A boy did jumping jacks in a basement hallway, training for a cross country race. On the first floor, a girl snapped pictures for a photo class of her friends posing and making funny faces. At the end of the school day, no one was racing out the doors, but everyone was on the move.
GW students see the students who attend the School Without Walls on G Street as the neighborhood kids who sit on the red steps outside the school at lunch time or hang out in the park across the street.
But students from the high school see each other as National Merit Scholars, National Hispanic Scholars, founders of string quartets, semi-professional dancers and team captains. After attending the four-year high school, more than 95 percent head to college, many to Ivy League schools or to the armed forces.
Last May, $7.8 million in scholarships was awarded to the school’s 79 graduates, Principal Emily Crandall said. Dan King, a School Without Walls senior, is the only D.C. public school student to become a National Merit semi-finalist this year.
“Other students (in D.C. public schools) don’t do the things we do,” junior Josephine Stedman said.
A tough screening of more than 600 applications every spring ensures the 100 students selected for admission to the School Without Walls are top-notch, Crandall said.
Esharon Monroe, a 16-year-old senior, said in addition to taking placement exams and submitting transcripts and references, she had to write an essay explaining why she wanted to enter the School Without Walls. Her parents also had to submit an essay.
“(The administrators) really make sure that the people coming into Walls are the kind of people that won’t cause problems,” she said.
Crandall and other School Without Walls teachers praise their students as serious and ambitious, which they consider a product of mutual trust.
“People underestimate kids a lot at this age,” said Leah Kirell, a humanities teacher.
The School Without Walls was established in 1971 as an alternative to the District’s traditional public schools. The high school’s brochures say the school uses the “city as a classroom.”
Some classes meet at museums and all students are required to intern in a field that interests them. Students can take classes at GW, where 100 spaces are reserved for them each semester. They also can take courses at the University of the District of Columbia and Howard University, said Juliette Smith, the school’s intern and community service liaison .
Monroe, who hopes to attend Wake Forest University next fall, took a psychology class at GW last summer and is taking a computer applications course this semester.
“I don’t think the GW students know I’m from Walls,” Monroe said. “I don’t even think the professor knows.”
The high school’s classrooms may be filled with bright students and enthusiastic teachers, but the school still faces the same challenges as other public schools.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see the viability of small schools,” Crandall said. “People see them as taking up space and money. And the smaller the school, the smaller the budget.”
A tighter budget means the freshman humanities classes do not have new textbooks. Instead, they rely on old copies and sometimes photocopies of the text. The students have no lockers, making winter months soggy as wet jackets are dragged from room to room. The facilities are rundown, though a building renovation is rumored for next year if the money can be found.
Librarian Lynn Kauffman said the library is small and cannot support the level of course content School Without Walls students face everyday.
Kauffman made the most of her limited resources by establishing a strong relationship with Gelman Library.
“Our access to that library makes it possible for me to teach my classes,” Kirell said.
Many faculty members at School Without Walls hope the school continues to maintain and build on professional relationships with GW. Teachers also are hopeful GW students will tutor their students in advanced math and English classes, Kirell and Crandall said.
“The University has been so supportive of this school,” Crandall said. “They have given us furniture, they send us contractors, the counseling department (from GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development) sent two interns to teach peer education.”
Students are always the focal point at the School Without Walls.
“We have the greatest kids,” said School Without Walls teacher Jenine Pokorak, a 1995 GW graduate.
“I do not serve adults,” Crandall said. “I serve the students.”