturally," said Hearst's PTA president Steve Diner, referring to the minority parents from outside the area who have requested in recent years that their children attend Hearst.
Hearst's appeal, say parents and teachers, is its smallness. Originally intended to have two additional wings that were never built, Hearst is one of the smallest elementary schools in the District, with only one class per grade and fewer than 200 students. "Every teacher knows every child," said head teacher Muriel Logan, 59, now in her 17th year at Hearst.
In 50 years the city has hardly encroached on the school's privileged setting directly across the street from the private Sidwell Friends School. Woods separate the back of the building from the North Cleveland Park neighborhood and the school is flanked by a roomy blacktop playground on one side and a grassy hill with track and tennis courts on the other.
"It's a remarkable city school," said kindergarten teacher Jeanette Edmead. "I can walk my class through a forest to a stream."
Inside, however, 50 years of student traffic have worn the old school's black stairs into shallow crescents, and the halls smell of well-worn textbooks and chalk dust. Hearst has no air conditioning, gym or cafeteria, and for many years it has even shared a principal with its sister school, John Eaton Elementary at Macomb and 34th streets NW.
Several years ago a group of parents, students and teachers volunteered to paint classrooms, build shelves and patch the school's most glaring blemishes. The giant Hearst aquarium, behind which generations of errant kindergarteners have been sent to "compose themselves," has long since been converted into a terrarium because of its leaks. Even the scrapbook of news articles, programs and old photographs started by the first principal, Sarah B. Holland, is so brittle now that it is seldom let out of sight of the school office.
Friends of Hearst like it that way. "There are virtues to children understanding that a learning environment does not have to be Formica," said one parent. "Oxford isn't all modern."
"It's a gem of a neighborhood beauty," said Ward 3's school board representative, Wanda Washburn. "I hope it isn't penalized in the future because it's small."
"We'll thrive as long as we're allowed to, as long as being small doesn't get in the way" said Edmead of the facility's future. "Hearst has always been a survivor. We've been through terrible times, but we've always pulled through."