“Wherever there’s a crane in the sky, you can bet one of our kids is out there,” says Willie Jackson, principal of Phelps ACE High School. Students at the D.C. school study architecture, construction and engineering. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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There’s a top-secret District government research and development facility off Benning Road NE, near Langston Golf Course. It’s called Phelps ACE High School, and Willie Jackson wishes it wasn’t quite so top secret.

Jackson is the principal of Phelps. When he was growing up in Washington in the 1970s and ’80s, the public school had a reputation as an academic dumping ground. Many saw it as a place for students who couldn’t handle “real” classes and should just make do with “shop.”

Things got so bad that Phelps was closed in 1991. It reopened in 2008, its original building supplemented with a new, light-filled space that houses state-of-the-art equipment. There was a new focus, too: ACE, short for architecture, construction and engineering.

Six years ago, Jackson took over as principal.

“We’ve been rebranded,” he said. “You have to come with a sense of critical-thinking skills . . . You not only have to work well with your hands, but also your brains.”

I’m hoping Washington Post readers will link their Giant grocery store loyalty cards to Phelps, allowing it to get a bit of a financial boost. (All of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.)

Jackson is a product of the District’s public school system. He grew up in Barry Farm in Southeast and in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast. Jackson went to Ballou Senior High School — Class of 1987 — where he played baseball and basketball. It was a partial basketball scholarship that allowed him to go to Cheyney University of Pennsylvania to study science.

His first job was at the Takoma Education Campus teaching science, PE and health to students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Quite an age range, I said.

“I enjoyed it,” Jackson said. “I was young, right out of college, excited about working and excited about giving back to my city that gave me so much.”

The principal at Takoma thought Jackson was destined to lead schools, so she urged him to apply to the educational leadership program at George Mason University. He earned his master's there and then took administrative positions at Walker-Jones Education Campus and a troubled Hine Middle School. He merged Hine with Eliot and then, after a stint coaching school principals, was tapped to run Phelps.

“Parents do not know what a gem this is,” Jackson said as he showed me around recently. “They know Phelps as the old Phelps.”

Today’s Phelps has modern technical classrooms where students get hands-on experience in distinct areas: carpentry, engineering, architecture, electrical, sheet metal and welding, HVAC and refrigeration, and Cisco networking. (Plumbing is on tap for next year.) Kids also take typical high school classes such as English, math and social studies.

I visited Phelps on a professional development day, so there were no students around. But two adult volunteers from the U.S. Transportation Department had come in to familiarize themselves with such tools as the school’s computer-controlled cutting machine. They’re helping the Phelps robotics team.

Similar partnerships allow Phelps students to gain real-world experience outside the classroom. Said Jackson, “Wherever there’s a crane in the sky, you can bet one of our kids is out there.”

Phelps accepts applicants from around the city. Current enrollment is about 300, small compared with other D.C. high schools. “I will not rest till I get 500 kids,” Jackson said.

Students graduate with a high school diploma and certification in their chosen discipline. Anyone who’s hired an electrician knows they can make pretty good money. But Jackson doesn’t want his students’ education to end at Phelps.

“We really push college,” he said. “We tell kids, ‘We want you to own the company.’ ”

After I interviewed Jackson, the D.C. Public Schools announced that he would be temporarily placed in charge of Ballou as academic inconsistencies at the school are investigated. If anyone can simultaneously be principal of two schools, it’s Willie Jackson.

If you have a Giant loyalty card, you can link it to Phelps. The grocery chain has changed the procedure for its school rewards program, and it’s a little tougher to navigate this year. Users must create an online account and then link their card number to a school ID number. Go to giantfood.com and click on the right where it says “Register” (or click “Sign In” if you’ve already registered). Then go to “My Account,” then “Manage Your Account,” then “Rewards & Savings.” You’ll see a button that allows you to change your school preference. The Phelps school ID number is 40745.

If you don’t know your Giant card number, you can call 877-366-2668 and select option 1 to reach customer service and get instructions on creating an online account.

Helping Hand

Here’s another way to help some worthy local institutions: We’re raising money for Bright Beginnings, a preschool that helps homeless children and their parents; N Street Village, a shelter and support network for women experiencing homelessness; and So Others Might Eat, which offers meals and more to poverty-stricken Washingtonians.

To learn more about The Washington Post Helping Hand, or make a donation, visit posthelpinghand.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.