WaPo: Days before opening, a fire erupted in a D.C. school. The principal is unbowed.

By: Perry Stein | August 18

As seen in: The Washington Post

The daily countdown to the start of school has reached single digits — and Digital Pioneers Academy is in shambles. Desks are buried in soot. Newly installed floors have been ripped up. A stench of smoke and cleaning chemicals lingers in hallways from a fire that erupted Tuesday.

And boxes of unworn uniforms have been sent to the dry cleaners to see if they can be salvaged from the smoke that engulfed them.

The first day of school — Aug. 26 — was supposed to mark a second beginning for Digital Pioneers, a public charter middle school with a focus on computer science. The D.C. school opened last year with a sixth-grade class and operated out of the Sunday school classrooms of a church in Southeast Washington.

Finding a building for a school isn’t easy in the District, and Mashea Ashton, Digital Pioneers’ founder, scoured the city looking for a permanent home that could fit the growing school, which is expected to top 220 students in the upcoming academic year. She settled on a vacated building near Capitol Hill that had housed another charter school.

Her team spent the summer renovating the building, changing the old wood floors to tiles that matched Digital Pioneers’ signature gold color.

And on Aug. 8, teachers excitedly moved desks, decorations and classroom materials into the building.

But on a stormy evening five days later, a fire broke out on the top story, incinerating a classroom. No one was in the building, and city fire officials do not suspect arson.

Initially, Ashton said she thought most of the damage would be confined to the one classroom and school would start on time. But water and smoke damage proved more extensive, making it difficult for Digital Pioneers students to mark the first day of school in their new building.

“It’s a lot,” said Ashton, who has received a crash course in repairing fire damage. “I thought, ‘It was one classroom. We can get this fixed, mop up and keep going.’ But there’s water damage and smoke damage.”

Ashton and her staff are scrambling to figure out logistics for the first day of classes. She suspects the school will have to remain for the first few days at its old location in the Sunday school classrooms at East Washington Heights Baptist Church.

But that brings challenges of its own, because the church classrooms are bereft of the decorations and furniture that had been moved to the new building. And the school is expected to double in size — it will now have sixth- and seventh-graders — and there is not enough room at the church for all the students to sit at desks.

Ashton said she will plan team building and other exercises the first days of school. Then, there will be a second first day of school on the new campus after Labor Day.

The church said Digital Pioneers can stay as long as needed.

“We can act as a home here,” said LeGrande Baldwin, a church leader and former D.C. school administrator. “Whenever we have a chance to invest in education in the community, we try to do that.”

The school has communicated with families about the fire and challenges it faces ahead of next Monday, seeking to assure families that school will go on.

On Friday, Karen Washington, the mother of a rising seventh-grader at Digital Pioneers, arrived at the church to pick up her daughter’s uniforms and learned that school probably won’t start in the new building.

“But you have to get your building done,” she said. “Stuff happens.”

Ashton said she was informed that damage could exceed $250,000. She has insurance but is unsure of what it will cover. Dozens of workers are pulling long shifts, cleaning soot off walls, draining water, and rebuilding the damaged classroom and roof.

“Our kids deserve to have an awesome place that they’ll be excited to come to,” she said.

The routine stresses of the first day of school have been compounded by the fire, but Ashton said she is drawing from the lessons she instills in her students about overcoming challenges. Community members have showered the school with notes of support and offers of help.

Her staff is doing everything it can to ensure that students have a memorable first day of school. And she said she appreciates the maintenance and construction workers’ tireless toiling to ensure the building is safe and ready for students.

“Whenever there’s a challenge or problem, we tell our scholars to think about our values,” Ashton said. “One of our values is growth, which is that failure and difficulty is just feedback. And this is definitely difficulty — an opportunity to grow.”

Mashea Ashton