by Kat Lucero
Current Newspapers staff writer
Reprinted, with permission, from the August 20th edition of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.
The loud drilling and pounding of heavy materials have reverberated around Mann and Hearst elementary schools throughout the summer. Upcoming additions for the two campuses are still bare-bones structures, with workers in neon vests and hard hats laboring through sweltering mornings and afternoons.
For some people, these are often unpleasant sounds and views. But for Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, this is progress.
“This is amazing,” Cheh said last Monday, as she watched the bustling activity on Mann’s new buildings just outside the construction site.
Since she came into office eight years ago, Cheh has been conducting the “School Readiness Tour” annually at all Ward 3 schools to ensure that the facilities are in tip-top shape. This month, the council member toured through all those schools before students return on Aug. 25. She flushed toilets, ran the water, and checked for flaws like loose railings, cracked floors and flickering lights.
At Hearst and Mann, two campuses still undergoing heavy construction, Cheh wanted to make sure the grounds are safe for students, staff and faculty. She reviewed the temporary trailers housing classrooms, and inquired about the measures to keep down disturbances in the neighborhood.
Mann principal Liz Whisnant said that her students are by now accustomed to the project, commending the construction company for sharing building updates with the school.
“We’re going to tolerate it,” Whisnant said. “We’re so excited with what’s happening out there.”
Principals of both schools said that parking for faculty and staff continues to be an issue. For Hearst, Cheh suggested starting an “adopt-a-teacher” program, in which residents and parents share unused visitor parking passes. For Mann, which has received help from a neighboring church and American University for parking needs, Cheh said she’ll inquire with the university about additional spots.
During both tours, the council member also said the state of Ward 3 schools is much improved from eight years ago.
“It’s almost like night and day,” Cheh told Hearst’s new principal, Jennifer Thomas, last Friday [August 15th]. Hearst’s modernization started last year. This summer, a major addition was the new sprinkler system in the main building. Another project is slated to finish in early 2015, so that during winter break the Tenleytown school’s classrooms can transition from trailers into the new structure.
When Cheh visited the 3950 37th St. campus, one of the concerns she brought up was the soccer field. But Thomas surprised the council member by pointing outside to a field covered with a new bright-green turf.
“I’m so happy about that,” said Cheh, adding that she’d like to move on next to fixing the larger upper field and sharing facilities with the D.C. Departments of Parks and Recreation. She also suggested that Hearst create a school garden and composting facility, programs in place at other Ward 3 schools.
“She’s got a keen eye,” said the principal.
Among the changes for Hearst is its new principal, Thomas, who has been managing many new faculty members at a time when the student body is brimming at capacity. Currently, 302 students are enrolled; D.C. Public Schools had projected 293 students for the year, according to Thomas.
At Mann, a week before students return on Aug. 25, faculty and staff were busily preparing classrooms and grounds for the new academic year. They were welcomed by brand-new windows that allow natural light to pour into the modern classrooms, renovated just last year. The bright new openings replace dark film-covered glass in aging window frames, many of which were sealed shut.
“They’re just magnificent,” said longtime principal Whisnant, who has been touring with Cheh since the council member started the summer review.
Modernization at the 4430 Newark St. school started last year at the main facility. Mann was the last stop of Cheh’s tour this year.