The new head of Eastern Senior High School stood before a crowd of parents, teachers, students, graduates and community residents last night and acknowledged that the building is crumbling, the students are undisciplined and the teachers are demoralized.
And that was the just the beginning.
For more than two hours, people involved with the school long known as "the pride of Capitol Hill" vented their frustration and confusion and complained about the disorganized and deteriorated state of the school. Its principal was fired a week ago for failing to open the school on the city's first day of class.
Administrators of the District's public schools called the meeting to formally introduce parents to Wilma F. Bonner, the veteran educator who was hastily sent from the school system's central office to run Eastern temporarily after its principal, Norman S. Smith Jr., was fired Sept. 1 for failing to finish the school's schedule of classes and room assignments.
Bonner, who was hired by the school system in 1970 and has been a principal at two other D.C. high schools, gave a blunt assessment of conditions at Eastern.
She said that truancy and tardiness are rampant and that many students have been allowed to wander the hallways. She said there are not enough Advanced Placement class offerings and announced plans to hire additional physical education, social studies and computer teachers. She asked parents to volunteer to patrol the school, to mentor students and to make sure their children spend at least 21/2 hours each night on homework.
To cheers from parents, Bonner declared that student achievement cannot improve "until we fix this filthy building, this deteriorated building." The building was erected in 1923.
Even so, it was the speakers who expressed the strongest emotions.
"Why has this school been neglected?" asked Joy McLean, whose son Anthony is in 12th grade. "Why has this school been allowed to deteriorate?"
John Gibson, a 1992 graduate of Eastern, gestured at the paint flaking off the ceiling of the auditorium, where the meeting was held. "You can't expect kids to excel if they're in an environment that's not conducive to learning," he said. "We've lost an entire generation."
Joyce McKinney, who brought her son Justin, a senior at Eastern, to the meeting, shook her head when Bonner said a new principal could be in place by December. "He has not been challenged to his potential," McKinney said of her son. "I don't think he's received a quality education."
Herbert A. Collins, whose son, Sean Atkinson, is in 10th grade, asked Bonner how he should respond when Sean "comes home and tells me he spent the day doing nothing." Collins went on: "He's had classes where there were no teachers. I had to come to school and find out where the substitutes were getting their instructional materials. There was no syllabus, no lesson plan, not even books."
The parents seemed most concerned about the lack of stability at Eastern. Since Ralph H. Neal, the school's principal from 1984 to 1997, moved to a job in the system's central office, four principals have come and gone.
Lucius McInnis, who has a son in 12th grade, said the constant turnover has made improvements in student performance virtually impossible. "There is no continuity," he said.
Not all of the blame was focused on school officials.
Zouncerie D. Braxton, who joined the District's school system in 1976 and is starting her 10th year teaching English at Eastern, recalled students who came to class unprepared -- "no notebook, no ink pen" -- and unwilling to learn. "Parents, we have to change some things around here," Braxton said.
Another parent, Denise Smith, said the school's Parent-Teacher Association has become nearly dormant, holding only two meetings last school year.
Bonner said she intends to remain at Eastern for at least several months. A decision on who will lead the school in the future awaits the arrival of the District's new superintendent, Clifford B. Janey. Hired last month as the fifth superintendent in less than a decade, Janey is scheduled to start Wednesday.