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The school trophies had to stay where they were. They would not be making the trip downtown to the D.C. public school system’s archive.
The trophies were generic, boring, and, worst of all, they never listed the names of kids or schools. Plus, DCPS historian Nancye Suggs didn’t have room for them.
This year, Chancellor Michelle Rhee shut down 23 public schools due to declining enrollment, failing testing scores, poor facilities, and the need to consolidate resources in existing schools. The closings prompted a predictable community debate, with activists objecting that the city was turning its back on treasured community resources.
Now that the closings have become official, it’s up to the 65-year-old Suggs to recover the treasures that students, teachers, and principals have left behind. This June, she visited more than 15 schools, gathering everything from class photos to prom souvenirs and storing them in the attic of the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives at 17 and M streets NW.
If she didn’t take something, it would probably end up in a Dumpster or some dusty box—honestly, it was hard to know.
When Suggs started making her rounds, she experienced the full dysfunction of DCPS. She was originally given a scant three weeks to get to all the schools and sift through their stuff. It felt as if the building manager was going to be padlocking the door as Suggs pulled up: Sorry ma’am. School’s out forever. You just missed it.
Suggs made the decision about the trophies on June 13, her first outing, at Anthony Bowen Elementary School, near the Southwest Waterfront.
Outside the main office, there was a glass case, loaded with shining plastic figurines of leaping cheerleaders and basketball players mid-dribble. In the end, they filled two boxes. Any high school would have won 10 times that many. Suggs had to draw the line for the future: She would take the trophies at Bowen as examples of historical artifacts. But just one batch was necessary. Future Sumner visitors would not need to see 500 novice division cheerleading prizes to know little girls liked to prance around with pompoms back in the day.
Soon after collecting the trophies, Suggs set her sights on another Plexiglas case filled with student artwork on the first floor.
“Why do you need all this?” asked a teacher, who was helping her unscrew the front of the case.
“We’re taking it and preserving your history,” said Suggs.
The woman seemed satisfied with that response. What else was there to say?
Suggs herself attended D.C. public schools, starting at Ephraim Gardner Kimball Elementary School in Greenway and later Charles W. Raymond Elementary School in Petworth and J. Holdsworth Gordon Junior High School in Glover Park. She went to a private high school in Maryland. After 42 years as a DCPS employee—she worked several jobs in the central office before Sumner’s inception—she’s planning on retiring in September.
Suggs has various theories about why these things are important. Of course, there is the historic value: “We can look back 50 years and tell you how many times we’ve gone from centralization to decentralization. Do you know how much money it costs to do that?” says Suggs. “[People] just kind of do their thing, like they’re the first person that ever thought of it.”
But she also knows these items aren’t merely “artifacts.” To some former students, sports images and yearbooks offer the chance to relive a buried childhood.
DCPS is known as one of the worst school systems in the country, yet the simple fact remains: No matter how bad the test scores, how busted the air-conditioning units, how leaky the toilets, or how lazy certain teachers may have been, these schools were still little communities.
H.D. Woodson Senior High School captures these contradictions. This spring, Chancellor Rhee fired the school’s principal. Besides that, the building is in surrealistically poor shape (“The End of an Error,” 2/22). Barely any metal letters from the school name remain on the wall outside. The escalators don’t work. The bathrooms walls are decorated with graffiti: “Simp Simp Simple City,” “Fuck Simple City,” “Sursum Corda Crew,” and on and on.
Inside the building, Suggs faced a multitude of sweet but harried secretaries. The assistant principal appeared momentarily, then disappeared. (Suggs later heard that he’d just been fired.) The closest thing to an authority figure seemed to be one of the school’s security guards.
But as soon as Suggs made it up to the seventh-floor storage closet, the disorderliness faded away. Several Woodson alums, and later, former principal Aona Jefferson, started to pull out old collapsing boxes brimming with some of the greatest old high school stuff you can possibly imagine. There were countless old prom favors: Champagne flutes, key chains, candles, one year’s school slogan where do we go from here? The yearbooks’ perennial SQ (Senior Quarterly) magazine had headlines like “HAIR WARS! Real vs. Store Bought” and pages praising and lambasting various trends of the day.
In the end, there were too many great finds. They couldn’t possibly all fit in Suggs’ Jeep Grand Cherokee that day. More boxes had to be dropped off later on.
Quite a few extraordinary pictures and artifacts have made it into the archives. The rest will be with the former students. Midway through the trip to Woodson, a man named Stefon Whiting wandered up to the seventh floor and started paging through old yearbooks. Whiting, a 1980 Woodson graduate, played football, basketball and baseball in high school. He’d been running on the track outside when someone broke the news to him.
“They told me ‘You know it’s the last week,’” he said. “And I said ‘What? You can’t tear down this school.’”
School: H.D. Woodson Senior High School
Object: Photo of Raymond “World” Smith
Raymond “World” Smith was 6 feet 6 inches and weighed in at more than 450 pounds. He entered H.D. Woodson Senior High School as a junior during the fall of 1984. Almost immediately, an assistant coach coined the “World” nickname.
This particular image was snapped by a Washington Post photographer, who’d searched “all around the area” for the right globe, says Smith.
The perfect, appropriately enormous sphere was located at the Library of Congress. Smith met the photographer there on a Tuesday, and the two discussed poses.
“I just suggested that maybe I should hold the globe, He said, ‘Nah, just sit right here,’” says Smith. The photograph appeared alongside a piece about Smith being perhaps the largest high school football player in America.
The Post certainly wasn’t the only media outlet to cover Smith. During his two years at Woodson, he gained national fame, also appearing in the New York Times, the George Michael Sports Machine, and NBC Nightly News.
It wasn’t long before Smith attained celebrity status. Children walked up to him just to touch him. A fan took a bus across town and chased him down after school for an autograph. And a young woman from Chicago wrote him proposing marriage.
“I wrote her back,” says Smith, who now lives in Las Vegas. “I was like ‘Thanks for the proposal, but I’m not ready to get married.’”
Smith had never played for a football team before coming to Woodson—though it wasn’t for lack of trying:
“I wanted to play when I was 11 years old,” he says. “But I was 200-something pounds. I couldn’t play with the kids I went down to see at practice because they were 85 to 95 pounds.”
A small break came when Smith was still in middle school. A Woodson assistant coach saw him playing football on the street and told the school’s head coach, Bob Headen, who invited Smith over to practice with his high schoolers. When Smith’s family moved back into D.C. after living in Maryland for several years, he enrolled at Woodson and immediately went out for the football team. Headen bent his tryout rules a bit for his gigantic new prospective player: He told him that if he could finish a lap, he was on the team. Smith jogged about 120 yards, and walked the rest of the way around. That was apparently satisfactory.
During his two years at Woodson, the team had strong records, though they never were league champions. Smith was also named “Most Athletic,” “Tallest,” and “Most Popular” by his peers in his senior yearbook.
Yet, Smith was quite reserved when it came to one particular activity: eating.
“If I know you, I can eat,” says Smith. But he prefers not to eat in front of unfamiliar people. “It just made me uncomfortable. People want to know my eating habits. I’m not there to amuse you about how I eat and stuff,” he says.
For his first year at Woodson, he never so much as chomped on a sandwich in school in front of his classmates. Then, NBC came to Woodson to tape a segment on him and wanted to get some footage of him eating “a small portion of chicken.” Smith obliged them.
His teammates told him to just dive right in and suck the meat off the bone.
He didn’t do that. But he did give up his no-school-lunch policy after the camera crews got him chewing on tape.
After Woodson, Smith played football at Grambling State University in Grambling, La. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in recreational therapy and returned to D.C. for two years to work security at a nightclub. Then he moved out to Las Vegas to be with his college girlfriend, whom he later married. He has continued working in the security field.
Smith is currently divorced and has three children: Brittany, 15, Raymond, 13, and Christopher, 11.
His eldest son is encountering some of the same issues his father confronted in his youth.
“My 13-year-old wants to play, but he’s too big to play. He’s 6-2, about 270. He’s going to have to wait until he gets to high school,” says Smith.
Smith says he took his children to see Woodson in 2002, his last trip to the District. These days, Woodson High School, aka the “Tower of Power,” may be best known for its broken escalators, locked unused pool, and general dereliction. But Smith says he has fond memories of his time there, with one exception.
“I just hated when it rained. When it rained, we had to have practice inside: That’s running from the ground floor all the way up to the tower,” he says. “I’d rather go outside and practice in the rain, rather than run the tower.”
School: Robert Gould Shaw Junior High School
Object: Portrait of Principal Percy L. Ellis Jr. by Byron Peck
Go to class, what you waiting on!” “Tie your shoes, you know better than that.” “Get that trash bag behind you.…Don’t get mad.”
For 33 years, Dr. Percy L. Ellis Jr. tried to keep Robert Gould Shaw Junior High School impeccable. He first worked at the school in 1962 as an assistant principal, then was promoted to principal in 1967, and retired in 1995.
In 2003, Ellis passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 82. Soon after, former Shaw parent Ibrahim Mumin started a group to raise money to rehab the school’s old auditorium to be renamed for Ellis. Beginning in early 2004, he and others collected roughly $25,000 in cash from mostly small donations from former teachers and local residents.
The funds were used to replace tattered curtains, the stage floor, and some wooden chairs. Volunteers spent hours removing graffiti and wads of gum from the room. But the defining element of the renovation was this 5-by-6-foot portrait by Byron Peck, who has completed numerous outdoor murals around the city, including the Duke Ellington painting by the corner of 12th and U streets NW.
Several of Shaw’s best student artists were selected to visit Peck in his studio and help paint the border of the Ellis portrait.
“For the splatter, I let the kids go crazy,” he says. “We taped off the rest of the painting and I gave them a bunch of colors, and we kind of laid it out on the floor, like a Jackson Pollock.”
As a Shaw administrator, Ellis was best remembered as a strict disciplinarian. In 1977, over objections from the D.C. school board, he abolished outdoor recess to keep kids from leaving school grounds and being approached by the area’s many heroin dealers.
One of the ways he maintained a serious-minded academic environment was through a dress code. Ellis always wore a suit and tie, and he expected his boys to wear ties and tuck in their shirts as well. But the school board eventually forced him to relax his standards, says Viola P. Ellis, his wife of more than 50 years.
“As time went on, a lot of the young teenagers wore pants without a belt. He did not tolerate the boys coming in without a belt,” she says. “He said school is like a job for you.”
Peck wasn’t provided a lot of instruction about how to capture Ellis. The money for the painting—about $5,000, according to Peck—came from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Given the cost of the painting, and the time—only several weeks—in which he had to complete the work, he felt that the 5-by-6 dimensions were appropriate. The green background was his idea: “I just thought it had a little intensity to it; at the same time [it was] a little soothing.”
He said he was given a photograph to work from. It was either very faded, or black and white, he remembers, but luckily, he nailed the coloring: “When we did the unveiling at the dedication, several of the older people at the school said it looked just like him,” says Peck.
School: Margaret Murray Washington Vocational High School
Object: Photos of dishes from the culinary arts program’s graduation reception
Presented alongside platters of pâtés, meats, endive leaf hors d’oeuvres, and other culinary creations, this glistening roasted pig was cooked by students from the culinary arts program at Margaret Murray Washington Vocational High School.
Since the early 1980s, Chef McArthur Thomas has run the program, which culminated in a final graduation “production” at a big downtown hotel. This platter was presented at a reception at the Renaissance Hotel in Mount Vernon Square.
For years, the wood-framed image hung on a wall of Thomas’ classroom.
With only 12 to 15 graduates on average every year, the culinary arts program hasn’t garnered widespread attention, but it has graduated plenty of students headed straight to the nation’s top cooking schools: the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Johnson & Wales University, and the New England Culinary Institute. And several of Thomas’ pupils won substantial scholarships along the way.
One of his more successful students is Terrell Danley, owner of Crème Café and Lounge and Station 9 on U Street NW, who graduated from the program in 1990. Danley says Thomas was tough on his students, but he pushed them to build a great foundation of skills. Students also trained in restaurants with kitchen wizards “who chewed you up and spit you out” and produced “a bunch of superstars,” says Danley.
Thomas has spent most of his cooking career as an instructor. He served in the Vietnam War and was trained as a chef at 38. At the time this photo was taken, Thomas’ program was geared toward adults and was taught by instructors from the CIA, which had a contract with D.C. Public Schools and the Department of Employment Services. Then, in the mid-1990s, the program lost funding and Thomas switched from being manager to full instructor. He also began working exclusively with high school students.
At the old graduations, 100 to 150 guests showed up. Occasionally a recent alum contributed a dish just to show off his or her abilities, says Thomas. Within this photographic collection, there is one shot of a five-tier wedding cake with blue flowers and staircases between levels. The dessert was contributed by an alum who’d just returned to D.C. after graduating from the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art in Darien, Ill.
Thomas himself is off to a new kitchen as well. Next year he begins working as the lead baking instructor at Roosevelt
Senior High School on 13th Street NW. Luckily, he’s starting his new position just in time for the installation of a new $1.48 million kitchen.
“Everything I had hoped to do here, we’re going to be able to do there,” he says.
School: Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School
Object: Photos of first-daughter Amy Carter working on Stevens’ beautification project
Year: Late 1970s
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter took office, and his 9-year-old daughter Amy began classes at Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School at the corner of 21st and L streets NW roughly five blocks from the White House.
While there, she participated in a school beautification program, studying soil and seeds in the classroom and then helping to plant trees and shrubs outside, recalls Sylvia Shugrue, who ran the program.
“She was a little child, in a situation with Secret Service and people outside wanting to take pictures of her. I thought she did a beautiful job of just being a little child and just going to school, and being as normal as possible,” says Shugrue.
Carter declined to be interviewed through Deanna Congileo, President Carter’s press secretary.
These shots of Carter, who enrolled in Stevens as a fourth-grader, were taken by DCPS photographer William Webb Jr., who worked for the school system for 23 years and retired in 1991. He passed away in 2002. The Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives possesses a collection of his photos.
According to news reports at the time, President Carter had a personal policy of sending his children to public schools. Prior to enrolling in Stevens, Amy Carter went to a school in rural Plains, Ga. At the time of her enrollment, roughly 210 to 220 kids attended Stevens; 40 percent of the students were black, and the rest were children of parents who worked downtown or were embassy staffers from all over the world, according to a July 1976 Washington Star article.
The school had three small garden plots in the middle of the brick sidewalk directly outside. Different grades were responsible for different aspects of the project, according to an undated report about the project: “The fifth and sixth graders modified the soil by adding peat moss and constantly mixing. The third and fourth grades learned how to transplant annuals, and planted the larger shrubs and tree saplings. They, in turn, were assisted by the primary grades [kindergarten, first and second grades] in continuing the planting of annuals.”
Shugrue says she worked on the Stevens gardens for three to five years. At the time, she was a visiting science teacher, overseeing similar beautification projects at 10 other schools and stopping by each place every week or so. She remembers Carter as being “very alert.”
“I wasn’t her classroom teacher, but when I went in to teach science, she participated with the other kids. She was friendly with the other children,” she says. Sometimes, they even reciprocated by walking her all the way home to the White House, remembers Shugrue.
School: William Benning Elementary
Object: Plaque honoring a superior boiler room
Those two words undoubtedly send shivers down the spines of many D.C. public school principals. After classrooms, they’re the rooms so often cited in connection with the school system’s legendary shortcomings. Whenever school facilities are either too warm or too cold for learning, the problem, it seems, is always traceable to the boiler room, a locus of busted sump pumps, leaking valves, rising flood waters, and, of course, no water at all.
But for one shining period, the boiler room at William Benning Elementary School was bubbling at just the right level. Benning staff loaded this plaque for best kept boiler room into a box for DCPS historian Nancye Suggs. The story behind the honor remains a mystery, though.
Benning Principal Darwin Bobbitt said he knows nothing about it. He served at the school for three years—long enough to know the school’s boiler room has fallen on some hard times since the 1994-1995 school year. Last summer, there were some “facilities issues,” having to do with the pipes, plumbing, and drainage of the boiler room, he says. There were also “off and on” air-conditioning and heat problems.
“Some places were warm, some places were cold,” he says. “Same with the air: Some days it worked well, and some days there was only air in parts of the building.”
Bobbitt directed questions to longtime custodian Theodore Thomas. While Thomas is currently still employed by the school system, he is on vacation, according to DCPS spokesperson Jennifer Calloway, who declined to provide contact information. Calloway offered to follow up by searching for other Benning janitors, then later wrote: “turns out custodians don’t have anything to do with boiler rooms, and instead it’s school engineers.”
Engineer James Jackson recalls quite a bit about the history of the plaque. It was one of several awarded by Servicemaster Company, L.P., a company that had a managerial contract with DCPS from the early to mid-1990s, says Jackson. Its employees oversaw boiler room engineers, who at that point were usually stationed at schools, not working as “roving” engineers, as they frequently are today.
Jackson has two plaques that are similar to the one from Benning. The first he received for his work at Brightwood Elementary School at 13th and Nicholson Streets NW.
“I got one for ‘Outstanding Maintenance Support,’” he says. “1994. I’m looking at it right now. It’s in my office.”