Out front, the century-old brick facade had been lovingly restored. Inside, heart-of-pine floors gleamed with fresh lacquer. And a new three-story addition had sprouted out back, home to an airy library, a well-stocked science center and gorgeous views of the Washington Monument across the Anacostia River.
Last week, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and more than 100 others gathered to celebrate the $14.5 million transformation of the once-vacant Nichols Avenue Elementary School into the first new high school for Ward 8 students in more than four decades.
The facility serves 300 students in grades 9 through 12 as the new home of the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School. Founded in 2001 in a rented church building on Alabama Avenue SE, the academy quickly established itself as one of the best public high schools in the city, according to a 2005 Washington Post Magazine survey. This year every member of its first graduating class was accepted to a college.
At the dedication ceremony under a party tent on the school's playground, Williams and Barry praised school officials for cobbling together public and private funds to build an institution that brings high academic standards and hope for economic advancement to students in one of the city's most impoverished areas.
"Unfortunately, too many of our public schools are not meeting the needs of our children. That's why I believe in the charter school movement," Barry told a crowd packed with Thurgood Marshall officials, teachers and students. "Thank you for bringing this jewel -- it's a gemstone -- to Ward 8," he said.
Students accepted into the academically rigorous school are not assured of quick success: Only 18 of the 80 ninth-graders who entered Thurgood Marshall in 2001 graduated this spring. Most of the others were held back at least one grade. Others dropped out.
Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local group that supports charter schools, said it's not unusual for charter schools to hold students back. "The average high school student in the District is reading at the fourth- or fifth-grade level," he said. "It's very hard for a charter school to turn them around in just four years."
School officials say the force behind Thurgood Marshall is co-founder and President Joshua M. Kern, 33. Kern, a Philadelphia native, was a law student at Georgetown University in 1999 when he signed up to teach an introduction to law class at Ballou Senior High School. After a year at Ballou, Kern decided to dedicate himself to providing a better education to the children of Ward 8.
"At Ballou, you find kids who really want to learn and are smart and excited about learning, but the infrastructure is not there to let kids reach their potential," Kern said in an interview.
For example, Kern said he was "really frustrated" by constant interruptions from the public address system while teaching at Ballou. He said it was not unusual for his 50-minute class to be disrupted three or four times by announcements, often for little more than phone messages for teachers.
"There's a lot of ways you can send a message to kids that we don't value you," Kern said. "How you run a school sends a message."
The next fall, with help from other lawyers and law professors, Kern opened the Thurgood Marshall Academy, the District's first law-related public charter high school. Located in space rented from the Congress Heights United Methodist Church, the school set about on a mission to teach children to participate in democratic society and prepare them for college.
At first, Kern said, it was tough to attract students. "We were, frankly, primarily a group of white people, not from east of the river, and we were looked at as outsiders," he said. But as word of the school's rigorous academic program spread, the school's popularity grew. This year, Kern said, 40 ninth-graders are on the waiting list.
Unlike traditional public schools, the Thurgood Marshall Academy requires students to attend from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and often to come in on Saturdays, Kern said. There is a mandatory summer program, and students who can't do the work are not passed on to the next grade in the name of social promotion.
Those who do make the grade, such as Brittnee Flowers, 16, say they are grateful for the school, especially now that they get to spend their days in such a beautiful facility.
"I am so proud," she said, "to be spending my senior year in our new building."