Career dreams persist in aging school

 

Miami Herald Staff

Jonathan Virgile showed up at Westview Middle School three years ago with a backpack full of art supplies, a perfectly honed plan to tackle advanced science, and $149 in a college savings account he opened when he was 8. But what he saw at Westview stopped him cold.

In a math class that smelled of dust and mildew, he watched ants burrow in the window caulking. Through dark hallways with missing roof panels, past stairwells stained by roof leaks, he found a library with only a handful of computers. When he finally made it to science, he discovered that the lab lacked basics like running water, gas and electricity for experiments.

For two years, Jonathan read about Bunsen burners in textbooks. He never got to use one. "I was kind of excited about going to a new school, " said Jonathan, a budding science-fiction artist. "That was just smashed to pieces."

It's been 15 years since the Miami-Dade County School Board promised to deliver massive renovations to the district's aging schools with the passage of a $980 million bond referendum. But Westview Middle School is still waiting. So are at least eight other schools, all promised millions of dollars in renovations that are not yet complete.

"The students, it's just like the same thing they always see. It's like no one cares about them, " said Jonathan's mother, Yvelande Virgile.

Virgile thought the bond money would benefit all three of her children. Her older son and daughter attended Westview in the mid-1990s, long after the referendum passed. Jonathan started in 2000. But the new wing didn't open until this school year. Jonathan is now an eighth-grader, his siblings are in college - and construction crews are still finishing the renovations.

"I've been here two years and the work was going on, " said Westview's principal, Nicholas Emmanuel.

"I've been here four years and it started before I got here, " said security monitor Ashuane Haris.

"They've been saying for 11 years that that wing would be ready, " said science teacher Sabrina Jones.

Problems struck the project right from the start. The School Board hired architect Edward Ghezzi in 1993, but by 1995, the school district had not yet signed off on his designs. The district fired Ghezzi in 1996. Ghezzi sued the School Board for wrongful termination; the district settled for $85,000.

"They increase requirements, they add this, they add that. I had 87 working drawings for that project, " said Ghezzi, in business since 1956.

In 1997, the School Board hired a new architect. Construction finally began in 1999 when the board hired JV Construction for $6.7 million.

But setbacks continued. In 2000, the district's project manager, Jacob Curry, told his bosses he no longer wanted to work on Westview. Among other things, he said a string of principals made unjustified demands.

"Pursuant to a chain of unwarranted, unprovoked and asinine events, this memo confirms my request to cease all involvement with this project, " Curry wrote. Curry no longer works for the school system.

In 2001, the School Board fired a second company - the contractor. The company was not paying subcontractors or meeting deadlines, district officials say. JV Construction officials could not be reached for comment.

Early estimates put the Westview project at about $3.5 million. Now it will cost almost three times that much, though the scope of the project has changed. The work, meanwhile, won't be completed until at least October, years later than expected. Every day at Westview, Jonathan walks past the clatter of construction crews to get to science in the new wing.

Until this year, Jones, the science teacher, had to haul water into class in 10-gallon buckets so students could conduct an occasional experiment.

Now Jonathan is finally in a modern lab. But he lost two years, learning science from textbooks.

Jonathan knows that making it into a top college won't be easy, and though he has started to save for tuition, he is hoping to earn a scholarship.

"My mom wants me to save my money for college, but if I do real good in school, I figure I can get a scholarship. Then I can waste it all on a brand-new convertible."

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