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As hundreds of students flocked back to Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. this week, principal Janeece Docal greeted them in Spanish and English.
As Docal smiled and hugged the children, she noted how different a lot of students were this year. The student body of the dual-language institution is 85 percent Latino and 12 percent African American, and after the summer break, a number of the kids are taller, or bigger, or sporting different haircuts.
But the students aren't the only ones who've changed since the spring. The building now features a brand new two-story wing for Powell's younger students.
"I feel like just the outlook of everybody is elevated being in a beautiful new space," says Powell's instructional coach, Lisa Strzepek. "Good teaching is just accelerated when you have a beautiful place to learn in!"
The new wing is the first part of a renovation and expansion plan developed for Powell by the D.C. Department of General Services. The full plan calls for modernizing the entire school, and erecting two additional buildings. The fourth and fifth graders are currently housed in portable trailers — or "Learning Cottages," as they're called — behind the school.
"When I started as the principal in 2009, we had around 211 students," Docal says, "And this year we will have around 425, which is amazing, and I think it's a sign of confidence from the community."
And mind you, Docal is talking about a 'community' whose members, just a handful of years ago, were picketing outside the school, protesting what they saw as a subpar facility.
But since Docal took over, truancy has fallen from 12 percent to zero. Math and reading proficiency have gone up, and in a recent competition hosted by the Embassy of Spain, Powell won second place for the top bilingual school in the country.
"One of our main priorities is that students continue to love school, and be creative, and that they own their classrooms and their learning," says Docal.
But that "ownership" is difficult, she says, when students and teachers are so crunched for space. Not only are classes being held in those "Learning Cottages," but also several teachers are "floating" without permanent classrooms, and the cafeteria has to serve five different lunch rotations to accommodate all the students currently enrolled.
"We have a pretty substantial waiting list," Docal explains. "So we do still need that expansion to be able to serve the students that we have, and the ones that want to come in."
That's why a group of Powell parents known as Parents Organized for the Power of Powell, or "P.O.P.P.," is petitioning the mayor and City Council for funds to complete the modernization plan. Docal says they're crossing their fingers for a grant of $20 million.
"I really hope in October there will be the dollars to back that for fiscal year 2014," Docal says. "And some money has already been allocated for fiscal year 2015. Everyone really wants to finish the project, and is very positive about it." And that includes Percia Williams. She's had two sons attend Powell Elementary; her eldest is moving on to middle school this year, and her youngest is starting third grade.
"The school is really doing real good," she says with a smile. "I hope the education committee and the mayor will listen to us. Please, we need more funds!"
Lois Baker, who has sons in kindergarten and fifth grade, also hopes Powell will receive enough money to renovate more than just one wing.
"Johnny, he's in the fifth grade and his classes are in the cottage," she says. "So we hope it can extend over there as well as soon as possible!"
In the meantime, everyone — students and teachers alike — seems pretty geared up as school starts again. Joel Loewenguth, a first-grade ESL teacher, says he thinks his students will be in seventh heaven.
"I'm pretty sure their jaws are going to hit the floor," he says with a laugh. "If the teachers' and all the adults' and the parents' and everybody in the community's jaws hit the floor, I can't imagine; the kids will probably be doing back flips!"
Lisa Strzepek says she thinks Loewenguth is spot-on about how Powell's kids are responding to the new construction.
"There's just something about their faces that you can't see on radio," she says as she leads me and my microphone through the building. "But I don't think I've seen anybody truly unhappy. Mostly very excited!"
In the next few years she hopes they'll be even more excited, as they do their reading, writing and 'rithmetic in a bigger and better facility that, truly, will leave no child behind.
[Music: "Be True To Your School" by Hollyridge Strings from The Beach Boys Song Book Vol. 2]
Photos: Powell Elementary School