by Elizabeth Wiener
Staff writer, The Current Newspapers
After a last-minute rush of construction activity, newly renovated Mann and Hearst elementary schools reopened to about 300 students each Monday morning — part of the latest chapter in the District’s effort t bring dilapidated public schools into the 21st century.
There’s still much work to be done, not only in the renovation, but in promised additions to both schools that have yet to break ground. But teachers, parents and students were clearly pleased by the larger classrooms, bright lighting, interactive white boards and robust air conditioning systems.
“They brought the building to life,” Hearst principal Deborah Bergeron said of the restored brick schoolhouse on 37th Street, pointing out a refinished wooden fireplace in one classroom and gleaming marble floors, all dating to 1928. “They just buffed them,” she said. “They’re beautiful.”
Mann and Hearst join seven other elementary schools modernized this year as part of a multibillion-dollar school modernization drive that started in 2007. Powell and Shepherd elementary schools in Ward 4 are also in the latest batch, which includes a totally new Dunbar High in Ward 5 and a renovated Cardozo Education Campus in Ward 1.
Mayor Vincent Gray touted the latest accomplishments of the modernization effort in his radio address Sunday, saying that “state-of-theart” physical facilities are an intrinsic part of the school reforms instituted by his predecessor, Adrian Fenty. After decades of neglect, “beautiful and inspiring spaces… reflect values that we, as a community, place on our children’s future,” Gray said.
But the effort has not been without stumbling blocks and controversy. Modernizations at both Mann and Hearst were complicated by design disputes with nearby residents, as well as uncertainty about the funding for additions needed to serve growing enrollment.
Both sites now boast big temporary trailers, providing needed classroom and accessory space. Although funding — $13.5 million more for Hearst, $22 million for Mann — was proposed by Gray and approved by the D.C. Council last spring, Department of General Services officials say they’re still not sure when construction of permanent new wings will begin.
Hearst is now at 152 percent of capacity, and Mann at 136 percent, according to Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh’s office, making the addition of permanent new wings all the more urgent. David Dickinson, a Hearst parent and member of its Local School Advisory Team, said he’s hoping the new construction will begin soon.
“They’re not taking down the [construction] fences, and that’s a good sign,” he said.
And at a walk-through with Cheh last Wednesday [August 21], it was clear that some work remains on the original school buildings — even after the $9.7 million spent to modernize Hearst and $10 million spent at Mann. For example, there wasn’t enough money to buy new windows at each school, leaving many that don’t open and glass that has grown opaque over time.
Just days before the official opening of school, both sites had workers digging utility trenches, installing electrical equipment and making last-minute touch-ups. Cartons of classroom materials lined the hallways, and teachers were putting away books and arranging desks and chairs in their spacious, newly painted classrooms.
Cheh said last week that she has often seen last-minute disarray in her annual August “school readiness” tour, but things seem to fall into place by the time the children arrive. “I’ve seen chaos, but then everything’s ready,” she said.
At Hearst, principal Bergeron showed off some of the new facilities, including a “life skills room,” with kitchen and laundry equipment for special-education students. “It’s also good for [kindergarten] and pre-K,” she said. “We used to go to the kitchen at Sidwell [Friends School, across 37th Street] for that.”
Bergeron also praised the responsiveness and attention to detail of architect Ronnie McGhee and contractor Turner Construction. “They’ve done a good job,” she said.
But there were concerns about safety on a campus that still seemed like a construction site. Cheh worried that children using demountable classrooms on what used to be a playground north of the school would have to squeeze into an area still filled with equipment. By Sunday evening, most of that equipment had been neatly pulled to the sides, while the driveway — and adjoining 37th Street — had been repaved.
“There needs to be a real coordinated effort between the school, DGS and the construction people to make sure the kids are safe,” Dickinson said.
Cheh did a quick restroom inspection, running faucets, flushing toilets and checking whether stall doors closed. Bergeron said the automatic flushers on tiny toilets in the pre-K rooms may be too high. “Little kids don’t set the buttons off,” the principal said.
“It’s definitely a big improvement, but there’s always apprehension” with new facilities, said parent John Settles.
At Mann, principal Liz Whisnant was also thrilled with many of the changes. The pre-K and kindergarten wings have been opened up, with connections between classrooms. Every classroom has a white board, some even a PA system. And the reading specialist, lodged in a hallway for five years, “now has her own office,” Whisnant said. Classroom doors now have locks, an important security improvement.
“Look at my water fountain,” Whisnant said, pointing to a shiny, stainless steel fountain that replaced a weakly flowing porcelain one. “I have to celebrate. I keep stopping to look at it.”
For now, a hallway that will connect to the planned L-shaped addition on 45th and Newark streets is still blocked off, the space temporarily converted into an office for social workers. Whisnant said she’s hoping construction of the badly needed addition will start soon.
“My hope is that nobody’s kept waiting…. A really clear end date [to the construction] is important for our community,” she said.
There are also some concerns about work already done. There’s an adult-size sink in one kindergarten room that “doesn’t make sense,” Whisnant said. Sinks in several restrooms are also too tall for small children. Contractors said the sinks have to be accessible to wheelchair users, but Whisnant thought one adult-size sink per floor would suffice.
“My pre-K’ers will have to stand on stools, and that’s a safety risk,” the principal said.
During last week’s tour, workers were still carrying in cartons of books and other equipment. “We’ve only been in the building for 24 hours, but people are really settling in,” said Whisnant.
Construction work done at Powell and Shepherd this summer is also the first phase of larger projects that will eventually add modern wings to the original schools. Shepherd, on 14th Street, got $13.7 million in improvements to classrooms, corridors, lobbies, restrooms and mechanical equipment, according to the Department of General Services. At Powell, on Upshur Street, one of two existing buildings was modernized at a cost of $6.3 million.
Republished, with permission, from the August 28, 2013 issue of The Northwest Current.