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Class Notes
Bell-Lincoln campus fulfills a promise
(Published May 29, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

On May 22, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. City Council members Linda Cropp and Jim Graham, Board of Education members Jeff Smith and William Lockridge, and Principals Maria Tukeva and Lydia Blazquez officially opened the new Columbia Heights Educational Campus, consisting of both a new Bell Multicultural High School and Lincoln Multicultural Middle School. Our brand new auditorium was packed with students, staff, community leaders, donors and other honored guests, who watched a series of outstanding presentations by both students and assembled dignitaries. In his remarks, Janey looked around the state-of-the-art auditorium, "modeled after the layout of the United Nations," and observed "our vision is that all students should have a safe, decent and educationally appropriate environment in which to learn." The brand new Columbia Heights Educational Campus is this, and more.

Janey also said that he would "take no credit for the work of others" who had helped make a dream of a new school in Columbia Heights a reality, but rather "add value" to what has come before and push for new achievement. The Bell family is tremendously grateful for the $65 million of "value" that D.C. Public Schools has added to our new home. Truly, however, the credit for the new campus goes to Tukeva and the Multicultural Career Intern Program, a private nonprofit group, which -- through the help of generous donors such as the Lois and Richard England Foundation, the Cafritz Foundation and Ann Loeb Bronfman -- contributed over $7 million for the construction of the two schools and almost single-handedly spurred DCPS to move forward on this project. Norton spoke at length of the value of the MCIP-DCPS public-private partnership as a model for jump-starting the renovation and construction of other new schools in the District. First though, find "a totally remarkable leader," and, totally remarkable kids.

The Columbia Heights campus represents the first new secondary schools in DCPS in over 30 years. It began with a vision, and a protest. Twenty years ago, the students of Bell Multicultural (the former Bell Vocational High School), made a video documentary describing the conditions of their school no gym, a cafeteria so small it was a building code violation to seat the whole school for lunch, no auditorium, smoke and noise from the auto-body shops coming in the windows, and the list goes on. They invited community leaders from across the city to come and see the school, including a fired-up Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. When the words proved to be just words and not actions, the students marched through the streets of Mount. Pleasant and organized demonstrations, demanding change. Perhaps most remarkably, in the documentary the students not only spoke out against injustice, but took positive action; they proposed a plan for using available land adjacent to the school lot and laid out how the city could work with the land owners to procure an equitable school site. The video was titled "Broken Promises." Twenty years later, this promise has been realized.

Accordingly, Tukeva declared the grand opening a "day of gratitude." Truly, the staff and students of Bell and Lincoln are extremely grateful for the opportunity to work and learn in a brand new building, with spacious gym, suitable cafeteria, music rooms, a grand auditorium and gleaming new classrooms. The change is evident in the students' behavior (much improved) and the excitement among teachers to start a new school year in our new building is palpable. Already counselors and teachers are pitching programs to start next year to take advantage of the new space -- like dance, theater, engineering and varsity basketball. The school year can be a grind, with staff and students alike worn down by the constant motion of school. It should be a grind; it takes effort to wear away the screw-face and the self-doubt and reveal the ability of all of our students. Yet the mood in school is lightening; this is the pay-off for packing boxes and working weekends. I can't wait for September.

In describing the journey that brought us to a new building, Tukeva talked about commitment. The new campus is the culmination of years of labor. It was the commitment of money from MCIP, the struggle of myriad staff to create change in DCPS, and, I'm convinced, the commitment of our kids to achieve their dreams that brought the new campus from idea to actuality. Seventy percent of Bell students go to college every year. Don't tell me DCPS would have built a new building if that figure were 10 percent.

Following the speakers, presentations of plaques and the unveiling of two striking acrylic paintings, the assembled guests left for lunch. Teachers and students filed back to class. What was most remarkable is what wasn't remarkable. Any Bell Multicultural assembly would have a go-go band, Asian fan dancers, Afro-Caribbean dancers and a salsa band. And after any assembly, even the grand opening of the school, students and teachers would get right back to work. Ten minutes after the ceremony, halls were clear and teachers were marching on with curriculum.

If you were to go through the door of the old Bell Multicultural school building, you'd walk underneath a sign. After the first couple days of school, for most it became simply a part of the visual wallpaper, seen but unnoticed. It reads "Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve." To the many people in DCPS and MCIP who made the new Bell-Lincoln a reality, thank you for your service, for giving back to the Columbia Heights community, that a new generation may enter to learn in a building as extraordinary as our expectations for 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