First Person: Life Inside a Failing D.C. School

It was my first day as a part-time journalism teacher at Washington, D.C.'s Cardozo Senior High School in the fall of 2006, and as I came through the front door, I was greeted with so much noise that I assumed the kids must be switching classes. But after passing through the metal detector, I realized the uproar was emanating from the dozen or so students ditching class just outside the principal's office. I looked around, naively assuming that an administrator or at least the security guard I'd just passed would intervene to quiet this hullabaloo. But—no. I was clearly the only person who thought something unusual was going on. As I soon learned, the halls of Cardozo High were quiet only once a day: during the daily hall sweep, which was announced via the intercom before it commenced.

As a reporter covering education on and off for more than 20 years, I had visited a fair number of urban high schools. Yet I was unprepared for life inside Cardozo. Two weeks after my arrival, a substitute teacher was beaten by three freshman girls during an all-school assembly. They were mad because she'd shushed them. Two weeks before I arrived, a varsity basketball player shot another member of his team, just outside the school. The classroom next to mine was thoroughly trashed—holes punched through the walls, furniture upended—after it was abandoned by a new teacher who felt intimidated by her pupils.

Cardozo had hundreds of students, yet the administration decided to lock all the student bathrooms except one girls' and one boys' on the first floor, as a security measure. (Even so, vandals often stuffed the toilets till they overflowed.) The school's fire alarm was pulled as a prank so regularly that students always assumed it was a hoax, including one day when a real fire was set in a bathroom. The school allegedly had a security force, but with the exception of the officer stationed by the metal detector, they were not in evidence. I saw others only once--three of them were hanging out together, in a corner of the basement.

I was assigned to work alongside a "real" teacher, George Telzrow, who had requested my presence through a journalism education program run by George Washington University. Telzrow, who had recently volunteered to take over the school newspaper, was one of several inspiring teachers I met. He did his best to create a bunker of sanity and productivity within his classroom, and regularly came in early and stayed late. Nonetheless, most of his students were DCPS lifers who were convinced that daily attendance was as optional as homework. That may help explain why less than 20 percent of Cardozo's students score at or above "proficient" in reading and math on D.C.'s annual test.

Not surprisingly, many of Telzrow's students initially regarded me with jaded eyes. But working with them, one on one, over the next few weeks, their tough exteriors slowly began to slip. It turned out that their outward indifference often hid deep resentment and anger at being trapped in such a dysfunctional educational system. They struggled to write basic news and feature stories, but they had no shortage of ideas or passion for editorials blasting the school's failures.

On the day before I returned to my regular job, I assured them that I would come back when I could. "You won't come back," one student told me bluntly. "No one ever comes back." Clearly, that challenge couldn't go ignored. But I wasn't prepared for the reception I got when I showed up a few weeks later. When two of my toughest students spotted me coming down the hall, they let out a scream and threw their arms around my neck. I was surprised and touched, but also realized how little they had come to expect.

Cardozo has since been designated as one of D.C.'s 27 failing public schools that the new chancellor says she will restructure into a success. It can't happen too soon.