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Rebirth or Dungeon? Inside a Notorious DC High School

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After two years of teaching in a southeast DC charter school, I finally visited Anacostia Senior High School, my public school neighbor and a place often referred to as an exemplar of a dysfunctional public school. Anacostia got some positive attention though, when two weeks ago Michelle Obama delivered a stirring commenecement address to its graduates.

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What I saw was unnerving.

Anacostia has a tragic history of separate, unequal education. Test scores show proficiency for reading and math in the teens. According to enrollment data on the DCPS website, the freshman class (352) is far bigger than double the size of the senior class (147). It's a truly segregated school; 100% of its students are African American.

However, according to the Washington Post, Anacostia is experiencing a rebirth. A Post editorial from earlier this month, headlined "Reasons to cheer at Anacostia High," celebrated the school's revolutionary takeover by Friendship Public Charter Schools in September 2009, a reorganization facilitated by Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The editors of the Post took note of the school's re-staffing:

[Eighty-five percent of last year's teachers] were let go, and energetic new staff members were hired. The school was organized into smaller programs and renamed the Academies at Anacostia. Today the halls are orderly, a new uniform policy is enforced, attendance is up and suspensions are down. Where once teachers thought nothing of students asleep at their desks, there is now an insistence on paying attention.

I visited the Sojourner Truth Academy for ninth-graders on Friday, June 18. What I saw and heard didn't match the hype. When I asked a student who gave me a tour of the building what the best part of school was for him, he told me: "the teachers... but they're all leaving."

I asked around, and indeed, many "energetic new staff members" were departing in sadness and embitterment. The Academy's English and history teachers were leaving voluntarily, disgusted with their principal and the Rhee administration. The Spanish teacher was not invited to return. The math teacher resigned two months ago and was never replaced. On the day of my visit, the last day of classes, the history teacher stayed home, apparently to protest an unsatisfactory IMPACT teacher evaluation for a well-respected colleague by an allegedly vendetta-driven principal. My friend Sarah Otto, the also-leaving English teacher, was clearly beloved by her students; they laughed and danced and shared their writing and played "Apples to Apples." According to Sarah, the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, bureaucratic incompetence, and Rhee's relentless adherence to specious talking points were driving out good teachers en masse.

The atmosphere of the place was creepy and deflating. The Academy was designed in an open floor plan; classrooms don't have doors, just openings that gape into a broad main hallway. My student tour guide said he didn't like it because it was always too loud. Even though the school is at ground level, there are no windows or sunlight.

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Possibly worst of all, my student guide led me to the cafeteria, which required passing through a stairwell so dilapidated and encrusted with grime and filth that it seemed to belong in a horror movie.

Here's some video of that passageway:

I do hope that the Post is at least partially right in that Anacostia High has hit rock bottom and will improve-- although it's hemorrhaging popular teachers. I also found the Sojourner Truth Academy's physical space instantly depressing. According to the student and a teacher, the stairwell I videotaped looked like that all year. For all of the popular, above-reproach "no excuses" rhetoric in education, it's hard to ask students to strive when they are placed in segregated schools and forced to tread daily through dungeons.
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Dan Brown is the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.

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