Op-Ed: Walls do not define debate

People often look at my former high school, the School Without Walls, and point out the things that it does not have. It does not have a gymnasium. There is no cafeteria. Some unfamiliar with the school even believe the building lacks physical walls. The debate over what to do with the aging facility is nothing new.

When I entered as a freshman back in 1996 the issue was just as hotly contested as it is now. The difference now is that there are new players in the game. Under former principal Emily Crandall, the idea of tearing down my beloved high school was staunchly opposed by students and faculty alike. We thrived as a community in that old building. Enrollment was not as high then. There was more space to comfortably enjoy a lunch that you brought from home or purchased from a nearby vendor, so there was no pressing need for a cafeteria. And although we did not have a gymnasium, our girls’ volleyball team won the city championship in 1998 and our track team appeared in every city championship since its inception in 1996.

People have lost sight of the ideology that was behind the founding of SSW. It was modeled after a program begun in Philadelphia during the early 1970s. Students were granted a greater sense of autonomy in choosing the direction of their academic interests than commonly seen in conventional high schools. It did not matter that our facility was not equipped with a science lab. Students were entrusted with the responsibility to meet their biology teacher at the U.S. Botanical Gardens or to meet their physics teacher at the University of the District of Columbia. We went out into the community and networked and created internship opportunities that accounted for credit toward graduation. Under this ideology, it was never intended for any one building to meet the needs of a student – the program needed students who were willing to go beyond traditional expectations of high school students who were confined within the “walls” of some mundane building.

Does the program work? The SSW has consistently yielded successful graduating classes with a college acceptance rate hovering around 95 percent, among the highest in the area. If you look amongst your classmates, chances are you will either find a Walls alumnus, or a student currently attending SWW and also enrolled in college classes at GW.

The fight for preserving SWW began to lose momentum once certain mandates were decreed downtown by the superintendent of schools. There began a push to consolidate area high schools with low enrollment and to move away from smaller programs such as SWW. Students in the District lost McKinley Tech, which was the city’s only technical high school at the time. No school replaced it. Developers were able to acquire the property.

Under these mandates, SSW was required to increase its enrollment from a comfortable 250 students to its current numbers, which seem to have the school bursting at the seams. The added burden has put a strain on the facilities as well as on those who are entrusted to maintain them. Many of the teachers who so profoundly shaped my personal growth are no longer there to do the same for future generations. SSW is not a “neighborhood school” in the sense that it doesn’t serve a particular population of students who live within a designated boundary zone, as is the case with other schools. Budget concerns are perhaps the only reason why so many students are enrolled; in order to satisfy a weighted student formula dictating how much funding the school receives.
I particularly oppose the notion of GW coming to the rescue of students in “inadequate facilities.” GW is only a player in this because the situation will prove advantageous to its ends of expanding its own facilities. This is in no way about the SSW students. The University wants to build a dorm there to house more GW students who will pay more inflated housing costs. It is the acquisition of property that motivates GW in this instance. I am disgusted to see it being masked as a philanthropic gesture to benefit the “disadvantaged students” of the city.

This is not a win-win situation. There is no trade-off. It is a buy-out, plain and simple. No one was there the winter our boiler stopped working and we wore winter coats in class. The boiler got fixed in a few weeks and things went on as normal. But people on the outside can point to such shortcomings, as well as the current enrollment predicament as reason to tear down the building.

They fail to realize that what is being torn down is not just a decrepit building; it is a legacy of students who have gone against all odds and overcome adversity to achieve the heights they have reached in life.
One day, there may be a building with the name “School Without Walls” embossed on some engraved plaque above the door, but that building will never hold true to the founding principles that define what it means to come from the School Without Walls.

-The writer, a junior majoring
in mechanical engineering, is a graduate
of the School Without Walls.

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