“Today marks 65 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the myth of “separate but equal” public school facilities is unconstitutional.”Students throughout the nation learn about Brown v. Board of Education and the triumph of Linda Brown…
By Clare Berke, Ward 7 Resident, DCPS Teacher
Today marks 65 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the myth of “separate but equal” public school facilities is unconstitutional. Students throughout the nation learn about Brown v. Board of Education and the triumph of Linda Brown, and others, gaining the legal right to attend an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. D.C. students also study a companion civil rights case, Bolling v. Sharpe, which was decided the same day and serves as the foundation upon which the D.C. public school system was desegregated. In this case, Spottswood Bolling and ten other African-American youth and their families applied for entrance to the then all-white John Philip Sousa Junior High School in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. When they were denied admission, a professor at Howard University School of Law filed suit.
Today, the same junior high school that the 11 black D.C. families fought to attend, is called Sousa Middle School and serves 228 students, 68% of whom live in-boundary. Sousa Middle School serves a population of 6th – 8th graders who all identify as students of color. The DCPS profile lists the demographics as 97% Black and 3% Hispanic/Latino. Ten percent of students are currently meeting or exceeding expectations for reading.
Sousa Middle School is my three young children’s neighborhood school. We live in Twining, a relatively unknown and minuscule section of Ward 7. Our closest neighbors are mostly of an older generation, African-American, and long-time District residents. Our streets are also tree-lined and quiet, and children of all ages play in the alley and parking lot directly behind our grass-filled backyard. A few weeks ago, a doting and mature fifth-grade neighbor played with my toddlers, riding bikes and making small talk until the sun went down. Among other pleasantries, I learned that our neighbor will be graduating from elementary school and entering Sousa Middle School in the fall. Will my own children be joining her in a few years? I hope so, though the answer to that question is complicated — and not just because my children could be some of the only white students to enroll in decades.
D.C. residents of a certain age well-know the anxious conversations that surround the D.C. school lottery, which uses a formula that includes neighborhood and sibling preferences, combined with a family’s rankings of their top 12 schools (and luck), to assign students to traditional public and public charter schools. School choice comes with many obvious benefits (like families not having to petition the Supreme Court for entrance to high-performing schools), but it also comes with its own set of challenges. Neighborhoods in D.C. still largely reflect the redlining and discriminatory housing policies of the years following the fear and prejudice that accompanied the decisions of Brown v. Board and Bolling v. Sharpe. Even the neighborhoods that are now diverse in ethnicity, from Takoma Park, down Georgia Avenue to Shaw, and extending to the Navy Yard, find themselves increasingly unaffordable for many D.C. residents. And while people of all backgrounds and income levels strive to enroll their students at the most popular and high-performing programs, these choices contribute to the traditional neighborhood schools in wards 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8 struggling to maintain enrollment. Additionally, the D.C. Policy Center found that half of D.C.’s public schools have student populations comprised of 90-100% African Americans. This means that many students do not attend classes with peers from any other racial or ethnic groups, despite living in a city that is growing in size and diversity.
This data has profound implications for our city. Studies have shown that integrated, diverse, and equitable schools serve students best. I am lucky to teach at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a DCPS academic magnet school serving over 95% students of color. Banneker boasts families from a wide variety of cultures, including immigrants from El Salvador and Ethiopia, refugees from Rwanda and Vietnam, and native Washingtonians who are both black and white. My son attends pre-kindergarten at E.W. Stokes (East End) Community School, a new bilingual charter campus near Congress Heights, where he learns French and interacts with friends from a wealth of backgrounds. Next year, my husband will begin teaching at Bard High School Early College in Ward 7. We feel honored to be part of so many diverse and thriving educational communities, but I know that my family is an island in a sea of residents, all of whom desire and deserve the highest quality education for their children.
Sixty-five years after Bolling v. Sharpe legally desegregated all D.C. public schools in a historic step toward equality, the work for justice and equity is in many ways just beginning. There are no simple solutions to such a complex moment in time. But there are simple principles that will sustain our efforts to build diverse and equitable school communities:
- Listen carefully to the voices surrounding you, and avoid jumping to conclusions based on assumptions or trends.
- Embrace and empower your community members to ask hard questions and, at times, to accept uncertainties.
- Recognize that there are great teachers, students, administrators, and staff at every public school in D.C., and they want to work alongside you to provide the best education for everyone.
Please join Learn Together, Live Together for a conversation about the past, present and future of school diversity in D.C. this Sunday, May 19, from 1 – 5 PM at Sousa Middle School (3650 Ely Place SE). Share your thoughts and reflections on #Bollingat65.