End of an Error Thirty-six years ago H.D. Woodson Senior High School was dubbed the "Tower of Power." These days? "It's a tower. There ain't no power."

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

“Mr. Scott! School’s on fire! School’s on fire!”

Robert L. Scott III, the harried assistant principal at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, doesn’t particularly want to hear these words. Lunch period’s just started, and students have clogged the halls outside the school’s gym.

Scott turns and looks at the girl uttering those words—some of the few words that offer its speaker no constitutional protection in the United States—and begs her to knock off the joke: “Please don’t tell me the school’s on fire.”

“Sixth floor! I swear on it!”

A lot of outrageous things get uttered in Woodson’s halls—“bitch” this and “fuck you” that—and just about all of that gets ignored by the folks in charge. They don’t have much choice—given the sheer volume, any one crackdown would bring entirely justified charges of selective prosecution. But “school’s on fire”? That’s one phrase that demands some attention.


Scott makes an about-face and heads back down the hall, trying to raise someone on his walkie-talkie who knows what the hell’s going on. Reports crackle in about smoke on the sixth floor and maybe the third, too. He’s headed to the building’s core, where he can ride the only elevator in Washington’s tallest high school to see for himself.

At the sixth floor, the door opens, and there’s an odd smell. Acrid. Not smoke exactly, but not a normal smell, either, even in a building full of unsavory odors. To the left of the elevator, a slick of oily yellow fluid creeps along the hallway’s tile floor from Stair 3, one of the four stairways located at the corners of the concrete tower.

A teacher’s already slipped into the stairway to investigate the origin of the flood, a custodial closet. The fluid, most likely, is industrial cleaning solvent. His report: “That door is hot, hot, hot!”

Scott’s heard all he needs: “Please, all teachers move to the ground floor—we need to evacuate.” That goes for reporters, too. In the staircases, it’s chaotic, but not much more so than any normal passing period. At some point, the decision is made to send the kids to the school auditorium, located in a low-slung area of the school away from the tower.

Down at ground level, kids carry trays of chicken wings and strombolis and pizza and Cinnabons and French fries and mushy peas out to the auditorium.

“Everybody in the auditorium!” a teacher shouts. Then a new directive: “Let’s go! Out of the building!” News that kids are still up in the tower comes over Scott’s radio. Outside, a steady drizzle’s coming down in the 35 degree air. One girl’s left her coat up in the tower. “Aw, hell no! I’m not going outside without my coat! Hell no!”

The kids start filing out to the school’s football stadium, where they can wait it out underneath the bleachers, made of the same pocked concrete as the rest of the campus. In short order, about a half-dozen fire engines and three ladder trucks are on the scene, plus the fire department’s hazmat unit (owing to the chemicals stored in the closet). Within a half-hour, the fire’s out.

That’s plenty of time, though, for the firebug to accomplish exactly what he set out to do: end his school day. As soon as the kids step outside, small groups peel off and head out into the neighborhoods surrounding Woodson in the city’s far eastern corner.

“Half our population is gone,” Scott says outside. And by the time the kids get back inside, they finish their lunch, and administrators figure out a plan for the remainder of the afternoon, he says, “we’ve lost a good two-and-a-half hours of our academic day.”

Another day at the Tower of Power.

Low-rent arson, chaotic hallways, scofflaw students—all of these things are sadly common nowadays in Washington’s public high schools. But only at Woodson are all of those things warehoused in a nine-story reinforced-concrete tower—a building now singularly unsuited to containing an American high school, a building scheduled after the close of this school year—less than 36 years after its opening—to be demolished and replaced by a wholly new facility.

When Woodson opened in 1972, it was the first new senior high school to be constructed in the District of Columbia since Ballou was built in Congress Heights in 1960. To that point in the history of the D.C. Public Schools, city high schools were invariably sited on hills or otherwise geographically prominent plots of land and designed in a stately, almost monumental style.

“Most of these buildings were built to look like college administration buildings,” says Nancye Suggs, the D.C. Public Schools’ official historian. “At the time, it was not expected that everyone would even go to high school, so they built these buildings to look like a place where something really important was going on, and that important thing was learning.”

Ballou had been built on high ground, above Oxon Run, but the buff-brick edifice had none of the monumentality of city high schools built in the interwar period, such as Cardozo, Eastern, Spingarn, Wilson, or Anacostia. By that point, ornate architecture was out and finding the quickest way to house the children of the Baby Boom was in—especially east of the river. By the mid-1950s, residents of far Northeast Washington had begun agitating for a senior high school of their own; kids on that side of town had to go across the river to Spingarn or Eastern or to Anacostia Senior High well to the south.

Among those agitating was Howard Dilworth Woodson, a pioneering black civil engineer who was also a crusading neighborhood activist. “Before his death in 1962, at the age of 85,” said a 1972 Washington Post story, “he had founded or led most of the civic groups in Far Northeast.” Not long after his death, the school board OK’d the construction of a new high school for his old neighborhood on a four-block parcel at 55th and Eads Streets NE and voted to name it for Woodson.

In drawings presented to the school board in 1965, architects proposed building a six-story tower, which would hold the regular classrooms, atop a two-story base, which could be kept open separate from the rest of the school as a community center. Why the tower? According to press accounts from the time, concerns about a sewer traversing the site as well as some power lines led the planners to build up rather than out, as well as to make room for the football stadium and a possible expansion that could boost the school’s enrollment to well over 2,000.

Eventually the plans were revised to make the building an eight-story tower atop a one-story base, with the roof of the base used as a plaza. Neighborhood residents fought the tower on the grounds of its imposing height, but it got rave reviews from architectural types. Charles Atherton, secretary of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, said the school would “be a good symbol and an excellent landmark.”

The design ran into trouble in front of other planning boards, but Granville Woodson—H.D. Woodson’s son and the chief of the DCPS buildings department at the time—argued that the size and shape was precisely the point. “We’re trying to make the school the focus of the community,” he told the Post in 1966, “and it seems to me that in order to do that you want to make the building as significant as possible.”

The initial design was put together in the heyday of Brutalism, an offshoot of modernist architecture that calls for structures of unadorned material and simple geometry. The name comes from the French term for “raw concrete”—béton brut—but nowadays it’s something of a joke, considering most nonarchitects find the buildings simply brutal to look at. And, owing to the delays in getting the design approved and the school constructed, it represented a style already beginning to lose favor by the time of its opening. The new Dunbar Senior High, which opened two years after Woodson did, is also a tower, but its façade is done in brown brick and appears less monolithic, thanks in part to its shorter stature and more varied lines.

Woodson’s site sits low, aside Watts Branch, in a neighborhood full of low-rise single-family homes and garden apartments, but upon its opening, Woodson was hailed as every bit the monument to educational achievement as, say, McKinley Senior High, which sits on a bluff high above Eckington, or Wilson, which is yards away from the District’s highest point in Tenleytown. But more than its architectural prominence, Woodson was designed to be an academic powerhouse. Set up as a “comprehensive” high school, it offered both traditional academic and vocational programs, including wood and machine shops, a drafting program, an electrical trade program, a “power mechanics” lab to study jet and rocket engines, extensive home-ec facilities, and a greenhouse. That’s not to mention the six-lane pool, full-size gym, and auditorium, all of which were located in the building’s base to allow easy after-school use by the community.

“It was built like a beacon, the strongest and tallest building in the area,” says Lionel J. Russell, who has taught and coached track and field at Woodson since 1980. “People looked up to it.”

They also looked up to Woodson’s first principal, Napoleon B. Lewis. A 6-foot-5 former college football player, Lewis had a commanding presence and came up with the school’s enduring sobriquet: Given the school’s unorthodox appearance, Suggs says, “in order to make people excited about going to school in their neighborhood, he named it the ‘Tower of Power.’”

The name was also rooted in the Black Power movement, then in its heyday, says Bruce Bradford, an aquatics coach and teacher at Woodson for 32 years. “[Lewis] was like, ‘I’m black and I’m proud, and we need a name that reflects that pride.’” It was also reflected in the school’s African nationalist colors—black, red, and green—and its mascot, the “African Warrior.”

“Tower of Power” had staying power. A Woodson brochure from the late ’80s gives this explanation: “The students appropriately call their school ‘The Tower of Power’ because it is here that they receive knowledge, skills, understanding, and motivation that gives them the power necessary to develop and attain their goals.”

These days, “Tower of Power” lives on at Woodson, plastered on bulletin boards and emblazoned on the basketball court. One place it doesn’t live, though, is in its students’ hearts.

One 11th-grader puts it this way: “It’s a tower. There ain’t no power.”

To get to the Woodson Senior High pool—the only indoor swimming pool in Ward 7—one walks in the school’s main entrance off the parking lot, continues through the main lobby past the gym and auditorium and through a long hallway to the base of the tower. The pool’s just to the left, through a plain metal door. Just about every Woodson student walks by it every day.

Scott stands in front of that door, rustling through his key ring. He’s looking for one he doesn’t use all that often; for a minute, he’s afraid he doesn’t have it anymore.

That’s OK, he says: “If you get your nose close to there, you can smell what’s going on.”

He tries the door next to it, and one of the keys works. The door opens to a small concrete bunker, with buckets of chlorine stacked at one end and a staircase at the other. This is the pump room, holding the machinery that once cleaned and treated the pool’s water.

“This was flooded,” Scott says. He goes down the stairs to have a look. “It’s still flooded.”

Water comes up waist-high, covering the pumping equipment. Scott explains that the sump gets clogged and wastewater backs up into the pump room. Clearing the water involves a member of the custodial staff donning hip waders and manually clearing the clog. That hasn’t been done in a while.

After a trip back up the stairs and through the locker room, Scott opens the door to the dim room that holds the pool itself. Scott’s been at Woodson for two years, but this is only his third or fourth time in here.

The floodlights flicker on. The pool’s empty, canyonlike, 12 feet deep. A springboard still hovers over the deep end. Dust covers everything. Chairs sit on the tile, clearly untouched for years—rust flakes have fallen off the metal legs forming shadows of iron oxide. A race timer sits undisturbed, along with sets of kickboards. Bulletin boards still tout the school’s scuba-diving program, which Bradford ran for decades until his retirement in 2004. The pool closed soon afterward.

“There’s millions of dollars sitting in here,” Scott says. “You should see inside of the storage rooms. Whole sets of scuba gear—tanks and everything.”

Woodson students might be upset, if they even knew it was here. “Most of [the students] here now, they don’t know about it,” Scott says. “You gotta keep it away from the children. Keep the children away from it so they don’t get hurt.”

He’s speaking about physical harm, but keeping them away from the psychological hurt is just as necessary. A beautiful pool any suburban parent would envy sits behind a single steel door, neglected to oblivion. What would seeing that say to Woodson students?

Scott knows: “Just seeing a facility like this and knowing the needs of the community—it hurts.”

But, as good a job as administrators can do of hiding Woodson’s empty pool, students can figure out how little the system cares all over the building.

For 15 or more years after Woodson opened, the school was a gem of D.C.’s public high schools—comprehensive facilities well-maintained. Russell, sitting in his cramped office just down the hall from the gym and its lobby full of trophy cases, remembers the love the Tower of Power used to get. “They buffed that lobby floor every night. Every night,” he says. “Now with three guys, they have their hands full. They don’t buff that except maybe once a month.”

They certainly have bigger problems to attend to.

Woodson’s precipitous decay began in the late ’80s, proceeding in lockstep with the state of the city’s finances. Then, in the late ’90s, the size of the custodial staff, tied to student enrollment rather than the size of the building, declined along with the student body. Preventative maintenance essentially came to a halt—in no small part because the school system considered Woodson, as one of the system’s youngest schools, to be in less need of maintenance dollars than older facilities.

“They kept referring to us as a new school, a new school,” says former Principal Aona Jefferson, who was at Woodson as a teacher and administrator on and off since its opening until her retirement last year. “If, for 15 years, you don’t do anything to your body, it’s going to deteriorate.”

That, certainly, is the story of the Woodson pool, Bradford says: “It was just total negligence. That’s what it was.” By the mid-’90s, the city parks and rec department was no longer contributing to the pool’s maintenance. Bradford would show up some mornings to find its contents drained into the pump room below; the fire department would have to come and siphon everything out.

For the 1994 swim season, the pool was out of service, but the Woodson team managed to win a city championship anyway. They called it “dry-land swimming.”

“We swam on tables. We had stopwatches. We made ’em breathe. We made ’em kick,” Bradford says. “They swam like starving dogs in a meat factory.”

Besides the pool, nothing’s gone to hell faster than the school’s heating system, with devastating effects. On the bottom floor, boilers create steam that’s sent up pipes through the tower, where electric-fan units located under windows and on the ceilings blow heat off the pipes and into classrooms. At the top of the tower, chillers cool the steam back into water, which is sent back down to the boiler. It’s an elegant system, but it’s an elegant system that requires constant maintenance.

The pipes are constantly expanding and contracting with the cycles of heat and cold, creating stress on both the pipes and joints. In a normal scenario, those pipes would be regularly inspected for cracks and fatigue. The only therapy, Scott says, is to “replace it, and replace it quick.” Even that’s a task complicated by the fact that many pipes are covered in toxic asbestos insulation.

The problem’s further compounded by poor windows, meaning cold air’s able to get at the pipes in the window heating units easily, leading to further stress on the plumbing. The result? Pipes bursting regularly during the colder months, and in a high-rise, that’s rarely a good situation. “When the pipes break, you have water running from floor to floor to floor,” Jefferson says. “You have fibers in the ceiling; they mix with other things in the air—mildew and mold.”

This year’s been no exception. In January, a pipe burst on the fourth floor, sending water pouring down all the way to the cafeteria on the ground level. As gravity took its course, the water made its way through the school library, destroying what Scott calls “a number” of books and requiring the entire library floor to be retiled. It also made its way through the science classroom belonging to teacher Steve Donkin. “My room just got destroyed. It happened over the weekend, so we don’t know how long the water had been going,” he says. It killed a fish in his aquarium, destroyed a TV, ruined student work. In the classroom belonging to a fellow science teacher, the casualties included books and computers.

A review of DCPS work orders reveals myriad problems with the heating system. Here are a few marked urgent from last February: “2/13/07 Room 408 - Repair ruptured line/steam leak 2/1/07 Second floor, Room 210. Repair ruptured line on univent. Asbeatos Code C”; “2/6/07 Room 309 - Ruptured pipe (insulated) Asbestos Code B”; “2/1/07 Second floor, Room 210. Repair ruptured line on univent. Asbeatos Code C.”

Last year, Woodson had to be shut down completely after a particularly devastating flood. The entire school was sent to nearby W. Bruce Evans Middle School for weeks while repairs were made. Despite the near-constant devastation by H2O, Scott chooses to look on the bright side: “We’ve been lucky. It’s been two weeks—two, three weeks since our last pipes burst.”

But if it’s not the heating pipes, it’s something else. There are electrical problems. For instance, the school’s auditorium is lit only by a handful of fluorescent floodlights, leaving the room dim and depressing. The main lighting system, Scott says, has been inoperable for years.

On the ground floor, in a custodians’ locker room, a foot-wide brown stain runs down the wall, marking where a sewage pipe recently burst. An expansion joint underneath the plaza has leaked for years, right onto the student wellness center, which is perhaps the only part of the school that could be called clean and orderly. Groundwater seeping from below has repeatedly buckled the gym’s wood floor.

On the seventh floor (the top floor of the tower—the plaza level and the ground floor account for the other two levels), Scott opens the door to what looks to be a storage closet. This storage closet, though, has sunlight streaming in through the roof. This is the Woodson High greenhouse, but it hasn’t been used as a greenhouse in anyone’s memory.

The problem with the greenhouse is obvious: Water drips steadily from loose panes of glass onto the bare concrete. There’s nothing in place to catch the runoff.

“If we could replace these windows up here, we could use this room,” Scott says. “Man, we could actually do some genetic studies. We could test Mendel’s idea.”

Scott climbs down and sighs. “Man, lemme shut up.”

Poor maintenance and general neglect have been par for the course in the D.C. Public Schools for decades now, of course. But at Woodson, those problems have been compounded by the design of the building itself. When the building was kept in tip-top shape, the old-timers attest, it was a magnificent place to have a school. As it deteriorated, the building’s flaws were quickly exposed.

Upon its opening, Woodson was the first D.C. public school to rely on escalators and elevators to move students and faculty around the building. It was, and still is, a point of pride—so much so that they merited a mention in the school song: “I ain’t never seen a school / Equipped with such a swimming pool / Elevators, escalators, things I’ve been wishing / Electric pianos and air conditioning.”

In a building nine stories high, the escalators were designed to be the main method for students to get around the building. Up and down the core of the tower they run—or used to run. They haven’t been used at all this year. “At least half of them worked the first year I was here,” says Scott. “Then the second year, they shut ’em down and started to clean ’em all out. They ran out of money halfway through the project. Half work beautifully.” Even the rehabbed ones, though, stay off now.

Jefferson, the former principal, points to the fact that only one set of escalators was installed as an aggravating factor in their unreliability. Instead of having two sets—one going up, one going down—the school has a single set of escalators, which go up in the morning and down at the end of the day. Much like the way that planners never really thought about leaving Metro escalators exposed to the elements, Woodson’s designers never considered the consequences of having to reverse the escalators daily. That, says Jefferson, greatly increased the stress on the machinery, leaving them subject to constant outages even when they were in service.

These days, the doors to the escalator area are all locked. Students can stare at the escalators all they want, but they’re taking the stairs, no doubt about it. There’s an elevator, but that’s for faculty, staff, and the disabled only. And, two or three times a semester, that breaks down, too.

The corner staircases at Woodson were clearly not designed to be the main mode of getting from Point A to Point B. They’re wide enough for one person going in one direction at a time, sure, but when about 1,000 students and faculty try to use them all at the same time going in different directions—during lunch hours, for instance—shoving all those kids in close quarters creates many opportunities for mischief.

That’s also aside from the propriety of having kids climb as many as nine flights of stairs several times a day.

Jocelyn Riley, the director of Woodson’s Business and Finance Academy, which operates as a school-within-a-school, says there’s simply too many stairs. “Especially if they’re injured or pregnant, they get tired,” she says. “Wherever they come to rest, they get mischievous. It causes problems with the climate.”

“That’s a lot of walking for the kids, getting up and down,” says Latara Meyers, who has taught business classes at Woodson for 10 years. “That’s stressful.…For even the most fit person here, nine flights is a lot.”

Dante Nicholson, a 10th-grader, seconds that assessment: “When we come to school, we’re already tired from walking, and then we got to go up seven floors.”

The staircases have other problems: In some stair entries, narrow passages lead from the main corridors, giving students a place to hide. “They can just stay in that hallway when the bell rings,” says Woodson’s principal, Gwendolyn Jones.

As Scott puts it, Woodson “wasn’t built to be conducive to students. Too many nooks and crannies.”

Those nooks and crannies include the staff bathrooms and custodial closets, which are located directly off the stairwells and kept locked. But with not enough security guards to constantly monitor four stairs and nine floors, students can easily find enough undisturbed time to work their way in. The student bathrooms, located in the tower’s core, are also kept locked. If a student needs to use one, he has to get a pass from a teacher, then ask a security guard or administrator to open one up. Consequently, many bathroom doors sport plywood from having been kicked in one too many times.

Woodson’s design, with eight relatively compact floors, doesn’t have the long hallways common to most high schools past and present. While that gives the school a cozier feel than traditional schools, it also makes it harder for teachers, administrators, and guards to surveil the halls.

The result? Kids can avoid class almost at will. Fights last a little longer than they should. Fires get started in plain sight—in lockers, for instance.

The fires, Jefferson says, started in earnest around 2001, after the school went to a closed campus. “I’d tell them, ‘That school is concrete; it’s not going to burn down,’” she says. “‘If you don’t want to come to school, just transfer.’” But kids weren’t looking to see the building destroyed so much as they wanted out of class for the day. The fire department now stations officers on the premises during the school day.

Fires and fights are practical consequences of the design. Then there’s the psychological impact of attending school in a building that’s described too often in the same terms:

• “It looks like an old jail,” says Ronnie, an 11th-grader. “That daggone school is so daggone messed up. It gets more terrible every year.”

• “I was 18 years old when I first saw it. I thought it looked like a prison,” says Riley, head of the business academy. “I thought it was unfortunate that you’d put children in a façade like that.”

• “When I first came here, I was like, ‘Nah, that’s the wrong place,’” says Meyers, the business teacher. “I was very intimidated. It didn’t look like a school. Actually, [it looked like] a prison.”

• “I’ve had several kids tell me it looks like a jail,” says Donkin, the science teacher whose room recently flooded. “I know the kids get fed up with the problems, the pipes breaking. They notice these things. It makes them think, They don’t care about us enough to give us a decent school.”

Jones—who has been at Woodson for three years now, her first two as an assistant principal—remembers her daughter being struck by the building’s profile. “She said, ‘Mom, have you ever really looked at that building?’ You see it from a distance, but you don’t really think about it. After I worked here for a time, I came to realize it was a mistake,” Jones says. “It was a building that was a mistake.”

Woodson’s the second-youngest high school in the D.C. Public Schools, but it’s been slated for replacement by the city for almost a decade now. Much like other failed pieces of civic architecture—the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis or the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago—Woodson is to be demolished well before its time. Unlike the dramatic implosions that brought down those blocks of high-rise apartments, Woodson will be meeting a more prosaic fate: the wrecking ball.

The plans have languished for five years, but now the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization—the fiefdom of take-no-prisoners construction czar Allan Y. Lew—has committed to moving forward on a brand-new, much shorter $99.1 million building due to be completed in August 2010. For the next two years, Woodson students will go to Fletcher-Johnson Elementary down on Benning Road NE while the new three-story school is built.

Tony Robinson, spokesperson for Lew’s office, says the new design—like the old one—has received accolades from the Commission of Fine Arts. The new Woodson, designated by DCPS to specialize in science, technology, engineering, and math, will have fewer stairs and blind hallways, and it is planned to meet green-building certifications. (Another green feature: The concrete from the tower will be crushed and recycled as fill for the new Woodson’s foundation.)

But there’s some grousing about the new Woodson. William P. Wilson, chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, is afraid the city won’t commit enough funds to build a truly first-class facility. He cites nearby Kelly Miller Middle School, recently rebuilt, as an object lesson. “They didn’t put state-of-the-art material in it,” he says. “The doors are cheap; bathrooms are shoddy.”

Any compromises on quality, Wilson says, just set up a repeat of past mistakes. “If you’re not prepared to spend $120 million,” he says, “you’re looking for trouble.”

Already, with the mayoral administration, Woodson’s gotten more attention than it has in years, with long-busted floor tiles having been replaced and hundreds of auditorium chairs having been rebuilt in last summer’s construction “blitz.” The football stadium has a new scoreboard—well, an old scoreboard, left over from Wilson after its field was rehabbed last year (the home-team score still reads wilson). But no major capital improvements have gone ahead since the turn of the millennium—no sense throwing good money after bad.

How you feel about the Tower of Power’s demise depends mostly on how long you’ve been at Woodson. Those at Woodson long enough to remember the good old days—when students could sit and eat lunch on the plaza under big globe lightposts; when the scuba divers made yearly trips to the Caribbean; when kids would build soapbox derby cars in wood shop and race them on Eastern Avenue; when the school still had special programs in humanities and marine science and jet engines—they still can muster a twinge of nostalgia.

“It wasn’t just a building,” says Russell, who also sent seven of his own kids through Woodson. “It was the community.…It was just about the way it was the first high school in Ward 7.”

Most everyone who came to Woodson after the decay had overtaken the building is ready to see the Tower of Power come down. That includes most of the current students and teachers.

“It was more like Band-Aids when they were doing repairs over the years. Now it’s like a serious wound. You can’t do Band-Aids anymore,” says Meyers. The old-timers, too, have come to terms with the necessity of demolishing the tower. A send-off celebration is now being planned for the end of the school year. Organizers hope to have in attendance relatives of Howard Woodson, longtime teachers, and certain prominent alumni, including NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich.

“I really feel that if we have this gala,” Jefferson says, “this will be closure for me.”

The old-timers have already had a little practice for Woodson’s farewell, she says. “When we thought we were closing in 2002, they brought back a lot of the alumni and the athletes—there was a big homecoming,” she says. “But we didn’t close. It was a disappointment.”

Jones has personal plans to remember the tower: “I’m going to take a brick. We’re going to need some souvenirs out of here, because 20 years from today, we won’t remember.”

Russell, the track coach, has an idea for avoiding that prospect. He’s for building a replica of the tower and putting it outside the new Woodson, complete with a plaque commemorating the Tower of Power. “It’s not just a term,” he says, “it means something.”

Among some students, Jones says, there’s still pride attached to the tower—the uniqueness of getting an education in the city’s only nine-story school. Nicholson, the 10th-grader, doesn’t put a lot of stock in being one-of-a-kind.

“I think we need a smaller school. I think we need a better school,” he says. “I don’t think it should be the Tower of Power. It should just be H.D. Woodson.”

Audio Slideshow: The Last Days of the Tower


The Last Days of the Tower

The Education Issue


  • End of an Error: Thirty-six years ago H.D. Woodson Senior High School was dubbed the "Tower of Power." These days? "It's a tower. There ain't no power."
  • Missing the Bus: Metro’s fare hike squeezes commuters. But what about the children?
  • Cheap Seats: The untruths behind Remember the Titans endure.
  • Teach Schnapps: Moe Harris instructs in the art of the drink.
  • Young & Hungry: If you want to learn how sausage gets made, you've pretty much got to teach yourself.

Our Readers Say

One of the best CityPaper articles in a good long while...I usually read about a quarter of a story before I lose interest; job well done.
As a 1979 graduate of what was then the beautiful, state-of-the-art and highly successful Howard D. Woodson High School, it saddens me greatly to read this article and to learn the horrible state this once fine school and building is now in. I attended the Woodson High School that was a school of excellence----one that attracted students from not only the Deanwood and Ward 7 community, but from all over the city.

I could not believe my eyes when I first saw that 9 story building standing there back in the fall 1976 (I was a out-of-boundary student). It was completely overwhelming and very beautiful. Back in those days, no one referred to Woodson's structural appearance as resembling a prison. Instead, we all thought that Woodson resembled an office building. It was sparking, with tinted windows (you could not see the window shades from the street unless you took a hard look up at the building). It had a very nice outdoor plaza which featured concrete seating, landscaped planter boxes and large globe pole lighting. It featured a large parking lot for administrators, faculty and staff, assembly areas, and the grounds were professionally landscaped.

In your article your indicated that the main entrance of Woodson is off of the parking lot in the area of the auditorium and gymnasium. Not true. The main entrance of Woodson is on the plaza level and brings you directly to the main office. I never saw a dirty Woodson exterior back in those days---as the precast concrete facade, sidewalk and plaza pavers were very clean. The school's name, "Howard D. Woodson High School" was proudly displayed at street level on the building's facade on the 55th Street side of the building in brush stainless steel letters. We had the nicest campus in the city---with a state-of-the-art stadium, tennis courts, basketball courts, a baseball diamond and student mingling areas. The interior of the building was awesome--and very color coordinated (red and yellow on the 1st floor, gold on the ground floor and floors 3 and 6, blue on the plaza level and floor 4 and 7, and rose on floors 2 and 5. Each floor displayed a difference color scheme---this included the wall finishes, chalk boards and bulletin boards, classroom furniture and student lockers. The swimming pool (which is on the ground floor) was fantastic---Olympic sized with bleachers and also was the venue for splash parties that various clubs would host for fundraising purposes.. Our music department, which was on the ground floor, sported electric pianos and other electrical instruments. Other ground floor state-of-the-art facilities included the catering laboratory and other vocational education classrooms---woodworking, metal working, electronics, high-tech engineering; the auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, activities room, armory, health suite----and many pastel colored student lockers. Lockers were on all floors at Woodson except the plaza level and 1st floor.

When I attended Woodson the school population was in the neighborhood of 1,900; the faculty totaled close to 200, there was a principal and six assistant principals, and countless support personnel. We had highly educated and committed administrators, faculty and staff from all ethic groups and backgrounds. All of them cared about the students and endeavored personally and earnestly to be the best role models and teachers that they knew how to be----they truly set out to teach and help us to become the best that we could be. Woodson was a very disciplined, no-nonsense environment back then and all school rules were followed. Our Principal James Curry and Assistant Principals ensured that our school was safe and orderly. We had a very well ran school. They were no-nonsense sentries who took no-nonsense from the students, faculty and staff . There was no place in the building to cut class. During class time, the halls were clear, the campus was clear and the art of education was in full force. It was remarkable---as they had the proficiency to have everyone in class during class time. And yes, the restrooms were locked back then, except during periods when we changed classes.

The entire physical plant at Woodson was emaculate, always. The building was maintained by the engineering and custodial staffs very well. They kept that place sparking. There was no graffiti to be found anywhere inside or outside the building---not even on student desks or on/in student lockers. All of the hallway bulletin boards were maintained beautifully---never did any student tear materials from bulletin boards or from any other wall surface in the building. And, all of the escalators and elevators worked---as did the heating and air conditioning systems. The reason our school was so nice was in large part due to the students. We had serious school spirit and the students are the ones who policed each other to ensure that our school remained the beautiful educational facility that it was. We were all very proud to attend Woodson and of the fact that our school was so beautiful and state-of-the-art.

Those days are gone now, and probably will never return. I truly hope that the Woodson High School of today will reach back to its roots in order to observe the lessons learned then in an effort to prepare for its future and return to the excellence that its past reputation was derived from.

I just wanted you to know that Woodson was not always the horrible school that it is now. There was a day that the motto "Tower of Power" was electrifying to the student body and motivated us as a school to excel beyond our own beliefs.
I am a 1979 graduate of H.D. Woodson. I loved that place and because of the dedication of its principal (Mr. Lewis) and my teachers I was able to overcome a lot of statistics to make it to college. I'm now an assistant principal in Stamford, Ct. Woodson changed so many lives for so many of us from Ward 7. It helped us to "break out of " of a cycle of poverty.
It was the fine faculty and administration of those days that made a difference for us. I'm sadden to hear what has happened.

How do we alums get involved???

Mr. James W. Curry (who is now deceased) was the Principal of Woodson the year you graduated in 1979. Mr. Lewis ended his tenure as Principal in 1975.
As a current teacher at HD Woodson, I had to comment on this article. Yes we do have our problems; structural, social, economic etc. And yes we do have reckless arsonists, truants and flood damages.
But we have amazing students who attend this school despite the fact that the school is practically deteriorating as they stand in it. My students are talented, bright, funny and unfortunately neglected by the very society that criticizes a forgotten section of DC. I have students who come to class every day trying to find refuge from the noisy hallways and dangerous neighborhood.
After showing my students this article and accompanying slideshow, they were absolutely devastated to learn about the transformation of HD Woodson from a beacon of the community, to a deteriorating monstrosity.
I have former students who have school spirit and plan to showcase their talent, pride and positive aspects of this school body in an upcoming project.
I also have to speak on behalf of my colleagues and administrators who, albeit a smaller staff than the original Woodson, are committed to teaching and learning, despite all the distractions and downfalls. These people inspire me every day, so I can inspire my students.
From the outside, the current HD Woodson is definitely an eyesore. But as we teach our students, we must not 'judge a book by its cover,' please don't judge the HD Woodson Family by the pictures you see in this article.
Every day I look past the cracked concrete, faded paint, muddy field, gratified walls and focus on my classroom; a home away from home for my students and I, a haven for friendship and support, and most of all a source of love, nurturing, collaboration, teaching and learning.

I look forward to what the future has in store for HD Woodson, and its future graduates. But in its final year, this tower's power will always remain with me and all those who have come to love and value what it stands for.

Ms. S Mathura
English Teacher
HD Woodson
During Woodson's inception years, a song, in the tune of a 1970's Broadway hit Purlie was written by a faculty member to share Woodson High School family gratitude, excitement and pride for having the honor to attend such a beautiful and fine school of excellence. This song quickly became the School's Song and has been sung by thousands of excited Woodson Warriors who have had the honor to cross the threshold of the "Tower of Power."

There is no doubt in my mine that all of the heyday Alumni of Howard Dilworth Woodson High School are very proud to have been a part of the Woodson experience! For this experience is the Woodson Way! And, the Woodson Way is our way.

Alumni, since we all had a great experience at our Woodson High School, we owe it to the Woodson High School of today to ensure that their experience is just a great! They are our future---and just like we were the future of the adult who found the time to help us during our high school years, its time to return the favor and help the present and future Woodson Warriors. As fellow alum Camille Sewell Spaulding asked in her comment above, how do we alums get involved? We all know the answer to that question, so do it.

This is dedicated to the TOWER OF POWER.....

The Song: "Woodson My Woodson"

I love to stand upon the school and look up at the Tower

And count the floors from 1 to 8 that represents our Power

No more shurking, no more lurking; I'll be busy working

I got to open up my books and take a look, I reckon

The sun don't shine to light the ground----the sun shines down to shine on Woodson -- Woodson My Woodson

The lights don't shine to light the sky---the light shine up to shine on Woodson -- Woodson My Woodson

I have never seen a school, equipped with such a swimming pool
Elevators, escalators things I've been wishing
Electric pianos, and air conditioning
I just can't wait to graduate and walk the aisle to get my paper--in Woodson My Woodson

Woodson you're to good to be true
I'll stay right here til my learnings through
Woodson I'm so proud of you, Woodson My Woodson
I'm a 1979 graduate of Howard D.Woodson High School. I'm sad to read this article and to learn what bad space this once fine school is now in. I attended The Tower of Power and swam on the swim team for HD Woodson Warrior Sharks. It was an Honor to be taught by excellence teaches, Ms.Young, Ms.Moore, Ms.Whitfield, Mr.Murray,Mr.Bradford and so on.
Every stick has two ends

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