The newly modernized Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast Washington comes fully equipped with a media center, art rooms, computer rooms, science rooms and a technology room.
Perhaps even more impressive is what the school lacks: There are no bars or steel-mesh screens over the windows. And when students show up for classes today, they won't have to walk through metal detectors. The school looks like a school. It's not one of those windowless concrete fortresses that resemble a maximum-security prison.
As the principal, Robert W. Gill Jr., put it in an interview with The Washington Post last month: "This is a wonderful backdrop for learning. When students come here, they will really feel encouraged to learn. The temperatures are right. The lighting is right. They have an optimal environment."
He is absolutely right about that. And yet . . .
Creating an optimal environment was also a big deal at the Olympics in Athens. But in the end, no state-of-the-art facility could save, say, the U.S. men's basketball team, which had to settle for bronze. Why? Because it lacked the fundamentals of the game, such as passing and shooting.
And what about the U.S. 4x100-meter relay teams? They ran on a brand-new track. But some of the fastest men and women in the world still let gold medals slip through their fingers. Failure to master a basic skill -- passing a baton -- proved to be their Achilles' heel.
And so it is with many D.C. public school students -- except that in Olympic sports, a lack of basics costs a medal, and when it comes to education, life itself is at stake.
This is not to say that new and improved school buildings don't matter. They do. And if District officials really cared about education, Kelly Miller wouldn't be one of a handful of schools slated for makeovers. The millions in taxpayer dollars that city officials are willing to give away just to lure a baseball team could be used to fix up nearly every public school in the city. It's not just students who need to get back to basics.
Located in a long-neglected part of the city east of the Anacostia River, Kelly Miller was closed in 1997 with the understanding that it would be demolished and rebuilt from scratch. The realization of that plan is regarded by some as a near miracle. "This is the first new school built east of the river in 35 years," William Lockridge, a D.C. school board member who represents the area, said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday.
He might have added that the District could see a new baseball stadium completed before another school gets built.
The question many will have about the new Kelly Miller is whether the state-of-the-art building has any effect on test scores. Of course, it is unlikely that acoustically designed music rooms and other specialized facilities will matter much when students from feeder elementary schools show up lacking basic skills.
The hope is that Kelly Miller will attract more students such as Diamond Cameron, an eighth-grader who offered a heartfelt welcome at the ribbon-cutting and called her school "a model of middle school learning." Diamond appeared to be one of those special students who do well no matter where they go to school.
With more students like her, Gill may have a fighting chance. He is renowned for building the 100-student-strong Cardozo High marching band from scratch in 1970 and leading it to national fame with performances at the Rose Bowl and during President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural parade.
He went on to become principal at Roosevelt High. And now, with an uncanny ability to motivate and discipline, he has been charged with making Kelly Miller once again worthy of the man it is named for. Miller, the son of a free father and enslaved mother, studied at Howard and Johns Hopkins universities and went on to become one of the nation's great educators.
During the invocation yesterday, Pastor S. Patrice Sheppard of Living Word Church, one of Kelly Miller's great-granddaughters, petitioned for Gill's success.
"Anoint the intellect of our children," she prayed. "Help them do their best. Provide them with a hedge of protection so that they may not be harmed or bring harm to others. Let a spirit of patience, kindness and wisdom be released throughout these halls."