Athletic Programs Struggle to Keep Up in “School Without Gym”
The Walls baseball team uses aging batting cages at the old Banneker High School building. / Credits: Theo Weller
It’s a warm April Friday afternoon. The clock hits 3:30 p.m. and Walls students are let out for the weekend. But a somewhat tense mood hangs over the baseball team, just one day away from their biggest game of the year: the Jackson-Reed showdown.
The team is eager to tune up their skills at practice in preparation. Fitted with two backpacks each — one for baseball, one for school — the group makes their way to the Foggy Bottom Metro where they catch the 3:45 train. After multiple Metro transfers and 10 minutes of walking, they arrive at Banneker Recreation Center at 4:20 — at the earliest. Finally it’s time to practice. This is the trek the team must make every day just to practice.
In contrast, Jackson-Reed baseball player Freeman Hunt (‘25) reported a devastating two-minute commute to practice at Fort Reno.
School Without Walls has plenty of successful athletic programs. Several sports routinely dominate in-conference games, even taking down some private schools. In their most recent seasons, the baseball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, swimming and golf teams reached the DCIAA championships. Tennis, girls swimming and golf teams all won first.
Despite the school's athletic prowess, our facilities can’t compete. The school has no fields or courts on-site or even closely accessible. As a result, student athletes, like those on the baseball team, are regularly forced to travel across the city.
As DCPS renovations fitted schools with sparkling new athletic facilities, Walls’s lack of space means it lags behind its counterparts. Senior Eliav Brooks-Rubin, head of the Sports Information Club, contends that Walls has the worst athletic facilities out of all DCPS schools.
Brooks-Rubin isn’t alone in these views. Soccer player and track athlete Jack Meltzer (‘24) also reported team commute times of up to 45 minutes. The soccer teams practice at The Fields at RFK, 11 Metro stops and a reasonable walk away from school.
No other D.C. public high school lacks a gym, as Brooks-Rubin points out. A member of the basketball and baseball teams, he notes “the basketball practice situation is absolutely ridiculous every year. This year we’re practicing on a court that we’re sharing with the girls team, from 6-8 p.m. Last year, we started at 5:30 on a court as skinny as two swimming lanes before shifting to an extremely slippery and still small court once the girls were done…We don’t get to practice everyday because the schools we play at have events or need their gyms from time to time.”
Brooks-Rubin told The Rookery that “despite the stereotype of Walls as a purely academic school, I think we have among the most passionate fans in the DCIAA.” But Walls’ athletic predicament prevents them from supporting us as well as they can. He added, “Not having facilities limits the fan turnout because of accessibility.” Fostering school spirit and overall community is difficult when sporting events are inconvenient.
In contrast, the Jackson-Reed features a quality batting cage complete with a fully intact net. Even after Walls’ players journey to practice, they are greeted by a cage so riddled with holes that it is nearly unusable.
Hunt said he is able to “lift in the weight room, hit, throw, do some fielding drill[s] and sprinting.” The School Without Walls “weight room” is a claustrophobically small janitor’s closet fitted with one bench and a handful of miscellaneous weights. Walls is already at a disadvantage by virtue of its facilities (or lack thereof) against DCPS opponents, namely rival Jackson-Reed. But adding facilities is no easy task for an already undersized campus.
Many Walls students see a basketball gym as the biggest need. Not only would this benefit the volleyball and basketball teams (along with other sports looking for a place to run modified practices on rainy days), Brooks-Rubin pointed out that it “would also be beneficial to the broader school community in our PE classes and just to have access to.” Though a field could serve many sports as well, the school’s geography in tightly-packed downtown DC makes this nearly impossible.
Considering that Walls is built on its partnership with George Washington University, one might expect that SWW student-athletes would have access to its facilities. In the past, this was the case. Basketball and swimming at times practiced at GW’s athletic center. But with the exception of those in the GW program, Walls students are currently barred from using any GW facilities. According to GW’s associate athletic director Brian Sereno, this is because “high school students are recruitable age prospects. [Walls] would need to pay the going rental rate for us to avoid any NCAA recruiting violations.”
Walls students do still have something to look forward to. SWW athletic director Kip Smith said that “when renovations for Francis-Stevens are done, we will have access to a full-size gym. The current gym size is being expanded.”
He added that “we also have access to the Macarthur Boulevard School, formerly owned by GDS, that will be opening in the fall of 2023. Also, we are in the process of exploring partnerships with private schools and facilities within D.C.”
Though the renovation at Francis-Stevens has caused inconvenience by complicating volleyball and basketball’s practices, it seems it may be well worth it in the end. Francis-Stevens is less than a mile from SWW’s Foggy Bottom campus. Additionally, its association with School Without Walls High School ensures reliable access. Though the MacArthur Boulevard School is further — two and a half miles away — and not Metro-accessible, it has the upside of not housing any other students, giving Walls athletes a court that is fully theirs.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. But for now, School Without Walls athletes have to manage long commute times, little in-person support, and sub-par facilities — all while trying to compete for city championships.