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High School Monumental

How much education does $124 million buy?

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By ZACK MUNSON
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Washington, D.C.

Photo of The new Wilson

The new Wilson


Last year, I happened to drive by my old high school, Woodrow Wilson in Washington, and I saw something very encouraging: The school was being demolished. Why was this encouraging? Well, the sprawling, red brick building had been standing, with little modification and not enough maintenance, since 1935. It lacked basic amenities that people who went to normal schools might take for granted, like functioning light fixtures and a supply of toilet paper. (We did have an indoor pool for a while, until one of the walls said “screw it” and collapsed.)

But as I discovered later, to my dismay, the school wasn’t being razed. Turns out, in 2007, the District of Columbia initiated a 15-year, $3.5 billion plan to modernize the city’s public schools. Or rather a $5 billion plan. Or is it $2.5 billion over 10 years? It depends on whom you ask. This project was part of a broader package of education reforms instituted by then-mayor Adrian Fenty and his firebrand, anti-union school chancellor Michelle Rhee (who, for her efforts, was run out of town on a rail, leaving a transcontinental trail of tar and feathers from here to her new home in Sacramento). Wilson was being renovated, modernized, reborn. 

The school was given a budget of $85 million with which to saw and sand and furbish and refurbish to its heart’s content. At least, $85 million was the initial budget. The school shuttered its doors for the 2010-2011 school year, sent its students packing to an office building on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia, and got to work building, as current principal Peter Cahall calls it, “the model urban high school in the United States.” Of course, when building the model urban high school in the United States, $85 million is bound to balloon a wee little bit. The price tag, as of October 2011, was a cool $124 million.

Having made a narrow escape from the institution back in 2001, I had managed to avoid ever revisiting the place. Not that I’m one of those people who hated high school: I had a pretty good time, putting on plays, playing baseball, and driving with my friends to the other side of Rock Creek Park in search of friendly cashiers to sell us cigarettes and beer. But Wilson .  .  . Wilson was a strange place. 

The facility itself was a monument to late-20th-century urban decay. Despite the fact that the building had about a dozen entrances, students, for the sake of security, were only allowed to enter through one. So every day, 1,500-plus teens would cram through a dark hallway cluttered with an X-ray machine and metal detector, then down another dark, crowded hallway, with dark walls of graying, peeling paint, to the main dark, crowded hallway, lined with dented, graffitied lockers, past the dark main office, then up a dark stairwell to the upper hallways and classrooms. If you were lucky, you had a few classes on the windowed hall that curved toward the gym, which allowed in just enough vitamin D for students and teachers to make it through the day without developing rickets. It was dark, in case I left that part out.

If you had gym class, you could head down into the locker room, the perfect setting for a grisly, Walking Dead-style zombie battle: musty, mildewed showers barely illuminated by the intermittent flicker of fluorescent tubes hanging over rows of rusty lockers. Or if you had swimming, you could make your way to the soon-to-collapse indoor pool, the floors and walls of which were coated with a layer of grayish permafilth. If in need of a break from the mundane duties of the school day, you could repair to the “Atrium,” a prison-style concrete courtyard bounded on all sides by the red brick of the school’s walls, replete with garbage and overturned tables. Or to the “Rose Garden,” a roseless courtyard full of dead trees and rusty desks—a sort of diorama of what the earth might look like after the apocalypse. 

As for what went on inside: The school was essentially segregated, with a special “academy” set up in the early 1980s to attract the middle-class whites who were fleeing the city’s schools (and the city in general) while Mayor Marion Barry was hard at work smoking crack cocaine. When I was there, the white kids were expected to succeed, and generally did, while the black kids weren’t, and generally didn’t—a fact purported to have earned Wilson the nickname “Yale or Jail” in some quarters downtown. The average SAT score, displayed prominently in the main hall, was always somewhere between 850 and 950 (out of 1600).

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