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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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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