Ami Richardson, a shy 14-year-old, rises each day at 5:30 a.m. and takes four buses and a subway from her Southeast Washington home to Alice Deal Junior High School in upper Northwest.
Richardson, who earned straight A's as a gifted math student at Orr Elementary, could easily walk from her home to nearby Kramer Junior High. But nearly everyone who mattered, from her parents to Orr administrators, urged her to go to Deal.
"I want to be a pediatrician or a mathematician, and people from my old school who were good at math did well here," said Richardson, who went to Deal because of its affiliation with a Johns Hopkins University program for talented youth. "Math was my favorite subject before I came to Deal. It's a lot harder here."
Richardson is one of nearly 300 of Deal's 987 students who live outside the school's attendance boundaries and receive special permission to go to Deal through the school system's open enrollment policy. There is a waiting list of 179 out-of-boundary students hoping to attend Deal in September.
Ten years ago, Deal had many of the problems associated with urban schools--racial tension, some drug abuse, low teacher morale and a lack of discipline. But now, Deal, at Fort Drive and Nebraska Avenue NW, is considered the city's unofficial flagship junior high school, drawing students from 40 of the city's 122 elementary schools.
Many are attracted by Deal's academic reputation. Deal is the only D.C. junior high school whose ninth-grade classes scored above national norms in reading, math, science and language on the most recent comprehensive test of basic skills. Deal students scored two years or more above grade average in each.
Deal's ninth graders trail those at the Banneker model academic school, but Banneker draws most of its students from the top 18 percent of other city public schools, while Deal has no such restrictions.
Other students who attend Deal are drawn by an array of extracurricular activities. The "Real Deal" student newspaper won a medalist certificate from Columbia University's Scholastic Press Association last year, for example. Deal students recently beat public and private schools from the District, Maryland and Virginia to win best performance, best actor and best actress awards in a rendition of "As You Like It" for the Folger Theatre Shakespearean Festival competition.
Another factor is Deal's rich diversity of students, whose parents range from residents of some of the city's poorest neighborhoods to diplomats who live in Washington's most exclusive enclaves. Forty-nine percent of the school's students are black, 34 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian. The systemwide racial makeup is 94 percent black, 3.5 percent white, 1.7 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Asian.
D.C. school board member Wanda Washburn (Ward 3) attended a meeting recently at which an Anacostia teacher told Washburn she was sending her son to Deal. Washburn asked how the mother could put her young child on a bus for such a long distance every morning. " 'Honey,' she told me, 'He's going to get an education,' " Washburn said.
Deal has accepted some of the city's weakest students from families who hope that teachers there can do for their children what no other school has yet been able to do.
There are out-of-boundary eighth-grade Deal students who read at elementary school levels, and ninth graders whose math skills are so poor that they cannot handle fractions, division or multiplication, but have been promoted at previous schools anyway.
"If the student has a positive self-image and can show respect for others, I don't care about the other things," said Reginald Moss, the school's principal since 1978. "There is no consideration given to academic rank. We accept students on a first-come, first-served basis."
The factors that make Deal work can best be understood by the transition in leadership that took place in the mid-1970s. Then, according to parents and administrators, Deal was a troubled institution. There were fights among students, along with drug abuse and racial tension, Washburn said. Older children bullied money and personal items from smaller, weaker students. Teacher morale was low and the parents of young children threatened to keep their children out of Deal unless drastic changes were made.
Assistant Principal Sterling Broadus, who has been at Deal for 13 years, said that during that period the school was run according to educational theories then in vogue that gave students a lot of freedom--too much freedom, some say. Teachers often came to school late and spent too much time socializing rather than teaching, Broadus said.
French instructor Ginette Suarez came to Deal in 1970 from Elliott Junior High School in Northeast. "Coming to Deal was a shock," said Suarez. "It was a loose environment and the kids really needed a strong hand."
Enter Tony Minus, who was appointed Deal's principal in 1974 after asking for the assignment. From his days at McFarland Junior High, Minus came armed with a "tough guy" reputation as a disciplinarian who had a regulation for just about anything that might happen at a school.
"Some parents complained that he was running a prison camp at Deal, but he turned the school around," said board member Washburn, whose daughter attended Deal at the time. "He brought discipline and order."
Moss, who went to Deal as an assistant principal with Minus, said that Minus "established policies governing the behavior of teachers, students, custodians, every staff member, so that there would be no confusion. For example, you couldn't expect teachers to be on time and go the extra mile if we administrators wouldn't."
Students who littered were assigned to clean up the building after school. Fights earned immediate suspensions and victims were asked whether they wanted to press charges with police.
Cause a ruckus at a basketball game and you were barred from attending games, Moss and Broadus said. The five-minute rule for clearing the halls between classes was more strictly enforced, and Minus patrolled the halls himself, frequently dropping in on classrooms to see how they were being conducted, Moss said.
The changes encouraged many teachers to stay on and work harder. "I was getting ready to resign," said science teacher Mary Miles. "Minus felt that discipline was first and that academics would follow from it, and the teachers developed a completely different attitude."
Deal's test scores improved under Minus and have continued to rise under Moss. Ninth-grade reading scores improved from a 10.4 grade level in 1978 to 11.0 in the most recent exam. Math scores improved from 10.9 in 1978 to 11.7.
Although some parents and students thought Minus was too stringent, several others began a public relations campaign for the school that included printing a flier trumpeting Deal's new extracurricular activities, its diversity and academic standing in the city. They were distributed at feeder schools, to parents, even at real estate offices to persuade new families to come to Deal.
The increase in parental support "certainly started after Mr. Minus came and the momentum has increased since Mr. Moss started," said Arnold Mays, the Deal PTA president in 1980 who came up with the now-annual "International Night" fund-raiser that highlights the school's ethnic diversity and was attended by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry this year.
Deal parents have bought the school a computer and this year raised nearly $6,000 to buy the school microscopes, encyclopedias, filmstrips and textbooks.
"The parents feel good about it. We have just been flooded this year by support from parents . . . volunteering to help. When I was growing up you just went to the school. Now parents want to participate and help in any way they can, and they are throwing their weight behind it," said Cindy Hinchman, president of Deal's Parent-Teacher Association.
Some students complain that there is too much strictness. Another seemingly perennial problem is transportation. Seven Metro buses are chartered by the school system to transport Deal students between selected points in Northwest Washington, and students complain that they are not dependable, especially on rainy days.
Jason Owens, a seventh grader, makes three transfers on regular buses because he is more likely to get to school on time. "I don't rely on the charter buses," Owens said. "They're late almost every day."
And others say the school's normal enrollment of 900 to 1,000 students is fine for upper-echelon students who need little academic help, but not for weaker students who need more individualized attention.
Joel Smoot is a 13-year-old eighth grader who came to Deal from West Middle School to see new faces and because "they say Deal is the best school in Washington, D.C." But now he says he would rather go back to West.
"At my old school, the teachers showed concern for me personally. If you needed one to explain something to you she would explain it all over again to you. Here, my English teacher will explain to the whole class," Smoot said.
Lala Snead, who teaches remedial math courses for eighth and ninth graders, wore a perturbed expression last Friday as she talked about ninth graders with third-grade level math skills who don't know how to divide or multiply and don't seem to care about it.
"Five years ago I had no more than 15 kids in these classes," Snead said. "Now, my smallest ninth-grade class has 25 and the largest has 27. It's taken me nearly a whole year to convince the students that school is not a spectator sport."
But there are also students like Michael Spector, who last week enthusiastically participated in an advanced "team concept" class that involves two paired periods of English and history. The English course uses historical novels paired to the period being studied in the history class, while the history course emphasizes creative skills and grammar in preparing papers and homework assignments.
"You can learn as much as you want here with no one holding you back," said Spector, who maintains a perfect 4.0 grade average and writes for the "Real Deal" student newspaper. Spector lives close enough to walk to Deal, and though his parents--a nursery school teacher and a management analyst for the Labor Department--probably could afford a private school, they have never seriously considered it, and Michael wouldn't want to go.
"Some private schools have a very sheltered atmosphere. Here, you get a really broad view of life," said Spector, who has a racially diverse group of friends at school. "I think Deal is very good for me."