Jr. high shows D.C. what a school should be Jefferson is a model of efficiency, decorum


WASHINGTON -- The metal detector was delivered to Thomas Jefferson Junior High School last week, but when District of Columbia schools finally opened on Monday after a three-week delay for roof repairs, it was still standing in a corner, ignored and unused.

"Metal detector? What do we need a metal detector for?" Vera M. White, the principal for 23 years, said, as if its presence were an insult.

In a way, it was. White presides over a rarity in the nation's capital these days: a municipal workplace that demands excellence and generally gets it.

With the federal control board that runs the district weeding out waste and abuse throughout city agencies and schools, Jefferson stands out as a model of efficiency, decorum and civility.

Jefferson is in the smallest of Washington's quadrants, southwest, in a mixed-income, inner-city neighborhood, just blocks from the Mall on one side and afternoon drug dealers on the other. It has become a highly coveted school for parents around the city who want their children exposed to its rigorous scholastic programs and emphasis on character development.

Here, children walk silently in single file between classes, wear .. uniforms, shake hands when they meet someone and ask teachers on Monday, "How was your weekend?"

About 70 percent of the 800 students come from the immediate neighborhood, but the rest, arriving by car and subway, come from as far away as the wealthiest areas of upper northwest Washington and the poorest of lower southeast.

Last year, Jefferson won a citywide award as the school with the largest number of students with perfect attendance.

"See these?" said White, pulling out one of several thick ringed binders from a table shelf. "These are people who want to come here. The waiting list now is over 500."

Although other schools around the city offer comparable academics, none expends more time and energy teaching self-esteem, confidence, manners and respect, qualities that often elude junior high students.

At Jefferson, those values are a major focus of the homeroom hour each morning, a weekly assembly in the school auditorium and the periodic videos on subjects such as discipline and self-respect that children watch in class.

The thrust of all this comes from White. She introduced the character curriculum five years ago to confront students' irresponsible behavior and indifference to self-improvement, after a rock-throwing incident involving some of her students.

The result has become a school where expectations are as high for deportment as for academics, with White as the head cheerleader, walking the halls, chatting with children, meeting with teachers.

Maria Bennett, a ninth-grader from Chevy Chase, a well-to-do neighborhood in northwest Washington, offers a typical assessment of her experience at Jefferson. "When I came here, my confidence was very low. But they kept telling me, 'You can do it.' Eventually, after they say it and say it and say it, I began to realize I could, that I was capable of anything."

White said many of the children at Jefferson, like those from many inner-city neighborhoods, need values constantly reinforced to overcome a lack of self-esteem caused by growing up with only one parent, living in poverty or suffering child abuse.

"You can't 'just say no' to these kids," she said, mocking the anti-drug buzzwords of a decade ago. "You have to provide other programs. There is no village to raise many of them. We have to make sure every student knows he or she is capable of doing whatever they want to, but also that they understand they have responsibility for themselves, their bodies and their lives."

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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