Most of the kids arriving for their first day of class at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington Monday probably had no clue that 17 years ago, the city decided to shut this school down.
McKinley Technology High School was abandoned in 1997 with much of its equipment and classroom materials left inside. Books that had been ripped apart, broken windows, a gym floor ruined by rain and trash. The equipment left inside could have been used at other D.C. schools. In fact, the law said that it was supposed to go to other schools or be auctioned off, but it was instead destroyed.
“You couldn’t tell what was vandalism from addicts [or] real vandalism from the last people who were supposed to lock it up,” said Kathy Mannix, executive director of Young D.C. Mannix and I first visited McKinley in 2000 after one of our writers, Ashley Allen, approached Mannix to tell her that some of her classmates had been able to get inside the school.
“She was a middle schooler then and she was really concerned about whether her classmates should be doing this,” Mannix remembered.
Ashley interviewed her classmates who entered the building, while I wrote about how bad things were inside. Steinway pianos destroyed. Broken greenhouse windows and broken glass under our feet as we walked some parts of the school.
Mannix said it was hard to figure out the lead to my story without telling people “this is how you break into an abandoned school.” I could not remember what she told me as far as crafting the lead; I do remember disavowing any knowledge of going inside of the building when we were on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.
Now that 14 years have passed, I can admit there may have been some trespassing involved. That was not the case when I visited McKinley earlier this month.
From wreck to rise
My tour this time was an official one led by 1st Sgt. Raymond Dickinson, who has taught ROTC at McKinley since the school reopened in 2004.
Our tour started on the third floor, where the library has been restored and recently expanded. The second floor greenhouse is ready for the plants that will be grown by November. Each floor has trophy cases celebrating the school’s accomplishments.
“Since we reopened, our cheerleaders have won every year but two. And we had one championship basketball team,” said Dickinson who added the football team won the Gravy Ball last year.
When we reached the first floor, we went into a gym. The last time I saw the gym, the floor was ruined and there was trash at center court.
This time, the floor was restored and the cheerleaders were practicing.
“They’re trying to win this year,” said Dickinson who credits the school’s leadership — past and present — for pulling McKinley through difficult times and creating a good learning environment for students.
Among those leaders is David Pinder, an instructional superintendent with DCPS who served as McKinley’s second principal. He’d seen the rise and fall of McKinley.
“I had an opportunity to see pictures of homeless people who had been living in the school during its transition from 1997 to 2002 before it was started in reconstruction,” he said.
McKinley was founded in 1902, a year after William McKinley — the 25th president of the United States — was assassinated. The school has been located in the 100 block of T Street Northeast in Eckington since 1928.
Segregated since it’s opening, the school was integrated in 1954 under orders from President Eisenhower.
The school’s enrollment fell to 500 in the mid 90s; from a peak of more than 2,000 in the 60s. McKinley closed in 1997 amid the D.C. budget crisis.
“There were a number of ideas in the late 90s about potentially turning it into high priced condominiums, into potential charter schools; there were a number of things,” said Pinder, who also saw the school’s rebirth. “Mayor [Anthony] Williams and his team led an effort to create a new technology hub school.”
A new day for McKinley
The students making their way into McKinley now are too young to remember the debates about the school’s future or the derelict condition it was in before it reopened.
For older adults who do remember those days, the 10-year anniversary of McKinley’s re-opening on Monday will likely be a powerful reminder of just how far the school has come.
P. Kenneth Burns is a Prince George’s County native who is now a reporter at WYPR in Baltimore. He co-wrote the story for Young D.C. on the derelict condition McKinley was left in. His email is kenneth.burns88 [at] gmail [dot] com. You can follow him on Twitter @PKBNews.
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Story originally posted at wamu.org on August 29, 2014.