Overcoming rough area’s challenges

Bruce Johnson, a high school sophomore at the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast D.C., put the finishing touches last week on an identity box project assigned by his English teacher.

“I want to make a difference in society after I make money,” Johnson said as he put a pen symbolizing his love for writing in his shoebox-sized construction.

Another sophomore girl just one day shy of her 16th birthday also expounded on her passion for words, placing a poem on the project designed to help the students examine their values after reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a memoir of the Romanian-born Jew’s Holocaust experience.

Next to the poem, she included a baby-blue pacifier.

“It’s for my god-daughter, my friend’s daughter,” she said. “She’s five months old.” The sophomore added that her friend, the child’s mother, is 14.

Most students at Thurgood Marshall live in the notoriously rough Anacostia neighborhood, which is a roughly 20-minute drive from Foggy Bottom. Johnson is among the few who commute from other parts of D.C. to attend the school, which was founded by two students and a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Law two years ago.

A typical day for Johnson and his 221 fellow students involves constant lessons about making one’s way in the world, and constant reminders of the poverty and difficult social conditions that plague parts of the country.

The academy holds a strong focus on the study of law, and in Johnson’s second period law class, he learns, among other things, about the school’s namesake and former Supreme Court justice.

Despite a rambunctious class that is preoccupied with a pre-spring break dance planned by school administrators, Beth Bulgeron, a former lawyer and the course’s teacher, tried to keep the class focus on a recently assigned paper.

“Dang, the rain don’t like D.C. today,” one boy said loudly during the work period as he watched the steady downpour outside a window. The rain turned patches of dirt in a neighboring lawn into thick mud, which splashed onto the toppled chairs, scraps of wood and broken window frames that were strewn across the small land plot outside.

Another boy started pounding on his desk rhythmically to create the downbeat for a rap, which his friend quickly filled in with lyrics.

“Guys, please take out your papers now,” Bulgeron said.

She later added that the “generational poverty” her students grapple with creates a challenge for the school staff, but they are committed to the children and their parents, who are committed to the goal of a college degree.

This June, the first senior class will graduate from Thurgood Marshall. Most of the 18 seniors have already been accepted to at least one college, and Tonya Featherston, the school’s principal, said she is hopeful about all of them.

“We fully expect that all 18 of them will be accepted and then it will just be a matter of their choice as to which school they attend,” Featherston said.

Johnson, who wants to go to college but does not yet know where, heads off to chemistry after lunch. The class is taught by Kena Allison, who is on a leave of absence from the GW Medical School. She explained ion basics before switching gears and letting her class play a problem-solving game.

Featherston said keeping teachers is difficult because the workload is so tremendous. Teachers are in class five of the school day’s six periods, and each period is one hour.

“Filling the positions is not really the problem, but filling them with highly qualified long-term people is the struggle that we’re currently in,” she said. “I think part of that doesn’t necessarily come from the population of students that we serve, itself, but all the things that we put on our plate to do to try to help those students.”

Next year the school is moving from its current location, in the religious education wing of a church, to a school building across the street from the Anacostia Metro station. Featherston said that as the school’s enrolment increases, she hopes to find ways of mitigating the strain on teachers.

“I just want to dance,” one student called out during Allison’s chemistry class. “How much longer ’til the dance?”

The next period, as the class sat in Spanish class waiting for teacher Azalia Hunt to dismiss them, they were told that rainwater had flooded the cafeteria and made the spring break send-off dance an impossibility.

Hunt, a 24-year-old graduate student at GW, gave the class a chance to vocalize their frustrations and, responding to their pre-spring break rowdiness, led an impromptu discussion about respect.

As Johnson’s classmates yelled and laughed during their fiery debate over what constitutes respect, he started his spring break homework and contemplated how best to spend his week of independence.

“I met this lawyer last week. He said he was in corporate law,” Johnson said. “I’m going to call him this weekend to learn more about what he does.”

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