The Magazine

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

Slowking4

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).

The principal was a 50-year-old white guy with an earring who insisted on being called Doctor, despite the fact that he could not prescribe the Xanax you would need after talking to him. His main duty, as far as the students could tell, was walking through the school without making eye contact with us, which did little to discourage the maelstrom of yelling and dancing and shoving and shouting that filled the halls.

You could, if you wanted to, get a good education and go on to a good college. And there was a handful of very good teachers. But the majority were an odd assortment of aging hippies, incompetents, and outright loons. An English teacher impressed students by showing off a stump where a finger used to be—which he proudly claimed to have chopped off to avoid going to Vietnam. A gym/health teacher led the students in a game called “STD Jeopardy,” and warned that, contrary to what you might see in Valtrex commercials, if you got a certain STD, you would not be riding around on a horse smiling. My younger sister had a teacher (well, a substitute, but still) who informed the class that he used to be white until he’d been injected with hormones by the CIA that rendered him “incognegro.”

When I was in 10th grade, a physics teacher punched a friend of mine in the face for no reason. This instructor spent much of our class time devising odd role-playing games that involved 12-sided dice and imaginary nuclear holocausts. And he, at that time, had the longest tenure of any teacher at the school. After clocking my friend, he was fired immediately. Oh .  .  . wait. No, he wasn’t. The school administration, ever vigilant, conducted a thorough investigation of the students. About a year later, the physics teacher finally “resigned.” But not before (unsuccessfully) suing my friend for $1 million for making him go temporarily deaf and blind and ruining his world-class fencing career (truly, the teacher was insane).

And this was, then as now, the best public high school in our nation’s capital.

So, $124 million later, when the school reopened this fall to much fanfare and excitement, I was curious enough to set foot inside Wilson for the first time in 10 years. Principal Cahall agreed to give me a tour on a Monday morning. Though some of the old building had been torn down and replaced, much of the shell was left intact and gutted—repurposed, as we like to say nowadays. The new entrance is situated next to the old entrance. It is a wide, semicircular wall of tall glass doors that lead into a large foyer (still crowded with X-ray machines and metal detectors). The foyer opens up into the Atrium, and .  .  . I am speechless. 

The old prison yard is gone. It is now .  .  . well .  .  . beautiful. The exposed red brick is still there, and the entire space is illuminated with natural light shining through a massive glass roof. It is dotted with fancy tables and benches of odd geometric design and a healthy supply of flat-screen TVs. Oh so many flat-screen TVs.

I find my way to the main office, and meet Mr. Cahall—relieved he is not Dr. Cahall. Like most educators, Cahall tends to speak in platitudes. He has “a deep conviction and belief that every kid can learn.” He walks around the school and sees kids “not being passive learners—they’re active learners.” The school is generally safe, but, you know, “kids are gonna be kids.” Cahall himself seems to be something of a platitude: the type of guy a Hollywood producer would tap to play the principal of an unwieldy city high school. He is the Stern-But-Caring Large Man. (Think Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me. Only white. And bald. And minus the baseball bat. You know what, don’t think Morgan Freeman.) 

Standing about 6 foot 3, with broad shoulders, a booming voice, and a Telly Savalas hairdo, he walks buoyantly through the school, gladhanding and kibitzing like the proprietor of a mid-1970s Miami Beach cocktail lounge. He seems to know every student’s name, and they seem genuinely glad to see him and chat. “Que pasa, Hector?” he shouts to one student (who I assume is named Hector). “You know you can’t play no volleyball,” he joshes another, as we walk through a gym class in progress. “Asalaam alaikum! How was your weekend?” he asks yet another, and seems actually interested in the reply. He stands at the entrance each morning and welcomes the students. He spends the lunch period picking up trash and collecting trays in the cafeteria. I’m not sure which part of the building fund went towards repurposing the burnt-out, hostile administrators of my day, but it was money well spent.

Mr. Cahall beams as he shows me around. And why shouldn’t he? The school is unrecognizable (for $124 million, it had better be). The once gloomy and decrepit halls are awash in light. The peeling paint is gone, the warped lockers have been replaced, and the flickering fluorescent is now a halogen glow. The Rose Garden is a beautiful outdoor eating area with what appear to be actual rosebushes. The men’s locker room, inhospitable to zombies, leads to “an NFL quality underground tunnel” that leads, in turn, to Wilson’s happily updated football field. The old gym was flattened and replaced with an acoustically paneled auditorium and stadium seating for 850. The old auditorium was crushed to make room for two exquisite new gyms, the smaller of which comes complete with a “green” roof (courtesy of a $200,000 federal stimulus grant). 

The green roof concept needs some explaining. According to Alex Wilson, the school’s academic director, there are two main elements: First, it has a tank to collect rainwater and prevent rapid runoff, which is a threat to the adjacent Rock Creek Park ecosystem. Second, it has plants on it. Or it will eventually. Most haven’t actually grown yet, and some that did were eaten by birds. But they now have scare-owls in place to fend off the birds, so pretty soon those plants will be oxygenating the air, absorbing the rainwater, and also, in theory, helping to moderate the temperature in the building. Rainwater from the Atrium roof will be piped to a cistern underneath the school, from which it can be dispensed whenever a toilet needs flushing. There are solar panels on the new, sturdy-walled aquatic center, and even an ecolab, which is a greenhouse that “can create any type of ecosystem.” Its first use will be to grow some hydroponic plants (which actually harks back to the Wilson of my era).

These green elements are among the most highly touted features of the new school. D.C. now requires that all schools be built in accordance with LEED Silver certification, a stringent environmental building code that includes crucial requirements for, among other things, “promot[ing] biodiversity” and “reduc[ing] sky-glow to increase night sky access.” Wilson is aiming even higher, for Gold Certification, perhaps a quixotic goal. As Alex Wilson concedes, the overall environmental impact will probably be a wash, what with all the new flat-screen TVs and halogen bulbs glowing away. But a quixotic goal is still a goal. And if I learned anything when I was at Wilson, it’s that goals are important.

The classrooms have teleported from the 20th century to the 21st and beyond. Gone are the projectors and VCRs and LaserDisc players (yes, that cutting-edge technology that reigned supreme for a good year or two). The whole building has Wi-Fi. There is a cyber café and a media center, the latter a white, glowing sea of brand new Macs. There’s even a TV production studio! The whole place is really, really nice. Not just nicer than it used to be; nicer than the college I went to. I’m ready to reenroll. Hell, I’m ready to move in. There is a robotics lab, and a robotics team that competes nationally (in what I like to imagine are pall mall, steel-cage robot death matches). And as Cahall tells it, each class has a flat-screen TV, or an LCD projector, or a Promethean Board. What, you might ask, is a Promethean Board? It’s a fully interactive, touch-screen projection device—a somewhat less awesome version of Tom Cruise’s work screen in Minority Report—though Cahall admits that many teachers still just “do PowerPoint on them” and haven’t quite mastered the interactive element. But hey, it’s early. I’m just glad all the bathroom stalls now have doors. 

Apparently, $124 million gets you an awful lot of stuff. Wilson certainly won’t be worse for it. But I can’t help thinking: Wilson’s most famous alum, Warren Buffett, never had an ecolab in which to observe the mating cycle of sub-Saharan insects, and yet he somehow managed to not completely fail at life. Hundreds, thousands, of graduates have gone on from Wilson to the finest universities without the assistance of magic chalkboards that nobody really knows how to use, or cyber cafés, or the 80-inch plasma screen outside the new auditorium (now showing “Passing Time,” an interactive, video-art installation, basically just a montage of multicolored clocks). If the last 40 years have demonstrated anything, it’s that dumping money and technology onto faltering public institutions often does little but waste the money and create massive warehouses of rapidly obsolescing technology. 

But maybe my sensibilities just aren’t well tuned to the needs of today’s students. Maybe, though I’ve only been gone a decade, I’m already an old fogey. Because there are some signs that the changes at Wilson aren’t just physical. As Cahall explains, “I walk around the school, grinning from ear to ear, because the halls are quiet.” And they are. During class, the halls are empty. That may seem normal to someone who went to a normal school, but it’s a recent development at Wilson. There is no trash, no graffiti. Suspensions are down 20 percent and attendance up 3 percent compared with this time last year. I am so euphoric after my tour of the new Wilson that I actually want to be encouraged, and these things do offer some small shred of hope.

But shortly after my tour, a group of students set a few of the school’s refurbished bathrooms on fire, causing $150,000 in damage. So emphasis on “small” and “shred.”

Zack Munson is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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