When Lynn Cartwright began her freshman year at the School Without Walls in 1999, she knew only six people in the entire school. That was not unusual, because Walls is a public magnet school that draws students from all over the District.
But how this particular collection of over-scheduled teenagers handled a newcomer's loneliness and stress caught her completely by surprise. Shortly after Cartwright arrived, junior Rosie Conklin walked up to her and her friend Jessica Pryde as they sat on a bench during lunch.
"Hi, I'm Rosie," the older student said. "I'm in your music class, and I have seen you around. I just wondered how you were doing so far, if your year was going well."
At most schools, juniors do not befriend out-of-it freshmen, but Walls has been the District's most unconventional school since its beginning 32 years ago, and Conklin's gesture is just one more way that Walls is different from many schools. "We all look out for each other," said Kevin Horton, a senior.
Recent events have dramatized something else about the three-story brick building at 2130 G St. NW. Despite budget cuts, terrible facilities and what parents say is little help from school headquarters, Walls has also proven itself to be one of the city's most successful academic institutions.
In the percentage of students at the highest levels of the annual Stanford 9 achievement tests, Walls comes in second only to the city's academic magnet, Banneker. Its Advanced Placement course participation rate is better than 96 percent of American schools and would be even higher if the many courses its students take at area universities counted the same as Advanced Placement high school offerings.
And this year, one of Cartwright's classmates, Sabrina Snell, became the first D.C. public school student in 33 years to be one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition.
Parents and students say they are happy about this, but most wish more was being done to solve the school's problems. Its small size, lack of adequate staff and district red tape have led to many administrative lapses, said Robert O'Sullivan, whose daughter, Mairead, is a senior. He listed some: "schedules with nonexistent courses, conflicting courses or nonsensical combinations of courses, wrong grades, late grades, incomplete transcripts, meetings scheduled but not held and meetings held without notice."
Walls officials say their administrative problems are actually less than those of other schools, but they agree there is a problem with the 121-year-old building. A bathroom ceiling has collapsed and outside bricks have fallen, but efforts to find money for a major renovation have not yet succeeded.
Still, 350 students applied for 90 slots in the school's ninth and 10th grades next year, and that is one of the keys to its success. Because of its academic reputation, Walls is able to select an unusually diverse and motivated student body that in turn draws some of the best teachers in the city.
The enrollment is 73 percent African American, 17 percent non-Hispanic white, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic, with many foreign-born parents. Junior Erikka Watkins said she has never before encountered such a wide range of students from so many different parts of the world. The school's small size also means "students get more one-on-one contact with the teacher," she said.
Daniela Grigioni-Carozza, president of the Home School Association, the equivalent of the PTA, said, "Teachers are able to personalize instruction, working both ends of the spectrum of skills, letting the advanced students explore on their own and helping the ones who need to catch up within the same instructional time."
Parents said they liked Dana Bedden, the principal for the last three years. He managed to "keep and attract outstanding teachers," said Mary Gant, mother of Intel finalist Snell. But Bedden's reputation was so good that the Philadelphia schools hired him as an area superintendent. He was supervising 323 students on Feb. 28, his last official day at Walls, and nearly 40,000 students the next day in Philadelphia.
Assistant Principal Sheila Mills Harris was named acting principal. Parents are begging her to apply for the permanent job when the selection process begins later in the spring. "Sheila Harris is the heart of the school," said Marcia Timmel, whose daughter Sarah is a sophomore. "She knows and loves every single student that walks through the door."
"She is strict and no-nonsense, but fair and just," said Kirsten Fitrell, another parent.
What is responsible for the school's lasting success, from its beginning in 1971 with just 50 students, is the talent and energy of the faculty, parents say. Emily Carton, whose son Noah Krameris a sophomore, said she wished she had some of his homework assignments. "I loved the one where the students were asked to compare the style of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' with Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' " she said.
Parents say teachers know their children and keep in touch. "Imagine a teacher calling you at the office simply to tell you how well your child is doing," Carton said. "My husband nearly fell out of his chair."
Timmel said she discovered that Walls was one of the few public schools to have figured out what to do with gifted students, like her daughter, who also have learning disabilities. "Their combination of challenging academics and nurturing individualized attention for every student was precisely the sort of program where Sarah could mainstream and excel," Timmel said.
Parents praise the continued allegiance to Walls's original concept of using one of the world's great cities -- taking advantage of the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, the embassies, the law firms, the courts, the Congress, the universities -- as a classroom and treating the students as if they were in graduate school.
Snell, the science finalist, did much of her research at the U.S. Naval Observatory, studying anomalies in star motion measurements. Snell also used satellite data, available on the Internet.
"The school offers a challenging program and expects its students to prepare for college studies," said David Frankel, whose stepdaughter Lucie Baierova is a sophomore. The exposure to the real world has also made Walls students among the most politically active in the city.
Among several splendid teachers, Denise Watkins mentioned math instructor George Reidy. "The man is fantastic," she said. Reidy is notoriously demanding, but when Watkins's daughter Erikka got her only D on a math test her freshman year from him, the student asked for help and the teacher was happy to oblige. Two years later, she is maintaining a B average in Reidy's AP calculus class.
O'Sullivan is completely taken with the quality of the staff, faculty and beyond. He complimented security officer Robert Mason, who "knows everyone, students and parents, looks out for them in a friendly, unobtrusive way."
The school's strengths are augmented by its close relationship with George Washington University. It is located in the middle of GW's urban campus, and Walls students enroll in many university courses, which GW makes available to the high school at no cost. Gant said much of her daughter's success sprang from the opportunity to take courses at both GW and American University in astronomy, mathematics, Spanish, Russian history and cultural anthropology.
For such a small school, Walls also has many activities, including 10 sports teams. Last year's baseball team reached the city championship game, winning "the right to be slaughtered by Wilson," joked senior Nick Barbash.
The complaints about the school's building begin with the absence of lockers. Students "have to carry around heavy backpacks, their coats, and whatever else they need to bring with them all day long," Carton said. "Last year, the front door was cordoned off for months because of bricks falling from the very top," Grigioni-Carozza said. "Windows blow open during storms and rain comes in. The ceiling in the boys bathroom fell down. . . . Kids have no cafeteria, athletic facilities or gym."
Michal Hunter, mother of student Juliana Furioso, said that when the bricks started falling "the joke was it really would become the school without walls!"
Officials at D.C. school headquarters did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bedden and Harris said the school is working on a renovation plan that would tap GW's financial resources to put the building back in shape while saving its historic facade, first built in 1882.
Parents are also bitter about the D.C. school administration's continued budget cuts. Last year, Bedden said, he decided he had only enough money for a 30-hour-a-week librarian, leading Lynn Kaufman, friend of every student with a research project, to work elsewhere.
Walls parents and students say they have learned to count their blessings. "I think there are downsides to a small school, that therefore has very little money and a limited number of teachers," Cartwright said. "But I don't wish that I had gone to any other high school."
Timmel said she is distraught because the family is moving to Raleigh, N.C., and she cannot find a school as good as Walls, despite that city's reputation for educational excellence.
"When was the last time you heard someone complaining because they had to take their kids out of the D.C. public schools?" she said.