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At Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest, the 2004–2005 school year hasn’t been the best on record. The former principal unexpectedly did not return this year, and under her replacement, W. Lloyd Reeves, parents and teachers say, suspensions have sharply risen, the school has developed a rodent problem, fighting has gotten out of control, and four sections of seventh-grade English have gone nearly a full year without a teacher.

“Just a year ago, parents were clamoring to get their children into that school. Now parents are saying they’re going to take their kids out,” says E. Faye Williams, whose niece attends the school. Protesters have gathered each morning in front of Jefferson for the past week to demand that D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey address Jefferson’s problems. “We just figure his staff people aren’t getting word to him how bad things have been this last year,” says Williams.

The following is an account from a seventh-grade student at Jefferson of his first year in middle school. His mother requested that he not be identified.

The first day they sent us to a teacher. She was completely full, and she was an eighth-grade English teacher. We couldn’t go there, so we had to go to the auditorium. We were just sitting in there like dead weight.

We might gossip about what’s for lunch, or who likes who, or something like that. When we first got in there, we were sort of complaining because we didn’t have anything to do, so we just started having paper-ball fights in the auditorium. When the security guard came by, we stopped, but after he left, we started again. We were there for two weeks. Then they said we should go to the library.

The library aide, Ms. Anderson, was teaching us English. It was OK for a while, because we thought that she was our teacher. The principal said the library aide was a teacher. He’s been saying he’s been trying to get a teacher in there, but he’s been saying that since the beginning of the year. Ms. Anderson was OK with it, because she thought it would be for one or two days while they cleared this up and got us into a class.

The principal yells a lot. Mr. Reeves, when he yells, we call him Big Willy under our breath. We sort of laugh at him because they keep saying that at the last school he was at—Shaw, I think—they beat him in the head with a baseball bat or pushed him down the stairs or something. He yells too much.

We ended up staying in the library for two semesters. We might do some English for three days out of the week, and then the other two days we’d just play on the computers. Some people actually read books. Well, I read books. I remember I would look through the bookshelves if I couldn’t get a computer. We would play Internet games. Some of the girls went in chat rooms, but they weren’t supposed to.

We had homework just about every day. Some of the kids sorta didn’t take the class very seriously. The ones that did, we actually got a grade. Most got an A that did the work. We’d do a report on a person. We might actually have to use the computer for something useful.

Ms. Anderson actually helped us when we did the reports. Since we were in the library, she might proofread them for us on the computer or just help us find the information, because some kids didn’t like to look that hard. We had assigned books, but most of us would just leave them in our locker.

Fights have always been very regular at that school. We always have classmates being beat up or something. They had a fight a couple weeks ago at L’Enfant Plaza. Everyone knew about it a week in advance, so a lot of people were there. It was some type of rivalry between these students. And people started spreading this rumor that they were going to fight. So they had to fight. When it was over, the whole school had this big meeting with some of these cops there, saying if we are found in L’Enfant Plaza with a Jefferson uniform on, we were going to be arrested.

There’s this thing between the seventh-grade classes. 7B01 is fighting with 7116. I don’t know how these fights are started, but it’s happening. Basically the entire seventh grade—103, 102, I can’t think of them all—they’re all fighting with each other. B01 had said they were going to jump everyone in 7116, but I think it sort of calmed down a little.

I know some girl that got jumped on the playground. Half the playground was chasing her—it was like a mob. There wasn’t anywhere for her to go. Because if you try to go back in the building after they let you outside, they won’t let you back in. When you throw up or you’re bleeding, that’s the only way you can get back inside that building.

In the second semester they tried to get us an English teacher, Ms. Brown. She wasn’t yelling and screaming at us. That was good; it kept us calm. It was OK for those two weeks she was in there but then they sent her away.

A few weeks ago, the student and his class were assigned yet another English teacher.

Some of the girls nearly cried when they heard we had to go down to the basement. For some reason, every time we go into the class every morning, it stinks. I don’t know if there’s a dead rat in there, but it stinks.

It’s a horrible English class. We were learning more when we were in the library. It’s wild, disorderly. The teacher sends kids out—every day at least half the class is being sent out by security guards, and our behavior isn’t even really that bad. We just talk or do work for another class. It’s like recess. All he gives us is worksheets we finish in five minutes. It’s like fourth grade. I probably know more than him about English, yeah.

Originally, we were just trying to be real late to class, without having him think we were trying to skip class. We’d be in the bathroom, or we might try to sneak up to the library and pretend we’re talking to Ms. Anderson and stall for time.

There were a lot of fire alarms last week. There were six fire alarms on Tuesday. At least three went off in the first period. That just gives us an excuse to get rowdy and run downstairs.

I want a good grade. But we haven’t done any work, so I don’t know if there’s anything to grade us on. Hopefully, my grades are good so I can pass this year and just get on with my life.

That lack of us having a teacher—we’re not learning anything in that class. It’s a free period. We sort of carry that concept over to other classes, and we stop wanting to learn. Like everything’s just a play day.CP