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  • Bailey McFadden

Premiere Screening of “School Without Walls: Oral Histories of Then and Now”

HumanitiesDC executive director Rebecca Lemos-Otero speaking at the documentary screening Nov. 21 as Ms. Sylvia, bottom left, looks on / Credits: Photography by Lauren

Social studies teacher Kerry Sylvia and the non-profit HumanitiesDC held an event to screen a documentary, primarily created by students, about Walls in the 1970s and ‘80s on Nov. 21 in Commons A.

The film started as an idea during the planning for the Walls 50th anniversary party in May 2021. Ms. Sylvia got the names and contact information of alumni from the school’s earliest years during the virtual event, she said, and over the course of last school year her D.C. History students interviewed them about their experience at Walls for the documentary.

HumanitiesDC, whose focus is on preserving the history of communities in D.C., gave a grant to Ms. Sylvia to produce the documentary. The grant went towards holding in-person interviews with other alumni and editing together the interviews into a film.

Ms. Sylvia is currently in the process of getting the documentary archived at the Charles Summer School Museum and Archives, which holds the archives of all D.C. Public Schools.

The School Without Walls that the alumni describe in their interviews is very different from the Walls of today. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Walls was still a young, alternative high school with little funding and a small population of students.

According to the documentary, those early students had little oversight and freedom to learn at their own pace all around the city. The students they took in were often those who couldn’t succeed in the structure of a traditional school, but thrived in the freedom Walls offered.

Many things caused the change in Walls to what we know today, the documentary said. Over time, schools became required to have more oversight on their students, because of safety concerns from parents and government officials. The graduation requirements went up, which gave schools less leeway in what classes they offered.

Later, the class schedule was changed from two-hour class blocks to our current schedule, in which most classes are 90 minutes, making field trips less convenient. AP classes became the norm, which required teachers to stay within a much stricter framework. Eventually Walls adopted “college preparatory” in its core tenets, and this later became the main focus of the school. Now, Walls has the structure of a traditional academically rigorous high school.


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