The drama of the D.C. Public Schools has always dwelled in the numbers. Though every school system in the country has its problems, DCPS generally outdoes its counterparts in ways that can be counted.
For years, the school system has failed to keep a reliable list of its estimated 55,000 students.
Administrators have never been able to file the millions of personnel documents relating to the systemâs 11,000 employees.
And talk of test scores invariably invokes the arithmetic of dysfunction: A few years back, DCPS students averaged a tally of 396 on the math portion of the SAT, 123 points below the national average.
Yet the schoolsâ adult leaders often come off as the real underachievers. A decade ago, the crisis was all about leaky roofs and broken boilers. Forty-seven schools in 1997 had boiler problems that the schools administration failed to fix on time. A judge closed four schools and left 3,000 students in satellite classrooms where supplies were scarce.
That year, the superintendent delayed opening day across the entire system by three weeks to take care of repairs at more than 50 schools.
And thatâs why opening day in D.C. Public Schools is always packed with suspense. Whoâs gonna fuck up this time? Here, the question marks also have a quantitative aspect to them: How many students, for starters, will sit in sweltering classrooms? How many wonât have the textbooks to start the year off the right way? How many will come without their uniforms? How many will show up unannounced, and how many wonât show up at all?
The numbers will pour in quickly, casting a first impression of the new schools regime headed by Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee. These folks have vowed to fix the school system. As the on-the-ground reports in this package indicate, thatâs a job of incalculable proportions.
Anacostia Senior High School
In the Anacostia Senior High Auditorium, interim principal Lynne D. Gober stands in front of her teachers for the first time.
Gober is a first-time DCPS principal, but sheâs hardly a rookie. She taught biology and chemistry at Dunbar Senior High for a 13 years before taking an assistant principal job there in 1996. In 1997, she moved to West Virginia to get married, where she ended up principal of an elementary school in Martinsburg. She moved back to D.C. last summer to take care of her mother, grabbing an assistant principal job at Anacostia this spring. After Principal Ronald Duplessis was ousted earlier this year, she got the top job.
âHow you begin today matters,â she tells them. âIf you let them talk and holler and play, theyâll be doing it till June. I suggest you buckle down.â
Down-buckling is no problem for Gober. Sheâs also a retired Air National Guard officer. In a few minutes, sheâll be outside, making sure hats are off and shirts are tucked in. In the meantime, sheâs answering a few last concerns from her troops.
âWhat if thereâs more students than desks?â asks one teacher.
Easy, says Gober: Thereâs a whole bunch of extras downstairs. Send the students down to get them.
Then there are the schedules. Not all students will have schedules, reports guidance counselor Annie Smith, but âwe hope that will happen at a very rapid pace.â Kids without real schedules will get âdummy schedulesâ that will at least give them a room to go to.
And in any case, thereâs a plan: As kids enter the school through metal detectorsâgirls in one entrance, boys in anotherâeach class is to report to a different area. Freshmen are supposed to go to the auditorium, sophomores to the gym, juniors to the cafeteria, and seniors to the âNew Wingââa â70s-vintage expanse of open-pod classrooms. There, the students are supposed to hear a short speech from their respective assistant principals, meet their new teachers, get their schedules, and go to their homerooms, then to each of the dayâs five periods. From there, itâs all good.
Calvin Coolidge Senior High School
Brittany is standing in the Coolidge parking lot before school opens. Sheâs wearing flared blue jeans and a collarless gray T-shirt. Sheâs the only one in jeans. Thatâs because Coolidge now requires uniforms; jeans and collarless T-shirts arenât on the list of approved apparel.
So why didnât she conform? âDo you want the truth, or do you want me to lie to you?â the 17-year-old senior asks.
Last spring, a committee of students and parents adopted a dress code with an emphasis on choice and modesty: black, gray, orange, or white collared shirt with khaki, black, or gray pants. Since students had a better than 80 percent chance of being in a classroom without air conditioning, they could wear shorts. Skorts, even.
Too many kids cited choosing an outfit as an excuse for their tardiness, explains Principal L. Nelson Burton. The new dress code would take care of that as well as kids being teased for their unfashionable duds. Parents had to sign a notice promising to adhere to the code.
âI have the paper with the colors in my bookbag,â Brittany confesses. âI didnât think a lot of people would wear uniforms for a while.â
Brittany is starting to realize this canât be good for her first day. She blames her cousin, who graduated from Coolidge in the â90s. He gave her bad advice. âHe suggested I not waste my money,â she says, telling her that âCoolidge isnât a uniform type of school.â
âWhereâs your uniform?â hollers Assistant Principal Samuel K. Scudder Jr. Brittany and her blue jeans have been spotted.
âIâll have it tomorrow,â Brittany says with a sulk.
âIâll take my pants off!â Scudder says. âYou think they fit you?â
Anita J. Turner Elementary School
Robert Gregory, the new principal at Anita J. Turner Elementary, is proud of his schoolâs summertime transformation. Since he took over the school in July, parents have planted black-eyed Susans in the yard. Custodians covered the walls in fresh paint. For the first time in years, the stalls in the girlsâ bathroom have doors, courtesy of a local developer.
âThe buildings in D.C. are old. You have to do the best with what you have,â Gregory says.
But as the children line up on the playground in blue and white uniforms waiting for their new teachers to take them into class, Gregory faces a first-day crisis no elbow grease can fix. Several blocks away, a car slams into a utility pole. At the school, the lights go out. The fans stop spinning. In the basement, the backup generator fails.
âWell, I guess we will have to transition the children into the building and make the best of our first day,â says Gregory after the lights go out. He has just talked to Pepco. The lights wonât be on anytime soon.
The first morning of school at Turner is dark. Still, more than 50 last-minute parents arrive at the school gym to register their children for school. And there are other struggles.
First off, there should be breakfast. Every day, the schools serve juice, milk, cereal, and muffins. Many of the children donât eat before school, Gregory says. But by 9 a.m., the truck still hasnât arrived.
As Gregory roams the hall, stopping to introduce himself to the children, parents collar him with personal concerns. One mother of a held-back child wants to make sure her son will have a new teacher this year. Another mother wonders why her son has been assigned to a different school when they live close to Turner.
By the time breakfast finally arrives, lunch becomes a problem. In addition to milk and juice, the delivery men bring hot dogs and chicken nuggets for lunch. There is no place to keep the food cool and no electricity to heat it up. âWe might have to go to another school, heat it up, and bring it back,â Gregory says.
Since this is an elementary school, shutting down isnât a good option, Gregory says. Many parents are at work or donât have phones. There is a little boy in one classroom with no paperwork who doesnât know his name. He says he is âBud Bud.â Theyâll figure that out later, when his parents arrive to pick him up.
The school is safe, even if it is dark. Gregory talks to the mayorâs office, which sends an âoutreach and services specialistâ to the school. They are staying open. It would be different if the weather were hot, like last week.
At 11 a.m., the lights flash in the classrooms and fans begin to whir in the gym. Lunch can be heated up on site. âNow I can breathe,â Gregory says. The clocks read 8:45 a.m. The day is beginning all over again.
Hart Middle School
Katharine Buchholz has one goal for this school year: to keep her temper. The slight redhead with a nose ring and several small silver hoops in her ears has a reputation for being heard in the next room. âSheâs Irish,â one colleague explains. Buchholz is a popular teacher, but she worries sheâll burn out if she doesnât rein herself in.
Waiting to collect her eighth-grade homeroom class from the auditorium, she confesses her apprehensions for the coming year. âI could go crazy,â she says. By the time sheâs marched 16 students through the un-air-conditioned hallways to Room 134, which is even hotter, one girl has set herself apart as the chief challenge to the teacherâs sanity.
The girl talks constantly and loudly. She gets up and down and flips her long braids, usually swatting a classmate in the process. She snatches candies from a friendâs purse. After bumping into a boy half her size, who tells her to watch out, the girl says, âI should have smacked you, Jamal. Youâre lucky itâs the first day of school and I donât want to be mean.â
It doesnât take long for Buchholz to get after the tall girl. âI need to know your name,â she says, her finger on the attendance list, pencil hovering.
The girl mumbles her response. âFirst day of school and she already knows my name,â she says.
Buchholz confesses her temper-control goals to the class. âLast year I had a tendency to yell a lot, and I donât want to do that,â she says. She asks her students to write down their own aspirations for the year, and almost everyone prints out some version of âpass the eighth grade.â
Teachers at Hart tend to bend certain rules. There just isnât time, they reason, to fish the cell phones out of every pocket or collect the gum from every mouth. They tolerate eating in class since many students donât get lunch until after 1 p.m.
Buchholz has two rules, however, that donât get bent. No fighting and no sunflower seeds. She is blunt about the consequences of misbehavior: âYou do not want to stay back with me. Iâm not that much fun,â she says.
Sheâs also frank about the shortcomings of her classroom.
âYou may have noticed itâs nice and warm in here,â she says. âAnd itâs going to be nice and warm in here until itâs nice and cold in here.â When a young man complains that his desk is broken, Buchholz shrugs. âI tried to steal you a new one from the library,â she says, âbut they took it back.â
Anacostia Senior High School
When students arrive for opening day, they need to know where to go for first period, second period, and so on. But getting schedules into their hands has always been a problem at Anacostia.
Renee Williams, head of Anacostiaâs parent-teacher association, knows that history. She worked until 8:30 p.m. Sunday night getting the schedules into order. âEveryoneâs been working overtime and undertime,â she said that night. Williams even consulted with the schoolâs assistant superintendent and with a former teacher, Jimmy DâAndrea, who in prior years had been the one guy who could be counted on to get the schedules done.
âI call her âshe,ââ Williams says, referring to Anacostia. âLike a female, she has her good days and her bad days.â
By the time first period comes to an end, itâs clear âAnaâ is going to have one of her bad days. About two dozen freshmen have no schedules, âdummyâ or otherwise. Theyâre sent to one side of the auditorium to cool their heels.
Blame for schedule snafus doesnât rest entirely with school administrators. Many parents simply donât register their kids early enough. In D.C., kids have to register for school every year, regardless of whether theyâve been there before or not. They can register all summer long, but too many donât get the message.
And so students were coming in to register all weekend at Anacostia. Even now, an hour and a half after school starts, the registrarâs office is crammed with students and parents.
One of Goberâs big opening-day duties is directing parents down the hall to register. âIâm hoping the chancellor can tell these parentsâŚto register these kids before the first day of school,â she says.
Coolidge Senior High School
Items confiscated by Coolidge security guards: one plastic mirror, two lighters, and three nearly empty perfume bottles.
10: 27 a.m.
Coolidge Senior High School
âThis is a democratic class,â Michael Fleegler tells the kids in Room 212 for his 11th grade AP English class. Fleegler is chubby and bald and intense. He expects a response out of his students.
Any idea what that means?
âEveryoneâs opinion counts,â says a student from the front row.
âThatâs an excellent definition,â Fleegler says. He means it. Everything, he says, will be up for debate. The class will decide which books it will read. It will also give Mr. Fleegler a grade for his performance.
âShould we turn the fan on?â Fleegler soon asks. The answer should be obvious. The room is sweltering but voter turnout is real low.
âOh, come on!â Fleegler exclaims.
This is Fleeglerâs first year at Coolidge. He has taught in Mexico, Portugal, and Philadelphia. He taught a college course on how to teach AP classes.
Last year, Principal Burton made AP English a mandatory requirement for his 11th-graders. He says things didnât go so well. The two teachers, he says, werenât up to the job. One teacher, he says, had trouble even making it to class. In the first semester, she failed to show up 42 out of the 90 days. She always had a semi-sketchy doctorâs note, Burton says. Fleegler is her replacement.
The night before this first class, Fleegler, 33, wondered: Am I going to do right by the students? Am I going to do the right thing? He really likes the idea of connecting the dots between Aristotle and, say, the stoner-flick Friday or Shakespeare sonnets and Tupacâs rhymes. He doesnât mind if students call him Mr. F.
Introductions commenceâlengthy on Mr. Fâs part (heâs bald, on a diet, and tight with the Roots! Heâs a jazz percussionist!) and minimal on the studentsâ part (they like sports). Then Mr. F announces the topic for their first extended discussion: What makes for a good English class? What makes a good book a classic? Mr. F spells classic with only one âsâ on purpose. If someone spots the mistake, he gets a bonus point. Even teachers, he says, can be wrong.
Within a few minutes, thereâs a sustained beep over the intercom. Mr. F believes this just signifies a 10-minute break. But class is actually overâthe bell means time for second period. âI think it went pretty well,â Mr. F says. âI think the students were a little shy. I think tomorrow weâll open with a discussion [on] it. Theyâll start by grading me for today.â
Anacostia Senior High School
There should be 11 students in Chuck Saundersâ second-period world history class. Right now there are four. Toward the end of the class, a straggler comes in, and Saunders recognizes him.
âBrandon, donât tell me youâre in this class again,â he says. âDonât tell me youâre wearing that black shirt âcause youâre a freshman again.â
âYeah,â he replies.
âOh,â Saunders sighs.
Coolidge Senior High School
Locker No. 331 reads: waddel is a flamin faggot. Locker No. 363 reads: bitch ass nigga bitch rob bitch ass he still a bitch all his life he been a bitch. The day before, Principal Burton had said the graffiti would be erased from locker No. 363 by the start of school.
2209 Alabama Ave. SE
Oatha Williams knows the importance of looking good on the first day of school. Itâs so essential, he says, that he played hooky to get his hair done. On Monday morning, the 17-year-old from Congress Heights got a close trim at Like That barbershop on Good Hope Road SE. His teachers at High Road Academy in Northeast will have to wait. After his turn in the barberâs chair, Oatha stops in at the Alabama Convenience store, where his friends hold court in the parking lot.
Oatha knows he has to watch out for police hunting truants today. Itâs a precaution he takes anyway: He says his father was killed 16 years ago when a car fleeing police hit him on the sidewalk. âThatâs why I hate the police,â he says. Even though heâs been âpressed outâ by cops countless times, Oatha says heâs never been arrested. âI have anger problems,â he says, which is why he attends High Road, a private school that caters to public school students with learning disabilities. âBut itâs not like I get angry for nothing.â He smiles, flashing a mouthful of braces. He works at McDonaldâs and tries to keep his behavior in check. âMy motherâs not having it,â he says. âAnd I want to live under her roof.â
Oatha plans on going to school the next day. His girlfriend will be there, and he wants to show off his hair.
Coolidge Senior High School
Jackie Wimbush, 16, is the first Coolidge student ordered to drop and give Principal Burton 10 push-ups.
Jackie had spent the morning in the main office waiting for his schedule, but he took off before getting it. Now heâs back sitting in a purple chair outside Burtonâs office, pestering him about his missing class list.
Burton orders Jackie out of his chair. âYou want me to do pushups for real?â the 11th-grader asks, giggling and taking forever to get out of his seat.
âYeah,â Burton says, giving the student an I-Mean-Business look.
Jackie gets on the floor.
âPress âem out!â Burton jokes.
Anacostia Senior High School
Only three Anacostia students show up for CarolAnn Northâs third-period English II class. One girl was sent here by a dummy schedule. She asked her counselor if she could get her proper schedule by the end of the week: âShe said, âYou might have to wait longer than that,ââ the student reports.
Bell Multicultural High School
Dressed in khaki pants and polo shirts, the students at Bell Multicultural High School file into the cafeteria for the first lunch of the new school year. There are meatball subs, green salads, pineapple wedges in plastic cups, and cartons of 2 percent milk. âItâs not the best,â teacher Sam Johnston says as he prods his sub with a fork.
But it isnât the worst, either. Last year, there were days when the school ran out of fresh food altogether.
Dance teacher Amanda Gill remembers taking several trips to the cafeteria in search of milk, only to come back empty handed. Cafeteria worker Eugene Redfearn says the kitchen ran out of juice, milk, and meat about once a month. He doesnât know why the schools didnât get their deliveries, he says, but wonders whether DCPS failed to pay its bills. Either way, he says, when the eats were scarce, cafeteria staff scraped together leftovers. âSome days it was pizza,â he says; others, it was ham and cheese.
Leftovers clash a bit with Bellâs swanky facility, the product of a $70 million construction project completed in February 2006. Bell and Lincoln Multicultural Middle School occupy the same building in the 3100 block of 16th Street NW. Just steps away from Bellâs old home at 3145 Hiatt Place, the school comes with a slew of high-tech amenities: automated bleachers, a shiny dance studio, and an auditorium called the âModel U.N.â with a 200-seat section that rotates to face the rest of the audience.
Thatâs not all. Just last week, Principal Maria Tukeva announced that the school had been named an âinnovative pilot schoolâ by DCPS and the Washington Teachersâ Union. Tukeva hopes the move, which includes a grant of $219,700, will ease studentsâ transition from middle school to high schoolâand ensure better food prospects. âOne thing we proposed is that we could solicit people to provide food services,â she says, adding that breaking with DCPSâ food vendor would allow the school to opt for more fruit, vegetables, and âfood that represents the different cultures of our students.â It could also help steer clear of those food shortages, she says.
Anacostia Senior High School
More than 100 kids who donât know where theyâre supposed to learn today are herded into the schoolâs auditorium.
Derek Jackson, a computer specialist, throws some more light onto why the schedules have turned into such a disaster: Administrators havenât been able to access DCPSâ computer scheduling system, DC STARS. Jackson says he and his colleagues have been calling DC STARS tech support downtown all day. âTheyâre having problems,â he says.
Tevin Perkins, a sophomore who transferred from H.D. Woodson Senior High, registered plenty earlyâback at the beginning of August. But when he showed up to the gym this morning, there was no schedule for him. He went to the main office, which sent him to the counselorsâ office, which sent him back to the main office. Now heâs been sitting in the auditorium for an hour.
âItâs messed-up,â he says. âI havenât even seen my counselor.â
Alice Deal Middle School
Dealâs $53 million modernization plan includes a new cafeteria, a refurbished auditorium, and state-of-the-art classrooms. It also includes a hornetâs nest located in the heart of the schoolâs temporary ball field.
A short walk from school grounds, the green space has the topography of a vacant lot. Hidden divots, rocks, and âlittle tiny spiders everywhereâ were among the features encountered by eighth-graders during recess. Another obstacle is other students. The field is way too small for the 250 kids who pour onto it, crowding out any ambitions of a real soccer game or even a leisurely Frisbee toss. Theyâll have a year on this field while the basketball courts and blacktops get remade.
âDodge the hornetâ could well become one of the Deal studentsâ improvised games. By the end of the day, one seventh-grader and two eighth-graders would get stung on the temp field.
Nick St. Amand, an eighth-grader, took a bite on the head. If he did hurt, he hid it well, digging a hand into his scalp, looking for the hornet or the bite. âIâm fine,â he says, walking back inside for sixth period.
Michael Conry, 12, wasnât so lucky. He got stung on his left calf. He sits in a chair outside the main office, icing down his recess wound.
âI was just walking around listening to my iPod,â Michael says. Maybe the Smashing Pumpkins were playing, he says, when the hornet came in low. Itâs his first bee sting.
Michael would miss 6th and 7th period. And there would be a call home. Hours earlier, his mood was different. He says he was really excited for his first day: âI was tingling in the car,â he says. âI hadnât seen my friends for an entire summer. I really missed them.â He left school early.
Bernard T. Janney Elementary School
Students in a fourth-grade class at Janney are reading in a new air-conditioned classroom that sits on the playground. Teachers call the structure a âlearning cottage.â In laymanâs terms, itâs a prefab double-wide trailer built over the summer to alleviate crowding at the school.
Scott Cartland, the schoolâs principal, says Janneyâs should have about 350 students, but this year there are close to 500.
The newest trailer is one of three behind the three-story brick school. Without it, says Cartland, the school would have had to hold classes in the schoolâs library. Administrators were saved from Plan B, however, just last Friday, when the city gave Janney a certificate of occupancy for the new trailer. It was a feat Cartland doubts would have happened under the old administration.
With the schools more closely under the watch of the mayor, things get done faster than before, he says. âIt allows everything to flow much more fluidly.â
Janney is one of the richest elementary schools in the city, but students still face overcrowding and less-than-perfect conditions. Of 24 classrooms, 20 have air conditioners, and 10 of those are floor units that do not cool the rooms well, Cartland says. In addition, the only bathroomsâone for boys and one for girlsâare on the first floor.
Anacostia Senior High School
Assistant Principal Anita Wood has some news for the scheduleless freshmen in Anacostiaâs auditorium: âYour records have not been transferred from your old schools.â That means, kids, you gotta talk to your parents and get in touch with your old schools to straighten this out.
About five minutes later, the rumor starts going around the group: Theyâre just gonna let us go.
By 1:55, Wood returns with a stack of passes. Call your parents, get it signed, and your first day of school will be an abbreviated one. Kids swarm around her. âI donât give them to people who are standing up,â she tells them.
Students pull out cell phones and share them with their friends.
Bianca Eastman, whoâs been sitting in the auditorium all day save for a trip to the cafeteria for lunch, is one of the first to get a pass. Sheâs out of the building by 2 p.m.â75 minutes before the final bell.
Anacostia Senior High School
Tevin Perkins, the sophomore without a schedule, is still in the auditorium. He hasnât been to a class all day. âI shoulda stayed at my old school,â he says. âI got my schedule on the first day at Woodsonâwasnât no problem.â
Three minutes later, the word comes from the back of the auditorium. Everyoneâs free to go.
The auditorium opens into Anacostiaâs main entrance hall, which branches out in either direction toward classrooms. Thing is, they donât want kids going out of the front doors, where the rush might damage the metal detectors. Itâs up to Patricia Rabain to funnel kids to the side doors. Rabain, Anacostiaâs âschool improvement specialist,â is a 20-year veteran and a small woman. But when it comes to blocking an exit, her skills are little removed from those of an All-Pro offensive tackle.
Earlier in the day, sheâd blocked kids without exit passes away from the same entrance, throwing her body in the way of any kid who thinks he just has to keep walking to end his school day.
Rabainâs convinced itâs all reverse psychology: âThey wanna be here. Theyâre crazy about being here. But they wanna show us they wanna get out.â