A year ago, pigeon dung was piled six inches deep on parts of the floors in the vacant Nichols Avenue Elementary School, which closed down in the early 1980s. Beneath a sagging, broken roof, vines covered a dilapidated facade adorned only with shattered or boarded-up windows and doors. A grand portico with columns, a skylight on the second level and wrought iron staircases betrayed the former beauty of the turn-of-the-century building.
As the first public school for black students in Hillsdale, the 104-year-old facility had been a neighborhood focal point during its heyday, according to Jane Levey, a historian with Cultural Tourism D.C. But a year ago, it "almost looked like a haunted house," said Jennifer Hill-Flowers, 40, who has lived in Southeast Washington her entire life.
The structure at 2427 Martin Luther King Ave. SE was not alone among school buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Many D.C. public schools were constructed in the World War II era or the 1970s and are in dire need of work, said school board member Jeff Smith (District 1). Some of those built three decades ago are actually in worse condition than those from the 1940s because of shoddy construction, said Smith. During the 1990s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was in charge of D.C. public school facilities, lack of regular maintenance worsened the problem, Smith added.
Several school construction or renovation projects are either underway or in the pipeline for completion in fall 2006 or later. However, the broad focus of the D.C. Public Schools capital budget, which dropped to $147 million this year from $174.9 million last year, will shift from full-scale modernization to repair or replacement of aging electrical systems, leaky roofs, air conditioning and heating, and other building basics in the next couple of years, according to Cornell S. Brown, executive director of facilities management for the school system. "You can't build new schools in two buildings when 140 buildings are in need of renovation," Brown said.
Next month, the former Nichols Avenue Elementary building is reopening -- gutted, renovated, and outfitted with state-of-the-art classrooms -- as the new home of Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter high school launched in 2001. Hill-Flowers, whose two daughters attend the school, watched the metamorphosis of the vacant building with pleasure as she drove by every morning on the way to work. And as she enters her senior year, Britnee Flowers, 16, is excited to move to a school she can call her own after several years in a church annex where the cafeteria flooded inches deep during hard rains, soaking her books.
"It was just a really grim-looking building," Hill-Flowers said. "It looks brighter over there already."
Thurgood Marshall is one of a handful of charter schools and traditional public schools reopening in new or revamped facilities during this school year.
None of the newly renovated traditional public school buildings will be completely ready this fall. An addition at Brightwood Elementary in Northwest will open even as the old part remains under renovation. A new building for Bell Multicultural Senior High and Lincoln Middle in Northwest and an enlarged, renovated facility for Thomson Elementary in Northwest are expected to open in the second half of the year, school system officials said.
Last March, the D.C. Board of Education approved Superintendent Clifford B. Janey's plan to scale back major renovations in favor of more modest repairs. Janey developed the new proposal in response to city officials' decision to cut funding by tens of millions of dollars over the next few years.
"Too much has been spent on too few projects for too long," and delays have led to high maintenance costs on old facilities even as their replacements are being built, said Jordan Spooner, deputy director of the 21st Century School Fund, an organization dedicated to improving urban public school facilities. Spooner expressed optimism about the current plan for public schools.
But others were not entirely pleased with the change. "We are disappointed that we can't go through with these wonderful plans that had a lot of community buy-in," said Amy Friend, a parent of two public school students, who worked for years on a proposal to modernize Alice Deal Junior High School. Friend said that she understood the choices D.C. Public Schools made, given the budget constraints, but that without more money from the city council, students and teachers who are "desperately in need of new facilities" are forced to make difficult choices about which parts of the modernization they can manage to salvage.
Under Janey's plan, full-scale renovation work will be confined to seven senior high schools: Anacostia, Cardozo, Coolidge, Roosevelt, School Without Walls, Wilson and H.D. Woodson.
"Our high schools are pretty spread throughout the [city], and they are what a lot of people relate to the school system through," Smith said. "Everyone knows their neighborhood high school," and the whole community sees any improvements that are made there, he said.