DCPS scrambles to open Brookland, other renovated schools on time

The good news: school days arrived on schedule, even at the new Brookland Middle School where construction efforts went down to the wire.

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It's opening day at DC's new Brookland Middle School. While the WJLA news crew attracts the attention here, the success of this new school will be about more than PR. (Photo credit: Malcolm Barnes)

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2015 – After a mad scramble that had landscaping and sidewalk cement contractors working throughout the past weekend, the newly renovated Brookland Middle School opened on time on Monday. Already set for the first day of school, an estimated 150 students, parents and caretakers were lining up at the school’s new entrance facing the Turkey Thicket recreation center tennis courts.

Members of the LA Howard construction crew working hard to complete the exterior concrete in time for the new Brookland Middle School's first day. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)
Members of the LA Howard construction crew working hard to complete the exterior concrete in time for the new Brookland Middle School’s first day. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

That’s where Brookland principal Norah Lycknell was standing guard, instructing students who had brought cell phones to queue up in a special line to check their electronic devices at the door. Meanwhile, waves of neighborhood residents and preregistered students continued to wind around the corner facing rush hour traffic on busy Michigan Avenue.

Hilary Tone, director of the DC Public Schools’ (DCPS) communications team indicated that, despite pre-opening enrollment projections of 295 students, the school had reached a 100 + level of enrollment, an indication that every one of Brookland’s 310 classroom slots might very well be filled.

The newly re-incarnated school will focus on an arts-integration program and a project-based learning methodology. The new Brookland’s enrollment is being bolstered by transfers of middle school age students from Noyes, Burroughs and Bunker Hill elementary schools in the neighboring areas of Ward 5.

Brookland principal Norah Lycknell was at large and in charge Monday, making sure those ubiquitous cell phones were checked at the door. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)
Brookland principal Norah Lycknell was at large and in charge Monday, making sure those ubiquitous cell phones were checked at the door. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

Based on a series of mini-interviews we conducted with a cross-section of parents, the new Brookland demographics are concentrated on local residents of the Brookland area, with one parent transferring her son here from St. Anthony’s Catholic School as well as 12th & Monroe, due in part to the school’s availability of the popular Japanese animation game “Pet Anime,” which has a loyal club following among American teenagers.

The only anomaly in this opening day crowd was a lone white teen aged girl who stood stoically in line with her African-American peers. It seemed like a strange mirror image of Norman Rockwell famous Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a lone black girl shyly preparing to enter a newly integrated southern school back in the tumultuous Little Rock integration days in the mid-1950s. This being 2015, however, she seemed somewhat awkwardly focused on her cell phone as she waited to check it under the watchful eye of principal Lycknell.


Monday’s successful opening had not always seemed like a sure thing. With less than a week to go before the official opening of DC Public Schools on Monday, contractors were still laboring at a fever pitch even long after dark to complete their work and spruce up Brookland and other newly minted schools opening for the first time around the district.

Happily, they got the job done, led by the joint venture architects responsible for building the Martin Luther King Memorial on the mall. McKissack & McKissack and Brialsford & Dunlavey served as program managers and site architects. Local CBE contractors such as LaZerrick Howard of L. A. Howard Construction were also busy completing last minute punch list sidewalk and landscaping work orders the Sunday afternoon before Brookland’s scheduled opening.

In the heart of Ward 5’s Michigan Avenue Brookland neighborhood at the eastern edge of the Turkey Thicket regional recreational park, the newly reborn Brookland middle school had been prematurely dedicated in 2014 by former Mayor Vincent Grey, who was in a rush to get the facility opened.

What Brookland area residents actually got, after all was said and done, turned out to be a brand-spanking-new, state-of-the-art, $120 million school facility that features a performing arts center and a below-ground basketball court and media center.

Friends, neighbors and parents from the Brookland and Capitol Hill neighborhoods enjoy a pre-opening day picnic at and around the new Brookland Middle School grounds. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)
Friends, neighbors and parents from the Brookland and Capitol Hill neighborhoods enjoy a pre-opening day picnic at and around the new Brookland Middle School grounds. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

It was hard to get more details in advance, however. The DCPS communications team was keeping everything under wraps until a two- week “shakedown” period had elapsed, according to school employees who did not want to talk on record due to a gag order apparently issued by the chancellor.

Whatever the case, a cross section of excited school neighbors and parents were already enjoying a spectacular August pre-school-opening Sunday afternoon in and around the school grounds, and the adjacent picnic area and playground were in full use. When I asked a random sample of DC parents hailing from the nearby Capitol Hill and Brookland areas if they would be sending their kids to a new middle school in Brookland, however, the opinions turned out to be mixed.

Most of those interviewed were the parents of younger pre-school and elementary aged children. They offered that even on Capitol Hill, as elementary school children advanced toward middle school age, classrooms got “blacker” even when the feeder elementary schools their children were attending had begun with a 60/40 white/black ratio.

The implication is clear: The Mayor’s goal of delivering an “Alice Deal quality” middle school (referring to the highly performing Ward 3 model middle school on Nebraska Avenue) to other neighborhoods may not be enthusiastically embraced by the new millennials flocking to the city in record numbers, changing DC’s demographic profile and changing Chocolate City into something more café au lait.

More specific answers on what this year’s new teaching staff and school population might look like from a demographic perspective were hard to come by. Queries by parents and community residents to the newly re-organized DCPS communications team on these topics were deflected by suggestions to call back next week. Likewise, comments and concerns regarding what to expect from the teachers in the newly opened Brookland school seemed to be falling on deaf ears.

Concerned parents and residents were trying to pin down rumors that the Human Capital division of DCPS had placed a new emphasis on recruiting seasoned black and minority teachers in light of the city’s unfortunately unsuccessful experiment employing bright-eyed but culturally inexperienced midwestern and suburban “Teach For America” teachers in the system. Possessing no urban teaching experience, these innocents turned out to be a classroom discipline disaster.


Dedication plaque, now in lobby of the new Brookland Middle School. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)
Dedication plaque, now in lobby of the new Brookland Middle School. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

The dedication plaque in Brookland’s lobby lists the names of already long-forgotten and deceased council members ranging from Marion Barry (Ward 8), Jim Graham (Ward 1), and at-large council member, former education czar and failed mayoral candidate David Catania, as well as then-Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser and departed Ward 6 would-be mayoral primary candidate Tommy Wells.

The new middle school opens amidst great hope and anticipation. The ward had desperately lobbied for a state-of-the-art educational facility ever since the departure of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee’s strategy to merge elementary and middle school functions into consolidated facilities while closing others–like the old Brookland–proved to be a disaster. The policy ultimately resulted in severe school overcrowding, restroom bullying of 5-to-8-year-old students by older teenagers, and a nearly complete breakdown in discipline throughout the system. It is hoped that this all-new, modern Brookland and other new facilities like it will begin to rectify this serious issue.

Another piece of encouraging news occurred when newly elected Mayor Muriel Bowser took swift action in the personnel arena by firing former Department of General Service director Brian J. Hanlon.

An overconfident Hanlon had told education stakeholders in the Ward 5 community that with the help of expert design-build partner SKANSK USA Builders and an incentive contract, he would deliver the new Brookland school in August 2014. But that was before SKANSKA inadvertently dug up a key utility line in the area, setting the project back for an entire a year.

Making matters worse were a lack of a coherent public relations strategy and initially poor project management. At the very outset of construction, Brookland residents were up in arms when demolition trucks arrived without warning at 5 a.m. and began their work. They departed after dark, as newly homeless rats took scurried through the neighborhood looking for new homes, the result of the rushed and slipshod efforts to quickly demolish the old elementary school.

These project disasters ultimately cost Hanlon his job, aided and abetted by an audit report that surfaced at the end of the Grey administration that provided evidence of consistently of poor cost controls on school modernization projects.

The good news is that this long and tangled school construction saga looks like it will have a happy ending. The $120 million plus project has likely delivered on its 35 percent CBE utilization goal.

New Brookland Middle School students ready to start the 2015-2016 school year. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)
New Brookland Middle School students ready to start the 2015-2016 school year. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

Now the only question that remains is just who will ultimately show up to fill those 300 plus classroom slots and three grades of classes that Brookland Middle School plans to roll out to fill the gaping hole in Washington’s middle school ecosystem. That huge gap has existed ever since Bertie Backus was shuttered on South Dakota Avenue a decade ago to make room for a $35 million makeover for DC Community College and DOES.

As for Brookland’s immediate future, best guess is that the Brookland Middle School will eventually reflect the unspoken “80/20 rule” that seems to hold sway in the District. Eighty percent of the school leadership will be white and 80 percent of the students will be black. This is in spite of a major demographic shift that has attracted a new wave of white professionals to the new developments at the Monroe Street corridor at the Brookland Metro station and the Dakota Crossing rental units near the Ft. Totten Metro stop.

In the end, only time will tell how the new investments in education that the chancellor proudly touted in Sunday’s local opinion section of the Washington Post will ultimately turn out.

 

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