A joyful noise echoed through the hallways of the Stanton Elementary School in Southeast Washington yesterday as a music class rehearsed its holiday songs. In some classrooms, children were immersed in silent study, while in others hands waved enthusiastically in response to a question posed by a teacher.
The fact that the school, which was built in the 1930s, had a leaky roof or that the air conditioning was faulty or that a request for repairs and new materials had been made months ago with no response, appeared not to make that much difference.
But the Stanton School is an exception and, according to a report released yesterday by Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, this kind of neglect has had serious consequences in schools that have not been able to marshal the forces necessary to overcome deteriorating conditions.
"Quality education cannot be provided in school buildings that are in poor repair and often pose actual danger to students and teachers," says the study, which compared resources available for District schools with those in suburban areas. "The physical condition of District school buildings demoralizes teachers and students; the buildings are dim, drab, uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous."
By comparison, the study notes, "Montgomery and Fairfax schools demonstrate the fruits of preventive maintenance and quick attention to programs while they are still minor. They are bright, comfortable, effective places for teaching and learning."
While the report, three months in the making, has provided a comprehensive view of the fiscal needs of city schools -- they need a lot more money -- the Parents United group also noted what it called "the high level of motivation and dedication" demonstrated by school officials.
Whether or not this praise should include those responsible for the upkeep of the schools is not clear, but a visit to the Stanton Elementary School, located at Alabama Avenue and Naylor Road SE, indicates that it certainly should include the principal, Willie Mae Stancil, the teachers, staff, students and parents.
Here is a school with 527 students from mostly poor and working-poor families. Yet, the students have scored at or better than the national average on standardized tests for several years.
"The focus of our efforts is the child, not the school building," said Stancil, who has been principal at the school for 13 years. "The bottom line is that we've got to make our programs work -- regardless."
To help make them work, the school employs creative measures such as utilizing the services of Concerned Black Men, a group of professionals who visit the school and take students to ball games and on field trips.
"With the shortage of male figures in the household, these guys provide a valuable service by offering themselves as role models," said Marshall Smith, a sixth grade teacher for 21 years. "This improves behavior, and makes the atmosphere more conducive to learning."
Contrary to the notion that the working poor do not have time to help out at school, Stancil said she relies heavily on parent volunteers.
"I encourage the parents to come in -- even if it's just to work hall duty," she said. "The result is that a parent who visits the school is more likely to help the child with homework, which is the key to our improved test scores."
Yet, there is no question that the school could do even better if there were more resources. For example, such basic items as textbooks are woefully out of date. But this is not for lack of funds. This is simply because the process for ordering texts and materials -- as with repairs -- is just too slow.
"There are a whole lot of things that we could use to give our kids the kind of early start that would make a difference in their lives," said Debra Palmer, the school music instructor. "But the secret of success, under these circumstances, is that we must emphasize the positive over the negative."