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  • Rachel Kolko

Survey: Overwhelming Majority of Students Dissatisfied With Walls Elective Options

What electives are you most interested in? / Source: Rookery survey

About 26 years ago, School Without Walls offered a French culinary classto students as an elective credit.

Believe it or not, there used to be a small stove and sink in room 226 where students would whip up French dishes, according to the longest-serving faculty member at Walls, Jenine Pokorak.

Although French cooking might not be the first thing that comes to mind, nowadays, many Walls students — especially upperclassmen — find themselves looking for more unique elective options.

A majority of respondents to an anonymous Rookery survey of 207 Walls students across all grades said the school does not offer enough elective options.

Out of the grade levels, the freshman class had the highest number of students who feel the electives don’t need to be improved. As the classes progressed in seniority, the positive reviews were fewer in number, with seniors expressing the least satisfaction with the status quo.

Overall, around 70 percent of students feel changes need to be made to the electives at Walls in some way.

The biggest criticism from these students was that Walls does not have enough variety in their offerings. Many note that most of the electives are general novice courses, which leaves little room for more advanced or niche study.

Petra Debelack (‘24), who is interested in art, explained that in the first semester of this year, they took Art A, an introductory level class, because it was the only elective of some interest to them that would satisfy their schedule. “I like Art A a lot, but it is not teaching me anything that I don’t know,” they said, adding that the class felt like a repeat of their freshman-year Drawing and Painting course.

Debelack explained this problem does not apply only to art electives. “Our science department is just generally really limited,” they said. “We just have the basic sciences and that’s pretty much it.”

Others agree. When students were asked which electives they had more interest in taking, 54.6 percent said STEM-related electives, higher than any other type of elective listed.

“Walls could have more science related electives such as anatomy or zoology. Trying to find a class that involves science other than the classes that I have been mandated to take is really hard and usually unsuccessful,” one senior respondent suggested.

The challenge with these types of STEM electives is that they usually require expensive resources if they are to be taught in an interactive way.

Simon Kirschenbaum (‘23), who is a co-captain of the Walls robotics team, explains that he almost decided to go to Jackson-Reed for high school since it had more robust engineering classes. “[Jackson-Reed] has a lot of very fancy tools that cost a lot of money,” he said. Walls, a smaller humanities-focused school with a smaller budget, doesn’t always have the means for resources for these higher-tech STEM classes like engineering.

Still, students pushed for more STEM options. “I would totally take a forensics class,” Debelack said. Other survey respondents were enthusiastic about forensics as well.

If these students had attended Walls some years back, they might have gotten their wish: Not only did Walls offer a forensics class, it also had classes like anatomy and physiology, documentary filmmaking, peace studies (taught by the renowned peace lecturer Colman McCarthy) and more, according to various teachers.

A central reason explaining why these electives have not made a comeback is that teachers who would be qualified to teach these types of classes do not have time in their schedule to teach them.

Kathryn Moore, the junior-class counselor, explained that Walls teachers are only able to teach a maximum of five classes each semester. This makes it hard to add new electives, since teachers’schedules are already filled with classes students must take to graduate.

“If we had extra money in the budget for an extra teacher, we could bring on a teacher in any subject that could teach electives,” Ms. Moore said. “Unfortunately, DCPS never tends to give us extra money.” With the release of the budget for the 2023-24 school year, a new hire appears doubtful.

However, even if an entirely new position is not realistic at the moment, Walls still has the ability to hire adjunct teachers — most of whom are graduate students from nearby universities — to teach specialized electives, like the current street law and constitutional law courses.

In fact, according to Ms. Moore, the school is currently in the process of finding an adjunct teacher to teach a subject desired by many students: economics. Economics or financial literacy was the number one requested class, making up about 16 percent of the responses.

“It is a potential elective for next year — not definite, but it is one that we put on the course offerings list to get an idea of student interest, and I know the administration is working on trying to get an adjunct teacher to support that type of class,” she said.

Although students mostly expressed discontent with the lack of electives, many also raised concerns about access to the few options that do exist, since upper grades get priority on course selection. “There are lots of classes that only seniors get into… like AP Psych and AP [Human Geography], which means that by senior year many are forced to try to cram in a bunch of classes,” one junior survey respondent noted.

Debelack, who wants to take many of the classes typically reserved for seniors next year, faces the same problem. To try and work around it, they requested taking D.C. History this year, earlier than most Walls students do. “I wanted to make it so that I would have extra space in my classes next year,” they said. “I have so many classes that I want to take.” However, since it is a graduation requirement, seniors have first priority to get into this class, and Debelack’s request was denied.

With all of the criticism, students gave suggestions on what could be done about electives. “Instead of having to take electives people aren’t interested in, there should be study hall periods at least for upperclassmen who have already completed their required electives,” a sophomore suggested. Several other upperclassmen agreed.

Unfortunately for them, Ms. Moore explained that there is a DCPS-wide policy against study halls. “District-wide, it’s probably to make sure that students are scheduled to remain on track for graduation,” she said. Ms. Moore noted that a study hall period might not be something of interest to many students anyway. “People tend to take full schedules because it looks better for college,” she said.

Another notion students across grade levels advocated for when responding to the survey was more student input with elective choices. “Walls should do surveys about student interests,” a respondent suggested. “Then, electives can be created based on the majority’s interest.”

A desire for more AP classes outside of core AP classes, such as AP Computer Science, AP Art history, AP Micro- and Macroeconomics and AP European History, appeared in a number of respondents’ answers.

Other electives students expressed interest in included botany, ceramics and pottery, cooking and home economics, creative writing, criminology, sign language, sports and sports medicine, women and gender studies and zoology.


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