Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery, Illustrations by Brian Ralph

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The drama of the D.C. Public Schools has always dwelled in the numbers. Though every school system in the country has its problems, DCPS generally outdoes its counterparts in ways that can be counted.

For years, the school system has failed to keep a reliable list of its estimated 55,000 students.

Administrators have never been able to file the millions of personnel documents relating to the system’s 11,000 employees.

And talk of test scores invariably invokes the arithmetic of dysfunction: A few years back, DCPS students averaged a tally of 396 on the math portion of the SAT, 123 points below the national average.

Yet the schools’ adult leaders often come off as the real underachievers. A decade ago, the crisis was all about leaky roofs and broken boilers. Forty-seven schools in 1997 had boiler problems that the schools administration failed to fix on time. A judge closed four schools and left 3,000 students in satellite classrooms where supplies were scarce.

That year, the superintendent delayed opening day across the entire system by three weeks to take care of repairs at more than 50 schools.

And that’s why opening day in D.C. Public Schools is always packed with suspense. Who’s gonna fuck up this time? Here, the question marks also have a quantitative aspect to them: How many students, for starters, will sit in sweltering classrooms? How many won’t have the textbooks to start the year off the right way? How many will come without their uniforms? How many will show up unannounced, and how many won’t show up at all?

The numbers will pour in quickly, casting a first impression of the new schools regime headed by Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee. These folks have vowed to fix the school system. As the on-the-ground reports in this package indicate, that’s a job of incalculable proportions.

8:10 a.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

In the Anacostia Senior High Auditorium, interim principal Lynne D. Gober stands in front of her teachers for the first time.

Gober is a first-time DCPS principal, but she’s hardly a rookie. She taught biology and chemistry at Dunbar Senior High for a 13 years before taking an assistant principal job there in 1996. In 1997, she moved to West Virginia to get married, where she ended up principal of an elementary school in Martinsburg. She moved back to D.C. last summer to take care of her mother, grabbing an assistant principal job at Anacostia this spring. After Principal Ronald Duplessis was ousted earlier this year, she got the top job.

“How you begin today matters,” she tells them. “If you let them talk and holler and play, they’ll be doing it till June. I suggest you buckle down.”

Down-buckling is no problem for Gober. She’s also a retired Air National Guard officer. In a few minutes, she’ll be outside, making sure hats are off and shirts are tucked in. In the meantime, she’s answering a few last concerns from her troops.

“What if there’s more students than desks?” asks one teacher.

Easy, says Gober: There’s a whole bunch of extras downstairs. Send the students down to get them.

Then there are the schedules. Not all students will have schedules, reports guidance counselor Annie Smith, but “we hope that will happen at a very rapid pace.” Kids without real schedules will get “dummy schedules” that will at least give them a room to go to.

And in any case, there’s a plan: As kids enter the school through metal detectors—girls in one entrance, boys in another—each class is to report to a different area. Freshmen are supposed to go to the auditorium, sophomores to the gym, juniors to the cafeteria, and seniors to the “New Wing”—a ’70s-vintage expanse of open-pod classrooms. There, the students are supposed to hear a short speech from their respective assistant principals, meet their new teachers, get their schedules, and go to their homerooms, then to each of the day’s five periods. From there, it’s all good.

8:25 a.m.
Calvin Coolidge Senior High School

Brittany is standing in the Coolidge parking lot before school opens. She’s wearing flared blue jeans and a collarless gray T-shirt. She’s the only one in jeans. That’s because Coolidge now requires uniforms; jeans and collarless T-shirts aren’t on the list of approved apparel.

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

So why didn’t she conform? “Do you want the truth, or do you want me to lie to you?” the 17-year-old senior asks.

Last spring, a committee of students and parents adopted a dress code with an emphasis on choice and modesty: black, gray, orange, or white collared shirt with khaki, black, or gray pants. Since students had a better than 80 percent chance of being in a classroom without air conditioning, they could wear shorts. Skorts, even.

Too many kids cited choosing an outfit as an excuse for their tardiness, explains Principal L. Nelson Burton. The new dress code would take care of that as well as kids being teased for their unfashionable duds. Parents had to sign a notice promising to adhere to the code.

“I have the paper with the colors in my bookbag,” Brittany confesses. “I didn’t think a lot of people would wear uniforms for a while.”

Brittany is starting to realize this can’t be good for her first day. She blames her cousin, who graduated from Coolidge in the ’90s. He gave her bad advice. “He suggested I not waste my money,” she says, telling her that “Coolidge isn’t a uniform type of school.”

“Where’s your uniform?” hollers Assistant Principal Samuel K. Scudder Jr. Brittany and her blue jeans have been spotted.

“I’ll have it tomorrow,” Brittany says with a sulk.

“I’ll take my pants off!” Scudder says. “You think they fit you?”

8:40 a.m.
Anita J. Turner Elementary School

Robert Gregory, the new principal at Anita J. Turner Elementary, is proud of his school’s summertime transformation. Since he took over the school in July, parents have planted black-eyed Susans in the yard. Custodians covered the walls in fresh paint. For the first time in years, the stalls in the girls’ bathroom have doors, courtesy of a local developer.

“The buildings in D.C. are old. You have to do the best with what you have,” Gregory says.

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

But as the children line up on the playground in blue and white uniforms waiting for their new teachers to take them into class, Gregory faces a first-day crisis no elbow grease can fix. Several blocks away, a car slams into a utility pole. At the school, the lights go out. The fans stop spinning. In the basement, the backup generator fails.

“Well, I guess we will have to transition the children into the building and make the best of our first day,” says Gregory after the lights go out. He has just talked to Pepco. The lights won’t be on anytime soon.

The first morning of school at Turner is dark. Still, more than 50 last-minute parents arrive at the school gym to register their children for school. And there are other struggles.

First off, there should be breakfast. Every day, the schools serve juice, milk, cereal, and muffins. Many of the children don’t eat before school, Gregory says. But by 9 a.m., the truck still hasn’t arrived.

As Gregory roams the hall, stopping to introduce himself to the children, parents collar him with personal concerns. One mother of a held-back child wants to make sure her son will have a new teacher this year. Another mother wonders why her son has been assigned to a different school when they live close to Turner.

By the time breakfast finally arrives, lunch becomes a problem. In addition to milk and juice, the delivery men bring hot dogs and chicken nuggets for lunch. There is no place to keep the food cool and no electricity to heat it up. “We might have to go to another school, heat it up, and bring it back,” Gregory says.

Since this is an elementary school, shutting down isn’t a good option, Gregory says. Many parents are at work or don’t have phones. There is a little boy in one classroom with no paperwork who doesn’t know his name. He says he is “Bud Bud.” They’ll figure that out later, when his parents arrive to pick him up.

The school is safe, even if it is dark. Gregory talks to the mayor’s office, which sends an “outreach and services specialist” to the school. They are staying open. It would be different if the weather were hot, like last week.

At 11 a.m., the lights flash in the classrooms and fans begin to whir in the gym. Lunch can be heated up on site. “Now I can breathe,” Gregory says. The clocks read 8:45 a.m. The day is beginning all over again.

10:15 a.m.
Hart Middle School
Congress Heights

Katharine Buchholz has one goal for this school year: to keep her temper. The slight redhead with a nose ring and several small silver hoops in her ears has a reputation for being heard in the next room. “She’s Irish,” one colleague explains. Buchholz is a popular teacher, but she worries she’ll burn out if she doesn’t rein herself in.

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

Waiting to collect her eighth-grade homeroom class from the auditorium, she confesses her apprehensions for the coming year. “I could go crazy,” she says. By the time she’s marched 16 students through the un-air-conditioned hallways to Room 134, which is even hotter, one girl has set herself apart as the chief challenge to the teacher’s sanity.

The girl talks constantly and loudly. She gets up and down and flips her long braids, usually swatting a classmate in the process. She snatches candies from a friend’s purse. After bumping into a boy half her size, who tells her to watch out, the girl says, “I should have smacked you, Jamal. You’re lucky it’s the first day of school and I don’t want to be mean.”

It doesn’t take long for Buchholz to get after the tall girl. “I need to know your name,” she says, her finger on the attendance list, pencil hovering.

The girl mumbles her response. “First day of school and she already knows my name,” she says.

Buchholz confesses her temper-control goals to the class. “Last year I had a tendency to yell a lot, and I don’t want to do that,” she says. She asks her students to write down their own aspirations for the year, and almost everyone prints out some version of “pass the eighth grade.”

Teachers at Hart tend to bend certain rules. There just isn’t time, they reason, to fish the cell phones out of every pocket or collect the gum from every mouth. They tolerate eating in class since many students don’t get lunch until after 1 p.m.

Buchholz has two rules, however, that don’t get bent. No fighting and no sunflower seeds. She is blunt about the consequences of misbehavior: “You do not want to stay back with me. I’m not that much fun,” she says.

She’s also frank about the shortcomings of her classroom.

“You may have noticed it’s nice and warm in here,” she says. “And it’s going to be nice and warm in here until it’s nice and cold in here.” When a young man complains that his desk is broken, Buchholz shrugs. “I tried to steal you a new one from the library,” she says, “but they took it back.”

10:19 a.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

When students arrive for opening day, they need to know where to go for first period, second period, and so on. But getting schedules into their hands has always been a problem at Anacostia.

Renee Williams, head of Anacostia’s parent-teacher association, knows that history. She worked until 8:30 p.m. Sunday night getting the schedules into order. “Everyone’s been working overtime and undertime,” she said that night. Williams even consulted with the school’s assistant superintendent and with a former teacher, Jimmy D’Andrea, who in prior years had been the one guy who could be counted on to get the schedules done.

“I call her ‘she,’” Williams says, referring to Anacostia. “Like a female, she has her good days and her bad days.”

By the time first period comes to an end, it’s clear “Ana” is going to have one of her bad days. About two dozen freshmen have no schedules, “dummy” or otherwise. They’re sent to one side of the auditorium to cool their heels.

Blame for schedule snafus doesn’t rest entirely with school administrators. Many parents simply don’t register their kids early enough. In D.C., kids have to register for school every year, regardless of whether they’ve been there before or not. They can register all summer long, but too many don’t get the message.

And so students were coming in to register all weekend at Anacostia. Even now, an hour and a half after school starts, the registrar’s office is crammed with students and parents.

One of Gober’s big opening-day duties is directing parents down the hall to register. “I’m hoping the chancellor can tell these parents…to register these kids before the first day of school,” she says.

10:25 a.m.
Coolidge Senior High School

Items confiscated by Coolidge security guards: one plastic mirror, two lighters, and three nearly empty perfume bottles.

10: 27 a.m.
Coolidge Senior High School

Coolidge Senior High School (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“This is a democratic class,” Michael Fleegler tells the kids in Room 212 for his 11th grade AP English class. Fleegler is chubby and bald and intense. He expects a response out of his students.

Any idea what that means?

“Everyone’s opinion counts,” says a student from the front row.

“That’s an excellent definition,” Fleegler says. He means it. Everything, he says, will be up for debate. The class will decide which books it will read. It will also give Mr. Fleegler a grade for his performance.

“Should we turn the fan on?” Fleegler soon asks. The answer should be obvious. The room is sweltering but voter turnout is real low.

“Oh, come on!” Fleegler exclaims.

This is Fleegler’s first year at Coolidge. He has taught in Mexico, Portugal, and Philadelphia. He taught a college course on how to teach AP classes.

Last year, Principal Burton made AP English a mandatory requirement for his 11th-graders. He says things didn’t go so well. The two teachers, he says, weren’t up to the job. One teacher, he says, had trouble even making it to class. In the first semester, she failed to show up 42 out of the 90 days. She always had a semi-sketchy doctor’s note, Burton says. Fleegler is her replacement.

The night before this first class, Fleegler, 33, wondered: Am I going to do right by the students? Am I going to do the right thing? He really likes the idea of connecting the dots between Aristotle and, say, the stoner-flick Friday or Shakespeare sonnets and Tupac’s rhymes. He doesn’t mind if students call him Mr. F.

Introductions commence—lengthy on Mr. F’s part (he’s bald, on a diet, and tight with the Roots! He’s a jazz percussionist!) and minimal on the students’ part (they like sports). Then Mr. F announces the topic for their first extended discussion: What makes for a good English class? What makes a good book a classic? Mr. F spells classic with only one “s” on purpose. If someone spots the mistake, he gets a bonus point. Even teachers, he says, can be wrong.

Within a few minutes, there’s a sustained beep over the intercom. Mr. F believes this just signifies a 10-minute break. But class is actually over—the bell means time for second period. “I think it went pretty well,” Mr. F says. “I think the students were a little shy. I think tomorrow we’ll open with a discussion [on] it. They’ll start by grading me for today.”

11:12 a.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

There should be 11 students in Chuck Saunders’ second-period world history class. Right now there are four. Toward the end of the class, a straggler comes in, and Saunders recognizes him.

“Brandon, don’t tell me you’re in this class again,” he says. “Don’t tell me you’re wearing that black shirt ’cause you’re a freshman again.”

“Yeah,” he replies.

“Oh,” Saunders sighs.

11:55 a.m.
Coolidge Senior High School

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

Locker No. 331 reads: waddel is a flamin faggot. Locker No. 363 reads: bitch ass nigga bitch rob bitch ass he still a bitch all his life he been a bitch. The day before, Principal Burton had said the graffiti would be erased from locker No. 363 by the start of school.

Alabama Convenience
2209 Alabama Ave. SE

Oatha Williams knows the importance of looking good on the first day of school. It’s so essential, he says, that he played hooky to get his hair done. On Monday morning, the 17-year-old from Congress Heights got a close trim at Like That barbershop on Good Hope Road SE. His teachers at High Road Academy in Northeast will have to wait. After his turn in the barber’s chair, Oatha stops in at the Alabama Convenience store, where his friends hold court in the parking lot.

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

Oatha knows he has to watch out for police hunting truants today. It’s a precaution he takes anyway: He says his father was killed 16 years ago when a car fleeing police hit him on the sidewalk. “That’s why I hate the police,” he says. Even though he’s been “pressed out” by cops countless times, Oatha says he’s never been arrested. “I have anger problems,” he says, which is why he attends High Road, a private school that caters to public school students with learning disabilities. “But it’s not like I get angry for nothing.” He smiles, flashing a mouthful of braces. He works at McDonald’s and tries to keep his behavior in check. “My mother’s not having it,” he says. “And I want to live under her roof.”

Oatha plans on going to school the next day. His girlfriend will be there, and he wants to show off his hair.

12:10 p.m.
Coolidge Senior High School

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

Jackie Wimbush, 16, is the first Coolidge student ordered to drop and give Principal Burton 10 push-ups.

Jackie had spent the morning in the main office waiting for his schedule, but he took off before getting it. Now he’s back sitting in a purple chair outside Burton’s office, pestering him about his missing class list.

Burton orders Jackie out of his chair. “You want me to do pushups for real?” the 11th-grader asks, giggling and taking forever to get out of his seat.

“Yeah,” Burton says, giving the student an I-Mean-Business look.

Jackie gets on the floor.

“Press ’em out!” Burton jokes.

12:25 p.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

Only three Anacostia students show up for CarolAnn North’s third-period English II class. One girl was sent here by a dummy schedule. She asked her counselor if she could get her proper schedule by the end of the week: “She said, ‘You might have to wait longer than that,’” the student reports.

12:30 p.m.
Bell Multicultural High School
Columbia Heights

Dressed in khaki pants and polo shirts, the students at Bell Multicultural High School file into the cafeteria for the first lunch of the new school year. There are meatball subs, green salads, pineapple wedges in plastic cups, and cartons of 2 percent milk. “It’s not the best,” teacher Sam Johnston says as he prods his sub with a fork.

But it isn’t the worst, either. Last year, there were days when the school ran out of fresh food altogether.

Dance teacher Amanda Gill remembers taking several trips to the cafeteria in search of milk, only to come back empty handed. Cafeteria worker Eugene Redfearn says the kitchen ran out of juice, milk, and meat about once a month. He doesn’t know why the schools didn’t get their deliveries, he says, but wonders whether DCPS failed to pay its bills. Either way, he says, when the eats were scarce, cafeteria staff scraped together leftovers. “Some days it was pizza,” he says; others, it was ham and cheese.

Leftovers clash a bit with Bell’s swanky facility, the product of a $70 million construction project completed in February 2006. Bell and Lincoln Multicultural Middle School occupy the same building in the 3100 block of 16th Street NW. Just steps away from Bell’s old home at 3145 Hiatt Place, the school comes with a slew of high-tech amenities: automated bleachers, a shiny dance studio, and an auditorium called the “Model U.N.” with a 200-seat section that rotates to face the rest of the audience.

That’s not all. Just last week, Principal Maria Tukeva announced that the school had been named an “innovative pilot school” by DCPS and the Washington Teachers’ Union. Tukeva hopes the move, which includes a grant of $219,700, will ease students’ transition from middle school to high school—and ensure better food prospects. “One thing we proposed is that we could solicit people to provide food services,” she says, adding that breaking with DCPS’ food vendor would allow the school to opt for more fruit, vegetables, and “food that represents the different cultures of our students.” It could also help steer clear of those food shortages, she says.

1:15 p.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

More than 100 kids who don’t know where they’re supposed to learn today are herded into the school’s auditorium.

Derek Jackson, a computer specialist, throws some more light onto why the schedules have turned into such a disaster: Administrators haven’t been able to access DCPS’ computer scheduling system, DC STARS. Jackson says he and his colleagues have been calling DC STARS tech support downtown all day. “They’re having problems,” he says.

Tevin Perkins, a sophomore who transferred from H.D. Woodson Senior High, registered plenty early—back at the beginning of August. But when he showed up to the gym this morning, there was no schedule for him. He went to the main office, which sent him to the counselors’ office, which sent him back to the main office. Now he’s been sitting in the auditorium for an hour.

“It’s messed-up,” he says. “I haven’t even seen my counselor.”

1:20 p.m.
Alice Deal Middle School

Deal’s $53 million modernization plan includes a new cafeteria, a refurbished auditorium, and state-of-the-art classrooms. It also includes a hornet’s nest located in the heart of the school’s temporary ball field.

(Illustration by Brian Ralph)

A short walk from school grounds, the green space has the topography of a vacant lot. Hidden divots, rocks, and “little tiny spiders everywhere” were among the features encountered by eighth-graders during recess. Another obstacle is other students. The field is way too small for the 250 kids who pour onto it, crowding out any ambitions of a real soccer game or even a leisurely Frisbee toss. They’ll have a year on this field while the basketball courts and blacktops get remade.

“Dodge the hornet” could well become one of the Deal students’ improvised games. By the end of the day, one seventh-grader and two eighth-graders would get stung on the temp field.

Nick St. Amand, an eighth-grader, took a bite on the head. If he did hurt, he hid it well, digging a hand into his scalp, looking for the hornet or the bite. “I’m fine,” he says, walking back inside for sixth period.

Michael Conry, 12, wasn’t so lucky. He got stung on his left calf. He sits in a chair outside the main office, icing down his recess wound.

“I was just walking around listening to my iPod,” Michael says. Maybe the Smashing Pumpkins were playing, he says, when the hornet came in low. It’s his first bee sting.

Michael would miss 6th and 7th period. And there would be a call home. Hours earlier, his mood was different. He says he was really excited for his first day: “I was tingling in the car,” he says. “I hadn’t seen my friends for an entire summer. I really missed them.” He left school early.

1:35 p.m.
Bernard T. Janney Elementary School

Students in a fourth-grade class at Janney are reading in a new air-conditioned classroom that sits on the playground. Teachers call the structure a “learning cottage.” In layman’s terms, it’s a prefab double-wide trailer built over the summer to alleviate crowding at the school.

Scott Cartland, the school’s principal, says Janney’s should have about 350 students, but this year there are close to 500.

Alice Deal Middle School (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The newest trailer is one of three behind the three-story brick school. Without it, says Cartland, the school would have had to hold classes in the school’s library. Administrators were saved from Plan B, however, just last Friday, when the city gave Janney a certificate of occupancy for the new trailer. It was a feat Cartland doubts would have happened under the old administration.

With the schools more closely under the watch of the mayor, things get done faster than before, he says. “It allows everything to flow much more fluidly.”

Janney is one of the richest elementary schools in the city, but students still face overcrowding and less-than-perfect conditions. Of 24 classrooms, 20 have air conditioners, and 10 of those are floor units that do not cool the rooms well, Cartland says. In addition, the only bathrooms—one for boys and one for girls—are on the first floor.

1:39 p.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

Assistant Principal Anita Wood has some news for the scheduleless freshmen in Anacostia’s auditorium: “Your records have not been transferred from your old schools.” That means, kids, you gotta talk to your parents and get in touch with your old schools to straighten this out.

About five minutes later, the rumor starts going around the group: They’re just gonna let us go.

By 1:55, Wood returns with a stack of passes. Call your parents, get it signed, and your first day of school will be an abbreviated one. Kids swarm around her. “I don’t give them to people who are standing up,” she tells them.

Students pull out cell phones and share them with their friends.

Bianca Eastman, who’s been sitting in the auditorium all day save for a trip to the cafeteria for lunch, is one of the first to get a pass. She’s out of the building by 2 p.m.—75 minutes before the final bell.

3:12 p.m.
Anacostia Senior High School

Tevin Perkins, the sophomore without a schedule, is still in the auditorium. He hasn’t been to a class all day. “I shoulda stayed at my old school,” he says. “I got my schedule on the first day at Woodson—wasn’t no problem.”

Three minutes later, the word comes from the back of the auditorium. Everyone’s free to go.

The auditorium opens into Anacostia’s main entrance hall, which branches out in either direction toward classrooms. Thing is, they don’t want kids going out of the front doors, where the rush might damage the metal detectors. It’s up to Patricia Rabain to funnel kids to the side doors. Rabain, Anacostia’s “school improvement specialist,” is a 20-year veteran and a small woman. But when it comes to blocking an exit, her skills are little removed from those of an All-Pro offensive tackle.

Earlier in the day, she’d blocked kids without exit passes away from the same entrance, throwing her body in the way of any kid who thinks he just has to keep walking to end his school day.

Rabain’s convinced it’s all reverse psychology: “They wanna be here. They’re crazy about being here. But they wanna show us they wanna get out.”