"But where are your trash-collecting robots, little girl?"
"But where are your trash-collecting robots, little girl?"

It’s 8:15 in the morning, and children are streaming into Powell Elementary School. They return the Spanish-language greetings of Principal Janeece Docal, and gamely give high-fives to the strange, grinning woman with an outstretched palm at the Petworth school’s entrance.

The woman is D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and Powell is her first stop on a busy first-day-of-school tour. Henderson’s itinerary is largely photo-op-y. At Powell, she asks kids if they’re excited for school as her photographer snaps away, tries out a few Spanish phrases on the bilingual-school students, and obliges a WJLA cameraman’s request by stopping into a classroom to chat with some kids who are finishing their breakfast.

Powell’s test scores have jumped considerably in recent years. This year, math proficiency was at 63 percent, up from 51 percent last year and just 34 percent in 2010. Reading proficiency stands at 45 percent, up from 37 percent last year.

There have been plenty of changes in and around Powell. The school’s undergoing a so-called ABC modernization, with one section being renovated at a time, and the first renovated wing opened to students today. The Petworth neighborhood is among the city’s fastest gentrifying, with young (largely white) professionals and their young children flocking to the neighborhood. But Powell’s test scores don’t yet reflect the modernization, nor has gentrification really touched a school where 99 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

So what accounts for the improvement in test scores? “Leadership,” says Henderson. “Ms. Docal is a fantastic leader.”

From Powell, Henderson heads down to Cardozo High School, where she joins up with Mayor Vince Gray. Cardozo has a long history—-its alumni roster is probably the only place where J. Edgar Hoover and Marvin Gaye appear together—-but old-timers would hardly recognize the place. It just reopened after a $130 million renovation that preserved the brick exterior and hardwood floors, but added two stunning glass-topped atria and a new gym. Additionally, the recently shuttered Shaw Middle School has been absorbed into Cardozo, helping fill out the underenrolled building.

Henderson and Hanlon outside Cardozo

Outside, Department of General Services Director Brian Hanlon marvels at the school whose renovation he oversaw. “It’s spectacular,” he gushes.

Gray, Hanlon, Henderson, and the students are welcomed into the school by a blaring Rihanna soundtrack and the zealous and fairly terrifying motivational chants of a group of City Year corps members. Gray heads into the cafeteria, takes a microphone from the WUSA9 cameraman, and starts playing reporter, interviewing the students about their new school.

“Guess what high school I went to,” Gray challenges one student. “Dunbar. That’s Cardozo’s archrival.”

Gray interviews a Cardozo student.

Principal Tanya Roane says the addition of the middle school and her ability to fire and rehire her teachers have helped energize the school, but the renovation is a major factor as well. “It makes a huge difference,” she says. “You can feel the vibe of excitement in the building. These kids love the building.”

But Mauri, a Cardozo 10th grader, isn’t so sure when I ask if the new building will improve the school’s performance. “Probably a little,” he says. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Henderson and Gray enter a sixth-grade classroom, where Henderson asks the students what they think of their new school building. Hands shoot up. “It’s new,” says one. “It’s big,” adds another. “A lot of stairs,” chimes in a third. “It costed a lot to get it rebuilt,” notes a precocious fourth.

Cardozo has plenty of room for improvement. Its math proficiency has climbed slightly in recent years to 33 percent, but its reading proficiency has actually declined from 28 percent in 2011 to 20 percent this year. Gray hopes that the new building will help reverse that decline.

“I think it sends a tremendous value statement,” says Gray as we exit the school. “When they walk into a school that looks like a dump, that’s a statement about what their value is.”

The next stop, Strong John Thomson Elementary School on L Street NW, has a bit more test-score optimism. Mounted on the wall are the school’s latest DC-CAS scores: 56 percent proficiency in reading (up 7 from last year) and 68 percent in math (up 14). Principal Carmen Shepherd sums up the factors behind the school’s success: “Dedication, hard work, and looking at the numbers every day.”

The mayoral entourage stops into a third-grade classroom where a teacher is explaining his “fist to five rule” for determining whether a book is the appropriate reading level, and then into a fourth-grade classroom where the teacher poses a question to her students that we reporters tend to ask ourselves often: “Why do people write?” As the students validate my profession—-“to give people information” and “to share their feelings” are the first two answers—-Gray observes carefully from behind the teacher’s desk:

Photos by Aaron Wiener