The teachers shown in a photograph of the Oak Hill Youth Center that appeared Tuesday were incorrectly identified. They were Foster Epps and Carmelita Carter. (Published 10/14/1999)

Beneath the bright lights of the gymnasium, the youngsters beat African drums, recited poetry, sang and reveled in the applause. There was no hint that the recent afternoon performance was different from any student talent show until a tall, sharply dressed man stood to offer closing remarks.

"I wish that all the high school principals were here to see you," he said in a booming baritone, "all your parents, all the parole officers and the police officers--everyone you've had a negative experience with--to see the beauty inside you."

The speaker was George A. Perkins, acting superintendent of the Oak Hill Youth Center, the District's facility for juvenile delinquents. The exuberant event was a first for the maximum-security center, a sign of how much has changed in the year since a judge appointed two outside educators to take over the troubled prison school.

In wresting control from the District, D.C. Superior Court Judge Richard A. Levie cited years of "broken promises" at the Oak Hill Academy, where rehabilitation has long been an afterthought. Legal advocates have spent 13 years filing contempt motions and negotiating with city officials to improve education at Oak Hill.

One year after Levie's order, Oak Hill's court-appointed monitors say the school is starting to comply with standards the District government agreed to follow in 1986, when a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the youths was settled.

"If you walked in the school building today and had walked into that school building a year ago, you'd see a world of difference, just in the general demeanor of the school itself and the manner in which classes are being conducted," said Michael K. Lewis, Oak Hill's independent monitor since 1986.

Oak Hill is an intimidating place. Students there have been charged with or found to be involved in weapons violations, assault, rape and homicide. A wall of coiled razor wire hems the grassy campus. Visitors are patted down, their packages searched. The residential "cottages" where students live have narrow slits that permit little light to enter.

A high percentage of students are truants or dropouts with limited academic skills. Edna R. O'Connor, the new educational director, believes past failures were exacerbated by a belief that little learning could take place there.

"No one expected anything, and they got what they deserved," she said. "The only thing is, the kids did not get what they deserved. We changed what we expected from the kids, and they in turn gave us what we expected."

Reforming Oak Hill is as much about lifting battered spirits as keeping order and improving discipline, O'Connor said.

Each morning, youths at Oak Hill spend 15 minutes in homeroom, writing personal responses to a series of multicultural reflections, ranging from Ifa and Gikuyu sayings to remarks by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Anita F. Hill.

Seated before a new computer one afternoon, a teenager clicks and drags a mouse to highlight the presentation he's been designing. It reads: "How long will I live. Life after Death. Living in the ghetto. Only time a tell."

Youth Services officials permitted youths to be interviewed privately if their identities were concealed. The residents agreed the school has improved vastly in the past two years.

A year ago, "everybody just sat in there jawing, there was no school and they had no discipline," said an 18-year-old, a "platoon leader" in a boot camp-type program at Oak Hill intended to prepare youths for military careers.

His first time at Oak Hill, another 18-year-old recalled, students smoked in class and fought outside. Now he is back for assault with intent to kill. (Officials estimated in past years that three-fourths of Oak Hill youths were arrested again after leaving, though Youth Services doesn't track current figures.)

"What else is there to do but learn? Might as well," he said. He took the GED exam in August and failed by six points, he said, but hopes to retake it.

A 19-year-old, who teachers said has a knack for poetry, said doing time at Oak Hill on assault and gun charges has led him to reflect on what's gone wrong in his life. He has been sent to Oak Hill twice. He said he admires the boot camp's "drill sergeants," who "look at us as young black males instead of just juvenile delinquents."

He said he plans to return to school part-time and become a hairdresser.

The Laurel facility holds three distinct populations of youths, ages 12 to 19: those detained awaiting court hearings; those held because of criminal charges; and those in protective custody, including runaways.

The D.C. Department of Human Services, through its Youth Services Administration, ran the school until 1996, when parties in the lawsuit agreed to award a contract to a private company, Boston-based Richard Milburn High School Inc. That experiment, which Lewis described as a "disaster," ended last year.

Oak Hill Academy became part of the District school system. But fearing that the school would fall apart without strong management, Levie turned it over last September to Peter E. Leone and Sheri M. Meisel, two special-education experts at the University of Maryland at College Park. Now the receivership may be coming to a close. Last month, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Levie had acted too hastily in appointing the receivers. Everyone is now waiting to see how soon Oak Hill will again be controlled by the District.

D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has argued for Oak Hill's return to the District, saying the public schools have prepared an adequate educational plan. Ackerman plans to keep O'Connor as the educational director and to build on Oak Hill's "continued and steady progress," said school spokeswoman Devonya L. Smith.

"We're obviously disappointed by the ruling from the Court of Appeals," said D.C. Public Defender Service attorney Robert L. Wilkins, who represents the children. "But nonetheless, the receivers accomplished more in a year to get qualified teachers, computers and an improved education experience than the District government had in the 13 years Oak Hill has been under court supervision."

In February, the receivers ousted the school's educational director, whose use of a school checking account has been the target of an internal D.C. public schools audit. Two months later, they brought in O'Connor, then director of multicultural education in the Baltimore County school system. At $90,000 a year, she is the highest-paid head of a single D.C. public school--a salary decision that Leone acknowledges "raised eyebrows."

The receivers boosted the school's instruction budget to just over $2 million, a $300,000 increase. Leone and Meisel said they took advantage of unspent city money and received federal grants the school had ignored.

For the first time, Oak Hill instructors are all certified in the subjects they teach and the students are getting credit that can be used toward graduation from high school. Classes begin and end on time. Mandatory uniforms--polo shirts and khaki pants, and T-shirts and sweat shorts in the summer--lend a sense of order and seriousness. Teachers address students formally.

O'Connor, the former principal at an alternative school in Lansdowne, Md., replaced one-third of the Oak Hill teachers and counselors.

For the first time, detained and committed children are taught separately, which monitors had urged for years. Detained youths are typically at Oak Hill for several weeks, committed children about eight months. Courses have been divided into self-contained nine-week sessions so students can receive credit they need to graduate.

The school emphasizes preparing students for the Stanford 9 standardized math and reading tests. Coaching for the General Educational Development diploma also has improved, O'Connor said.

Outside analysts said students are learning better because living conditions at the youth center, not just the school, have improved.

Youth Services Administrator Gayle L. Turner, who was appointed in July 1998 and recruited Perkins as her deputy, has maintained order in a 185-bed facility historically known for overcrowding and occasional brutality. In the past, guards sometimes beat the residents. Soap and blankets were in short supply, but cigarettes and drugs easily available. Fights, and even a cocaine overdose, sent children to the hospital.

Youth correctional officers, who before only enforced security, now sit in on classes, help with homework and oversee an evening reading period, sometimes aided by college student volunteers, who often arrive armed with pizza.

"There have been very significant improvements," said David A. Reiser, a D.C. Public Defender Service attorney who has represented Oak Hill children since 1986.

But despite Oak Hill's recovery, experts working to improve conditions at the school say significant problems remain.

The school suffers from many of the problems that have over the years afflicted the city's school system as a whole, from procurement to personnel to records management to getting teachers paid on time. Analysts say the greatest hurdle facing Oak Hill is improving the transition of the children from the institution to jobs or schools that may not want them.

"We're going to be beating our heads against the wall unless the community supports and embraces them when they leave," Meisel said.

Newly hired transition counselor Keith Bailey plans to visit principals to prepare them to take back Oak Hill children, as they are legally required to do. There will also be a first-ever reception for principals, to show off the Oak Hill school's improvements.

Observers say drug and alcohol treatment programs at Oak Hill remain inadequate. Turner said she plans to expand substance-abuse education.

Although one-third of the youths have special-education needs, the school has trouble attracting qualified teachers and aides, according to the receivers.

Oak Hill's population has hovered between 115 and 160 youths (about 10 percent of them female). The city has drawn up plans to build a facility for detained youths at the former site of the Receiving Home for Children in Northeast Washington. But some experts are critical of plans for a large correctional center.

"Without question, the Oak Hill school has improved under the control of the receivers," said Joseph B. Tulman, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, an advocate for delinquents' rights to special education. "Educating children with special needs in a large corrections setting, however, is inherently counter-therapeutic and counterproductive.

"You can't expect kids with emotional problems to get better if you put them in a violent atmosphere. Necessarily, large incarceration facilities promote violence. . . . The solution is to look much more at community-based and smaller, more therapeutic settings."

At first, after O'Connor arrived at Oak Hill, she asked students about their pasts, but she soon decided it was better if she did not know, for "my own comfort level."

"I grew up in the projects, but I've always been protected," she said. "How do I face a boy who's in here for murder?"

So now she doesn't ask what brought them to Oak Hill. They are there, and the school should serve them, whatever they did. "I want this school to have a second chance," she said, "to give students another chance."