Using the City as a Classroom: Is “School Without Walls” Still True to Its Name?
Field trips didn’t always require paperwork. / Credits: Jessie Moss
“Does your school really not have walls?” It’s a question every Walls student has faced, whether posed by an opposing sports team, family member or friend. However, the origins of the school’s name has more to do with the structure of the curriculum than the structure of the building.
SWW’s primary mission when it was founded in 1971 was to offer an unconventional education oriented around “using the city as a classroom.” The school sought to take advantage of its D.C. location, which provided students with unique opportunities and learning experiences. Does the school still live up to this ideology? Did it ever?
Walls was originally modeled after the Parkway Program, used in some Philadelphia schools in 1965. Parkway was a group of nontraditional schools where most of the learning was done in locations relevant to what they were discussing. The program took an even more ambitious approach to the city-as-a-classroom philosophy than SWW by letting students direct their own course of study and fostering more equal teacher-student relationships.
In 1996, the New York Times described the philosophy behind the program as “people learn only what they want to learn, not what someone else imposes on them, and…they learn best by grappling directly with the rich material in the world around them.” By 2000, however, the Parkway Program had been abandoned by most Philadelphia schools in favor of more traditional methods.
Though it has since been lost, Walls too was founded on Parkway’s philosophy. It was still around by 1986, when now-Principal Sylvia Isaac joined the school and discovered her love for “using the city as a classroom.” As a D.C. History teacher, Ms. Isaac incorporated many outside experiences into her class, including visiting D.C. Council hearings and completing White House tours. She also assigned projects that got students out in local neighborhoods — still an element of D.C. History classes today.
“That’s what this school is about,” Ms. Isaac said. “Learning is not just opening up a book. … [It’s] how is what you learned in your classroom relevant to what really happens in the world.”
But in Walls’s 52nd year, this philosophy no longer seems to be at the forefront of teachers’ and administrators’ priorities. Currently, SWW lacks the emphasis on real-world learning and fi eld-trip-based classes that was a cornerstone of the school’s founding philosophy.
“I think we’ve certainly moved away from that idea, in part because the world has changed significantly,” offered Jenine Pokorak, who has taught at the school since 1997.
Ms. Pokorak cited the changing global climate, saying, “You cannot get in and out of places post-9/11 the way you could prior. ... You weren’t going through metal detectors and there weren’t barriers you had to get by.”
Ms. Pokorak added that the pandemic has only further taken away from the city-as-a-classroom focus. She said as the school has grown to become more academically focused, with increased numbers of AP classes with stricter curricula, it has been harder to extensively incorporate field trips into class time.
Despite her enthusiasm for exploring the city, Ms. Isaac recognized that the school is not what it was 30 years ago. She referenced DCPS’s increased involvement with field trips, requiring teachers to fill out extra paperwork to leave the classroom. “Now [field trips require] more advanced planning; we didn’t have to do that before,” she said.
In spite of these challenges, Ms. Isaac is confident the school has and will continue to adjust to these changes. “It is really important to me that we continue to use the rich resources” exclusive to Walls, Ms. Isaac said. “I think our teachers work hard to implement that.”
Harrison Davis, a Walls physics teacher who attended the school as a student, was skeptical. “There have definitely been instances of the administration being like, ‘you can go do these things,’ but it’s more like you have the option to, not ‘this is our culture, we should be planning how to do this,’” he said.
Although the idea of the city as a classroom has had some setbacks, its impact is still noticeable. In some cases teachers have adapted by bringing speakers into the classroom to bypass the difficulties of leaving the building.
The philosophy also lives on in that Walls is a humanities-based school, which prioritizes critical analysis and human values.
Most of the teaching and administrative staff remain steadfast in their belief in the value of using the city as a classroom, despite the challenges. Mr. Davis highlighted the benefit that going beyond the four walls of the classroom can bring to students: “It’s important that as a student you understand how the stuff you are learning about is relevant to you and the world you live in.”