On the morning of December 22 a black billow visible for miles rose from the red-bricked three-story Takoma Educational Center, just over the District line, at 7010 Piney Branch Road NW, after roofers accidentally started a fire with a blowtorch. Sirens sounded.
Luckily the students were already on their holiday break, but, three blocks away, in their house on Aspen Avenue, Nancy and Steve Smith had an immediate bad feeling. After all the plaudits won by dynamic new principal Rikki Taylor, after seeing the high-spirited change of attitude she had brought to a school that for years had been estranged from the neighborhood, would the fire could put an end to the renaissance at Takoma Ed?
Flames were leaping from the upper-story windows when Nancy, rushing over with a video camera, got there. “It was horrendous,” she reported. Steve made it some minutes later. “It was still chaos, fire trucks everywhere,” he said a few days afterward. “They got the flames doused out, but there was white smoke and black smoke. You knew this was going to be awful. You knew they’d have to close the school.”
This shot from WUSA Channel 9 Washington shows the blaze in full fury.
Given that things had never quite clicked at the school from the
beginning, Nancy and Steve couldn’t help but wonder whether it would
ever open again.
Takoma Ed was built 40 years ago when no-wall classrooms were the fad.
The Smith family had moved to Aspen Avenue in 1968, and, with young
children to think about, Nancy and Steve participated in a design
“No more egg-carton schools, that was the idea. Create a free, open
look,” Steve remembered. “The problem was that the teachers never liked
it, and they rebelled. They hated the lack of structure. Discipline
was hard to enforce. Morale was always low.”
Nonetheless the Smiths, who raised nine children, four of them as foster parents, are partisans of the D. C. school system.
“Every one of our kids benefited from public schools,” he said.
In the late 1990’s, however, Takoma Ed’s reputation took a major turn
for the worse under an administration that, for all practical purposes,
severed ties with school activists. Steve said “it was if they put a
moat around the place.” By then the Smith children were grown, but
Nancy and Steve watched sadly as neighbors enrolled their kids
elsewhere. For more than a decade there was no PTA at Takoma Ed.
Then everything changed with the arrival of Rikki Taylor in the fall of
2008. The Smiths consider her a savior. In certain ways she is a
throwback to the free-thinking era. She brought in African drummers to
demonstrate mathematical patterns. This year Takoma Ed was one of 13 D.
C. schools given special recognition for using music, dance and film to
teach the three R’s.
Principal Taylor established a team of parents to advise her, and Steve,
though a grandparent, signed on. Nancy led a book drive. Steve set up
a school Web site.
The Smiths, who also are passionate about the arts and have been
crusading to reopen the vacant Takoma Theatre on Fourth Street NW, used
their connections to help Ms. Taylor get several of the celebrated
talents from the Smithsonian Discovery Theater and from the Silver
Spring group Class Acts to come to the school.
Word of Takoma Ed’s invigorating new vibe got around. Enrollment has
gone up, and so have test scores, although, as a reminder of the
difficulties involved, the scores have not yet met the No Child Left
Behind criteria, keeping the school and the principal in a nervous
limbo. Even before the fire in December it wasn’t clear that Ms. Taylor
would have the chance to finish the miracle she had started.
One day during the holidays Steve walked over to the school to get a
closer look at how much of the interior had been ruined. He was stopped
by a phalanx of men dressed in white hazmat suits, but that was a
pleasant surprise. The men had in their grasp a large uncoiled hose
with which they were blowing air to clear out the smell of soot, the
first step in a rescue job.
Indeed, from all indications, and according to the promises of D. C.
school officials, Takoma Ed will be restored and reopened fast enough
for the Smiths’ soon-to-be-three granddaughter to attend the Reggio
Emilia preschool program there this coming fall, and Ms. Taylor will
continue to be in charge. “She is the key because to lose her would be
the worst blow of all,” Steve declared.
This vote of confidence in Takoma Ed has given him the odd sense that
the fire may have a silver lining. “For one thing, since they have to
rebuild the second and third floors, they can finally get rid of the
open architecture and put in regular classrooms with doors. It will be
essentially a new building when everyone comes back.”
Meanwhile, the 328 Takoma Ed students will finish the current school
year at Meyer Elementary, a school that had taken out of service but was
hastily put in order. Cafeteria equipment salvaged from the fire was
trucked to the temporary venue. However, many of the special items at
Takoma Ed are charred and useless, LCD projectors, laptops, the works of
Shakespeare, so the Smiths have begun a fundraising campaign. To
donate go to www.takomaedcenter.org.