The loudspeaker didn't work, so there was no way for Principal Tujuana White to make the announcement. But there was really no need, anyhow. The moment spoke for itself. After 26 years, Highland Park Elementary was open again for business.
The red-brick building at 6501 Lowland Dr. was built in 1928. Highland Park and Lakeland, erected the same year in College Park, were the second and third schools built in the county for black students who wanted to attend high school. Highland Park, which later became a junior high and elementary school, was closed in 1973 when the county implemented a court-ordered busing system to integrate the schools.
When the busing order was struck down last summer, Highland Park, which had been used as a staff development center and for Head Start classes, was given a make-over. On Monday, the school, just east of Seat Pleasant off Hill Road, welcomed 520 students for the first day of classes. Iris T. Metts, the new Prince George's school superintendent, even dropped by for a brief tour.
Outside, the drills and dump trucks that workers have used to make the $6.3 million renovations were camped on the premises, reminders that there is still work to be done. The tile still is not laid in the hallways, the library is full of boxes of furniture, and out front there are orange plastic fences signifying ongoing construction.
But along with these signs of a work in progress is the excitement of rebirth and rejuvenation in the community around the school. With the busing order overturned last summer, students will be attending school close to home, and parents can get more involved.
"I could sense the community's excitement from my first interview for this job," said White, who was an instruction specialist for the school system last year. "A community school is the answer for children and parents to really feel a part of the school. . . . Many community members attended this school when they were in elementary school, so naturally, they are excited about their own children or grandchildren coming here. It's a coming-home celebration."
Indeed, Karen Parker can attest to that. The Landover mother and her two sons walked to the school because it is so close to their home. Last year, her eldest son took a 20-minute bus ride to Kenilworth Elementary School in Bowie.
"I'm glad they're reopening here because they can walk," said Parker, who was bused out of her neighborhood when she was attending middle school and high school in Prince George's.
"Yeah," added her friend, Valerie Mountain, whose son Jarrid, 5, attends the school. "And it's easier for us to get involved in after-school activities."
Already, White plans to begin an after-school enrichment program for students who are interested in extra instruction.
Yet, as might be expected on the first day of a new school, there were some glitches. Several parents who live on the south side of Martin Luther King Jr. Highway were upset that their children had to walk to the school along a path that they say is unsafe, said Savanah Harvey, a day-care provider who spoke on behalf of the parents.
"I don't want to walk through there," Harvey said. "It may be clear and open, but if you're not watching school-age children, there are dogs that are loose, drunks and drug addicts. They're at risk. If you don't have a bus, at least put a school crossing guard there at the intersection."
Schools spokeswoman Hope Hall said the school system intends to evaluate the neighborhood to decide whether buses or other safety measures are needed.
As the first buses began to roll in a little before 8 a.m., workers were still buzzing around the building, measuring doorways and checking windows. The architect who is overseeing the renovations, Jo-Anne Murray, was on hand as well. Over the weekend, there were 40 to 50 workers at the site, feverishly trying to get the building ready.
Amid the hustle and bustle, 77-year-old Clement Martin was directing traffic--literally. He was standing in the street, making sure drivers slowed down as they passed the school and yielded to any late-arriving students.
Martin, who lives with his wife, Barbara, in a house almost directly across from the school, has been at the site nearly every day since the renovations began. Known as "the mayor" because of all the things he takes care of, Martin has been hands-down the most dedicated citizen on the project.
That's because to him it's personal. Martin still remembers marching into the school--which then had first grade through high school--on the day it opened in 1928. And he still remembers the day it was closed.
"I cried," he said, "because I knew the system wanted to tear it down." But while other schools in communities inside the Beltway were dismantled, activists fought to keep Highland Park alive and in 1993 succeeded in getting the building onto the state's list of historic preservation sites.
Martin's children all attended the school, and on Monday, two of his grandchildren began classes there. "I'm just so damn proud," he said, wiping away tears.
Two other elementary schools opened this year, and the county plans 10 to 23 more in the next six years to meet the terms of the court settlement that overturned the busing system.
"I was never in favor of busing," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Landover), who was on hand. "I always thought they needed to open new, quality schools in the communities where they were needed, not bus the kids to quality schools in other neighborhoods. Now, we're doing that."
CAPTION: Students file into Highland Park Elementary School in Landover on the first day of school. In 1993, activists got the building placed on the state's list of historic preservation sites.