Generations of students, parents and staff from Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Northwest Washington gathered yesterday at a jubilant, symbolic groundbreaking for the city's first new public school building in 20 years.
Youngsters now in high school or home from college greeted old teachers with hugs, kisses and still-proficient Spanish, which they learned in Oyster's highly regarded language immersion program.
Parents of current students bounced younger children on laps or pushed them in strollers, after writing nametags that proclaimed the year in which the babies would become students in Oyster's new building.
The school will be built through an innovative arrangement in which a developer is paying for the project in exchange for the right to build a luxury apartment building on what had been a school field. Other D.C. schools are seeking similar partnerships.
LCOR Inc. of Bethesda will pay for the $11 million building in lieu of property taxes on the 211-unit building it will erect on the eastern half of the site at 29th and Calvert streets NW in Woodley Park. City officials say they are as happy about the new housing in a tight real estate market as they are about rebuilding the school.
Principal Paquita Holland hopes to hold graduation in the building in spring 2001. Oyster students, who were shifted to a closed elementary school near Howard University 15 months ago so construction could begin, would return to it full time in September 2001.
The new school will replace a cramped, crumbling 72-year-old brick building. It will be the city's first school to be in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and it will have more and bigger classrooms and a kitchen, gym, nurse's office, outdoor environmental classroom and full-fledged media center where none existed before.
"This project will be a shot in the arm for the entire city," Carolyn Graham, deputy mayor for children and families, told the crowd yesterday. "You represent a model, so that other communities can do it, too."
The project was conceived 10 years ago by parent Mary Filardo, who at the time had three children at Oyster and has since founded the 21st Century School Fund, an advocacy group that seeks innovative ways to refurbish urban schools.
Nearly every step of negotiating and approving the deal has taken far longer than expected, in part because of turmoil in the school system, which in the past four years has seen three superintendents and the D.C. financial control board's temporary displacement of the elected school board.
Filardo--whose youngest child is now in the 10th grade--fought steadfastly for the project, long after it became clear that her own children would not benefit.
"We have acknowledged the importance of education for children," she said triumphantly to loud cheers. Referring to the loss of a scrubby grass playing field on which the apartments will be built, she added, "We can say this is a sacrifice, but the benefits are greater."
The old Oyster building must be demolished, so the groundbreaking was ceremonial, with dignitaries and students shoveling bales of hay.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman teamed up for the effort with 2-year-old Jaqueline Arce. She is the daughter of an Oyster educational aide, who herself attended the school, and a hopeful member of the new building's first pre-kindergarten class.
"This is truly a labor of love . . . for the children," Ackerman said earlier. "And to LCOR and other companies who are interested in public-private partnerships: We're waiting. The children of the District of Columbia are waiting."
CAPTION: Fatmah Jattuh, 9, recites the Pledge of Allegiance at Oyster Bilingual Elementary School. A developer is paying for a new school in exchange for use of a field.
CAPTION: Jack Ozment, 9, reads a Harry Potter book before the ceremony at the spot where the first new D.C. public school in 20 years will be built.