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D.C.'s new high school is 'gorgeous'
(Published March 6, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Sometimes good things happen to good people. On Feb. 21, D.C. Public Schools opened the first new high school in 40 years. The students and staff of Bell Multicultural High School walked across Hiatt Place NW to our new home on 16th Street -- a beautiful brick structure built to be the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC), combining Lincoln Middle School and Bell Multicultural.

Congratulations are in order to Maria Tukeva, who worked for almost 20 years to make the school a reality; to the students, who campaigned and advocated for things we take for granted in schools, like a cafeteria, a gym, an auditorium; and to the transition team of Lincoln and Bell staff, who made the move a reality.

The building is, quite simply, gorgeous. Classrooms are spacious, the common areas are clean and light, the cafeteria is a happy place for kids to be. The wood floor of the gym gleams like a college arena. More importantly, I feel like our kids are well prepared for the job at hand: learn, baby, learn.Just like moving a household, moving a school isn’t easy. Yet, our first week in the new building was a rousing success. As I walked around the school, I saw teachers seamlessly continuing instruction as if nothing had changed. I know my colleagues worked hard, on nights and weekends, packing up materials and moving boxes while at the same time still grading papers, planning lessons, calling parents and going about the day-to-day business of preparing students for college. The new building is nice, but it doesn’t mean a thing if our kids aren’t learning.

Teaching in a new building is a luxury for which I’m truly grateful. Yet I was struck more by what we bring to the building as people than the building itself, wonderful as it is. Introducing the new building to the students, Principal Tukeva re-iterated our norms and routines for how we behave in school; she said "These are the rules, and we have rules because I believe that rules equal love." The new school building cost a lot of money, and Tukeva was trying to emphasize how much we need to take care of it, but I took away a deeper message.More important than our building is the expectations we have for each other. Building on the norms and routines we established in our old buildings, in our new campus, we expect that every student will go to college. We expect that all students will treat each other with dignity. We expect that all teachers will plan and teach consistently high-quality instruction every day. We expect that the administration will be demanding, fair and interested in the individual success of every person in the building.

The rules we have in the new building are simply the way we show our love and appreciation to each other. Not everybody in our building gets a lot of love. Not everybody shows love with rules or restrictions. But I strongly believe that kids are grateful to have a strong parent who watches over them like a hawk and sets clear limits on what they should and shouldn’t do. I have seen time and again how kids respond to the positive images we give them of themselves, and I’ve seen the flip side. Yelling will get you what you want for a moment or a day, but care and understanding will connect you for a lifetime. When we treasure something, when we think it’s special, we treat it differently; we give it respect.

Our rules are simple and clear. No tagging (graffiti). No weapons, no violence, no electronic devices, no hats. All of these are about respect -- respect for the safety of others, respect for our school. Why do we have rules? Because we have a lot to be thankful for – thank you again, DCPS, for CHEC.

The task before us is huge: to be good stewards of a multimillion dollar facility that D.C. Public Schools has built, to integrate a middle school and a high school into a single high-achieving unit, to help more students reach proficiency on standardized reading and math tests so that we achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP). I for one will be a standardized test preparation fiend for the next eight weeks as we prepare for No Child Left Behind testing in May. Still, I know that it’s not the building, or the computers, or the dollars or anything material that will make it work. It’s the people of Bell -- teachers and staff but most of all the students -- and I’m pleased and proud to work with them.

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Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator