A Century of Leadership in Education

view1Built in 1911, Cleveland Elementary was named for the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.  Prior to the Presidency, Grover Cleveland served as Mayor of Buffalo, New York and as Governor of New York state.

Nestled in the midst of the Shaw Historic District, and steps away from the Greater U Street Historic District, Cleveland has always had strong ties to the community.  Built during the long, ugly era of segregation, Cleveland began as an all-white school, but was switched to an all-black school in 1922.

Today, the school reflects the broad diversity of the community it serves.  Through it all, Cleveland has remained true to its mission to give each and every one of its students the best possible education.


The Grover Cleveland School – as it was originally called – was one of the largest grade schools built at the time.  It was welcomed as a solution to the overcrowding of the D.C. public school system.  The original two-story, red brick building contained 12 classrooms and auditorium at a cost of $100,000. A third floor was added in 1937.

BlueprintThe building was designed by municipal architect Snowden Ashford, using his signature geometric tile work in the cornice and brickwork patterns.  Ashford designed a number of schools in the District as well as the North Hall of Eastern Market.

The school’s name provoked some controversy at the time; critics grumbled that the school would forever be confused with the “Cleveland Park School” (formally named the John Eaton School.)

The school was officially dedicated on what would have been the late president’s 75th birthday – March 18, 1912.  Georgia Senator Hoke Smith, one of the last surviving members of President Cleveland’s cabinet, attended the ceremony.

A National Leader, Right from the Start

Cleveland quickly became a focal point for the neighborhood.  It served as D.C.’s first recreation center starting in the summer of 1913 with “about 250 boys and girls, representing a large number of nationalities, being present daily,” according to newspaper accounts.  The children would put on plays, learn how to sew and type, read books and play in a sand pile.

Over the years, the students at Cleveland have had many encounters with America’s presidents and presidential families.  The first came in May 1913.  Margaret Wilson, the eldest daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, toured the afterschool programs and saw woodworking projects that the boys had put together.  This marked the beginning of a long relationship between Ms. Wilson and the Grover Cleveland School.  She would help put Cleveland at the cutting edge of a local and national reform movement that would have a lasting impact on the relationship between our schools and the neighborhoods they serve.

In the early 20th Century, a growing number of community and civic leaders around the country began to embrace what was called the “social center movement” – the idea that public schools should do more than simply educate students during the school hours.  They should become a center of civic engagement, regularly open after hours for community meetings, social gatherings, dances and entertainment.  A schoolhouse should foster a greater sense of community, common understanding, and common purpose.  Margaret Wilson was a vocal champion of this movement.  She saw the Grover Cleveland School as the perfect place to demonstrate the value of the “social center” concept.

Ms. Wilson returned to the school in December 1913 for a performance of Sleeping Beauty.  She continued to visit again and again, helping shine a spotlight on the work of Cleveland’s pioneering principal, Francis Fairley, as well as Cecil Norton, a teacher who ran the community engagement programs at Cleveland.  Wilson once joined in a petition drive the students launched to demand a new juvenile court building in the city and she was elected as an honorary member of the Grover Cleveland School’s Boys Club in 1914.

Thanks to the talent and commitment of some spectacularly dedicated teachers, Cleveland became known for having the best drama program in the city.  Even high school drama teachers admitted to being outdone by the elementary and junior high school level students at Cleveland.

Cleveland stHansel and Greteludents’ 1914 rendition of Hansel and Gretel won such rave reviews that the Superintendent requested that students give two repeat performances “to permit supervisors, teachers and principals of other schools in the District of Columbia to witness the work of the young actors and actresses of the Grover Cleveland School, whose work in the two performances given last week elicited much favorable comment.”

Cleveland’s summer program was continued again in the summer of 1914, once more drawing the attention and enthusiastic support of Margaret Wilson.  The students gave free performances to entertain the community, with a different show every Friday night.  They culminated the season with a Greek Carnival.

In the fall of 1914, not long after the outbreak of World War I, the citizens of Washington, D.C. rallied to fill a “Santa Claus ship” of needed supplies and holiday gifts to people in the warring nations of Europe.  Naturally, the students and teachers of Grover Cleveland School mobilized to help the effort.

In 1915, the community recreation center at Cleveland was officially renamed the Margaret Wilson Social Center of Grover Cleveland School.  Cecil Norton ran the Social Center while Francis Fairley continued her duties as Principal.  That same year, as a result of her mother’s death, Ms. Wilson became acting as First Lady of the United States.

In one of her frequent visits to Cleveland, the First Lady remarked that she felt like she had three homes – one with her own family, one with a social center at School #41 in New York City, and one at Cleveland.

In 1916, Margaret Wilson successfully petitioned Congress to provide funding so that the model pioneered at Cleveland could be expanded throughout the city.  The flagship of this effort was to be the newly built Park View School at Warder and NCecil Norton 2ewton Streets, NW, which was the first school to be specifically designed as a community center.  Fairley and Norton were reassigned to Park View – now called Bruce Monroe — so they could replicate what they had achieved at Cleveland.  Norton was soon tapped to lead the effort for the District as a whole, helping spread the Cleveland model to 22 schools throughout the city.  According to testimony Norton gave to the U.S. Congress, by 1920, the various events and programs organized by the schoolhouse community centers had annual attendance of more than 535,000, with more than 500 volunteers making it all possible.

Much of the federal funding went to pay the salary of a “community secretary” for each of the 22 social centers in the city.  The community secretary was responsible for overseeing the programs at each center, and was elected by the local community.  In fact, the election of the community secretary for the Park View School in 1917 made headlines because it was the first time since 1874 that the perennially disenfranchised residents of D.C. had been allowed to vote for a public official to represent them.

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Mabel Bell in 1917

In 1915, the school received a donation from one of the city’s most famous residents – Mabel Bell.  After losing her hearing at age five, Bell became one of the first deaf children in the nation to learn to read lips and speak.  In fact, she could read lips in multiple languages.  She was an inspiration to one of her tutors, Alexander Graham Bell, who eventually became her husband.  We remember him today as the inventor of the telephone.

Mrs. Bell gave a $50 annual donation, which lasted at least through 1917 (and probably longer) to create a memorial garden that stretched along most of the 8th street lawn of the school.  The garden was to honor Mrs. Bell’s mother, who helped her learn to communicate and get an education.  While the memorial garden no longer exists, Bell’s example endures as a reminder that every child deserves a chance to learn.

In 1919, Cleveland opened a dental clinic to serve students from around the city, many of whom had no other access to care.  That same year, Cleveland became the very first school in the district to offer “under age kindergarten” to 3 and 4 year old students, the forerunner to Cleveland’s high quality Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 programs today.

Catharine Watkins, the District’s Director of Kindergartens, wrote in a 1920 report that the children served by the successful Pre-K program “would otherwise have spent their time in the street or in the small, unwholesome, airless shops which characterize that locality.  Knowing that a healthy, happy, childlike, environment would offer opportunity for normal growth, give the seeds of evil less chance, and save much time later on, this under-age kindergarten was opened as a constructive force in community welfare.”  Watkins report cites many favorable reviews from parents, including one mother who said “my boy sings kindergarten songs and verses all the time at home, while he is playing and when he goes to bed at night.”

A Beacon of Hope for the Community

By 1930, Cleveland – which had transitioned to a school for African American students in 1922 – was facing significant overcrowding.  A Washington Evening Star investigative report into the conditions at the District’s public schools found that the school had several portable classrooms crowded onto its playground space, with kids forced to play in the streets.  One of the portable classrooms was 20 years old, had no roof, and was freezing cold.  The addition of the third floor in 1937 helped relieve the overcrowding.

Crossing Guards

During the 1930s, traffic accidents involving children at street crossings were very frequent.  In 1939, the city’s director of recreation ordered the Cleveland playground to be opened for the summer recess, with adult supervision on site, as a traffic safety measure.  Kids playing in the playground were safer than those playing in the street.

Even as the neighborhood struggled with poverty in the years after World War II, Cleveland continued to serve as a center for the community and a beacon of hope.  In 1954, the Washington Post said that “Cleveland School sits like a warm and friendly oasis at 8th and T sts, nw, in a neighborhood that has seen better days.  For the past 16 years, the principal, J. Parker Gillem, has seen to it that the immediate vicinity around the schoolhouse is as clean of vagrants, drunks and numbers men – as his playground is of candy wrappers.”  Gillem was one of the many outstanding District educators who have contributed greatly to the success of the school over the years.  The story noted how beloved the principal was by the school community: “parents, teachers, children, the custodians – even the postman – take his forthcoming retirement as a personal loss.”

Riot and RecoveryNixon2

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, Washington – like many other large cities – erupted in devastating riots.  The U Street Corridor was ground zero, and many of the buildings in the neighborhood around Cleveland were destroyed or badly damaged.

Nixon 1In December 1968, D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington came to the neighborhood to announce the city’s first Riot Reconstruction Office, which was housed in two trailers at 7th and T St, NW.  Students from Cleveland were in attendance.  “It’s most important that the children see this,” the Mayor told them.

The next month, President Richard Nixon – on his tenth day in office – visited the site to mark the demolition of 1828-1838 7th Street NW, which would be converted into a playground for Cleveland students.

In a 1972 article about Title I Education, the Washington Post highlighted Cleveland’s enduring value to the community during some very difficult years in the neighborhood.  The story described the school as “55 years old and surrounded by chain link fences 8 feet high.  Its windows are barred, its doors reinforced.  Outside, sad-eyed men huddle in the shadow of abandoned buildings, sipping from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags…The fence, the bars, the locks keep children from this world part of each weekday.  During that time, Mrs. Perry and her teachers provide a program of instruction and enrichment that even some suburban schools might envy.”

The Little School That Could

Cleveland has been threatened with closure at least three times in its history.  The first time was 1957, when city officials proposed to raze the school to make room for a multi-lane freeway.  Thankfully, the ill-considered freeway proposal was scrapped in the face of widespread opposition from all over the city.

When the district faced declining enrollments in 1978, the Superintendent proposed shutting the school down.  Cleveland was saved by an outpouring of support from the community it served.  “To me, Cleveland is not just a school,” PTA president Jacqueline Howard told the Board of Education.  “It is a home away from home for our children.  You will make orphans out of 260 children if you close it.”

Fifteen years later, in April 1993, Superintendent Franklin Smith proposed closing Cleveland as the public school system once again faced declining enrollments and difficult financial decisions.  Students at the tight-knit school would be dispersed to a number of other schools.  Principal Annie Mair, PTA President Nancy Griffin, and ANC Commissioner W. Norman Wood, Jr. were joined by teachers, parents, grandparents, and community activists to protest the school’s closing. They cited Cleveland’s success with students with learning disabilities, excellent parent-teacher relations, Head Start, a well-regarded Pre-K program, and its proximity to the generations of families that attended the school, as reasons for keeping the school open.  Despite their opposition, the shutdown plan was approved in June 1993.  The D.C. Board of Education ordered Cleveland to be closed permanently.

But Wilma Harvey, the School Board member for Ward 1, refused to give up.  She convinced the school’s administrators to make no effort to shut down, in defiance of the School Board and Superintendent Smith.  “Cleveland will be open in September,” she insisted.

In response, School Board President David Hall retorted that “if Mrs. Harvey wants to have a showdown, I’ll ask Dr. Smith to have a moving van up there tomorrow to clear the place.”  Taking it a step further, Smith vowed not to assign any staff to the school.  But Harvey would not give up.

After months of wrangling, Harvey won the day — cajoling a majority of the Board to reconsider their decision.  Cleveland was saved once again.

More Presidential Encounters

HRCIn February 1997, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Cleveland to showcase the school’s partnership with the law firm Holland & Knight, which has generously supported the school over the years.  Clinton read the children a book called “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.”

That December, aGWB group of 20 students from Cleveland Elementary were invited to the White House for a holiday “reading party” with President Clinton and the First Lady.  The visit was a reward for students who had read at least 25 books since the beginning of the school year.

In April 2001, President George W. Bush welcomed another group of MairquoteCleveland students to the White House for a discussion on character education and a tour of the Oval Office.  The President held up the school as a model for others to follow, crediting Cleveland for “not just talking the talk — the results have improved significantly as a result of character programs, and focus on each child.”

Cleveland Today

In the 1990s, a “transitional Spanish program” for Pre-K and Kindergarten classes was established for Spanish-dominant students to give them a strong basis in their first language and orientation to the D.C. public school system. It was the foundation for Cleveland’s dual language program.

By this time, Cleveland’s students were thriving in a building that had obsolete systems, lacked a library, gymnasium, art and science rooms and was not accessible for handicapped students.  A two-year, $8.5 million renovation of the school – including a new addition – was completed in 2004.  The design created new ground-floor space for the library, computer and music rooms, updated high-ceilinged classrooms, and integrated state-of-the-art systems into the existing architecture.

Cleveland made playgroundnews again in 2009 when D.C. Wire reported that Michelle Rhee’s influence could be seen throughout Cleveland, right alongside SWBAT. SWBAT is an acronym which stands for “Students will be able to,” as in: by the end of the unit, the students will be able to demonstrate mastery of whatever has been taught. This instructional practice is consistently being implemented by all instructional staff members on a daily basis.

Cleveland has been a leader for more than a century, pioneering the best educational approaches so that every child can learn.  The teachers, staff and parents who make up the Cleveland community today are proud to carry on this tradition.  We have never stopped believing in the difference it can make for our students.