The old brick schoolhouse stands vacant, graffiti marring its facade, paint peeling from its white columns, but despite years of neglect, still a monument to the education of generations of African Americans.
The venerable building is the prize in a tug of war between the old and the new, between African Americans eager to preserve their heritage and a group affiliated with the Latin American Youth Center desperate for a school building.
The proud alumni of the Military Road School, closed when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in 1954, want to convert it into a museum. The center envisions a bilingual Montessori charter school at the site.
The Military Road School, which faces a section of road since renamed Missouri Avenue just east of 16th Street NW, is a registered historic landmark with a proud past and an uncertain future.
Since the 1950s, the building has housed special education students, been vacant, been used for computer classes and been leased to another charter school that never got off the ground.
Now, the Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) School wants to lease the four-room building from the District government with an option to buy. But the Military Road Alumni Association, a tight-knit organization of intensely loyal graduates, has other ideas.
The association and its allies -- a coalition of historians, preservationists and neighborhood activists -- want to make the school a key stop on a Civil War heritage tour of the area, with a visitors' center, historical displays and a classroom full of educational artifacts.
"This is a special situation," said Charles Powell, 59, a retired psychologist and the president of the alumni group who was in fifth grade when the school closed. "This requires special handling."
The charter group promises just that. Lori Kaplan, director of its parent organization, says the school will celebrate the building's African American heritage and, indeed, incorporate it into the curriculum. The school's executive director, Diane Cottman, is a native Washingtonian who is African American.
It is a dispute that stirs strong passions, both among alumni and the Columbia Heights-based nonprofit agency that seeks to use the building for the charter school. Neither group has the necessary funds in hand. Both say that without ownership they cannot borrow money to finance the needed renovations, which include asbestos and lead-paint removal. Ballpark estimates for the overall job range from $1 million to $2 million.
"Usually, the community rallies around" uses for a building that has become a neighborhood eyesore, said D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who supports the charter school. "It does not have to be either/or. It can have a school with a visible tribute to African American history."
Notable for its Italian Renaissance architecture, the school was built in 1912, replacing a wood frame building made from the barracks at nearby Fort Stevens, which came under Confederate attack in 1864. The neighborhood was also home to the oldest free black community in the District, dating to around 1820.
Barred from attending the larger Brightwood Elementary School for whites just down the street, Military Road graduates cherish memories of their own outstanding teachers, victory gardens, May Day festivities, safety patrol parades and a school bell that summoned them to class. The school educated blacks from Upper Northwest and also from lower Montgomery County, with probably no more than 100 students at its peak and about 30 when it closed.
The District government, which is trying sell 11 surplus schools to raise money, says it is bound by a mayoral order to offer these buildings first to publicly funded charter schools -- although the alumni group notes that the city has not always followed this rule.
Moreover, "in general," said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century Fund, which seeks to improve urban schools, "it's the schools for the African American kids they surplused." Barbara Franco, president of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., said she sees the historic school building as a "neighborhood gateway" to the new City Museum scheduled to open next month in the city's former central Carnegie Library across from the new Convention Center.
"I've found out, here in Washington, loyalty to schools is extremely strong," said Franco, who came to her current post from Minnesota. "Alumni associations are not just a couple of people who get together. This alumni group is not to be dismissed as just some people with old class loyalties."
Franco said the society has been talking to the alumni for over a year about the concept, but it also has worked with the Latin American center on a display that traces the history of the District's Latino community. "That's a very good group," said Franco, who sees merit on both sides.
Meanwhile, the LAMB School is reviewing a draft lease-purchase agreement with the District and hopes to move into the building in September 2004, after starting this fall with 56 children in a church near Catholic University. It hopes to grow to 140 students over 10 years.
"We've already got tons of parents calling -- black, white, Latino, Asian," said Kaplan, director of the Latin American center, located in an old apartment building the agency renovated at a cost of $2.5 million. That building already houses a charter school for teenagers and is adorned with student-made murals and mosaics. The Latin American center has a $7 million annual operating budget.
Still, the Military Road alumni are skeptical of the Montessori school's ability to pull it off. Although the Military Road School's historic status protects its outside, they worry about changes that could forever alter the school's interior. They also worry about what could happen if the charter school were unable to make a go of it and the building were later sold to a less caring owner.
A dozen alumni gathered recently in front of their alma mater for a group photo session that turned into a mini-reunion. Those present ranged in age from 58 to 91.
"It was the only school we could go to at the time," said Henry Washington, 76, who served on the school safety patrol and still lives in the neighborhood. "They taught us very well. A dentist came once a month to check teeth. God, I'm still going to his son."
Washington's younger brother, Ronald, 58, who recently retired from the federal government, said: "My time here was the most fun for me because it was comfortable. It's funny. It looks small. When I was young, it looked huge."
Powell said his group had unsuccessfully sought to meet with the city's office of property management, the agency charged with disposing of the surplus schools. "It's been an ongoing saga," he said.
Two months after the alumni submitted its questions by e-mail to the city, the property management office replied by letter to alumna Patricia Tyson that the school "was only for the exclusive bidding" by charter schools and "will be sold" to the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School. "Latin American is aware of the necessary renovations and abatements, and has demonstrated that it has the financial resources necessary for the purchase and renovations," wrote Kit Read, city project manager for surplus properties. "We encourage you to welcome and support [the charter school] into your neighborhood."
Neither the alumni nor the 16th Street Heights Civic Association or Brightwood Community Association has accepted the decision as final. Thus it was that the Military Road School was high on last week's agenda of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A, which has influence over city actions.
At the ANC meeting, Read defended the sale, citing a "desperate need" for space for the publicly funded charter schools, of which the District has 40. Was this a done deal? "It's not done-done," she said. "We go back and forth." "I'm a product of that school," said alumna R. Barbara Johnson, 75. "How are you going to get 140 students in four classrooms? At its height, it didn't have that many."
"We have a public treasure here, and you're about to sell it to a private group," said Harry Singleton, a lawyer advising the alumni.
"Without an appraisal and architectural drawings, all I can do is promise to preserve the historical integrity of the building," said the charter school's Cottman. "Beyond that, I can't promise you, anybody, anything."
The hour-long discussion was spirited but inconclusive. Brightwood Commissioner Dianne Sutton urged the groups to meet again. They agreed, and the ANC moved onto its next item of business.
But the discussion did not end there. The two sides repaired to the lobby, where they chatted informally and cordially.
Cottman told Powell she didn't take his opposition personally. Powell said it was "the process" that was at fault. "I admire what you do," he said. "I'm a former educator myself."
"I think we have a lot in common," Kaplan said.
"We do," said Powell.
But Military Road alumni remained skeptical.
"We wouldn't say it has to be totally a museum," said alumna Theresa Tyson Saxton, 59. "But to be totally a school would limit its use to the community. The use is where we might come to some disagreement. If we get together and talk about it, I don't know. We need to see what they're about. I'd stop short of saying I want them totally out of there."
Outside, the charter school contingent also caucused before heading home.
"This is such a weird situation for us to be in," Kaplan said.
"Normally," Cottman said, "we'd be picketing with them."