Walls No Longer Looks Like DC. Why?
Since 2012, the population of Black students at Walls has decreased, while the population of white students has increased / Credits: David Sipos
In 1990, the student body of School Without Walls, still a small experimental school of only 222 students, was 19 percent white, 71 percent Black, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent Hispanic. That was not too far from the population breakdown of 1990s DC: 27 percent white and 65 percent Black.
Today, the reality is very different. In the 2022-23 school year, Walls was 48 percent white and 26 percent Black, an overrepresentation and underrepresentation, respectively, of the plurality Black city.
In the 2012-13 school year, Walls looked almost exactly like D.C. The percentages of students of every racial demographic were within a few points of their makeup of D.C.
Over the past decade, that dynamic has disappeared. Cristal Piper, who has taught at Walls for 23 years, said the shift in demographics was a symptom of “the transition from it being a majority-minority city to a majority-white city.” D.C. is not yet majority-white, but the non-white percentage has fallen significantly in the past decade. The demographic shift at Walls has outpaced changes in D.C. In 2015, the share of white students surpassed Black students for the first time, though D.C. remained plurality Black.
A number of factors have contributed to the changes at Walls. “It all depends on the middle schools,” Ms. Piper said, explaining that “some of the feeder schools we used to have before 2012 are no longer elite middle schools and so… the diversity of students has also declined.” She cited the example of the majority-Black Jefferson Middle School, saying “12 years ago Jefferson was a big competitor. It’s not that way anymore. We might have had 50 percent of the kids come from Deal, 50 percent come from Jefferson. Now we might have one kid out of 150… from Jefferson.”
Assistant Principal LaToya Grant added that the number of applications has also swelled in the past decade, contributing to the changes. “When I first started 10 years ago, there were maybe 900 applications. Last year, there were 2000.” These newer applicants have not necessarily resembled past applicants to Walls. “Walls is probably more of a viable option for families that previously it may not have been an option for, whether that is students who went to private schools or families who decided to move out of D.C. when it came time for their students to go to high school,” Ms. Grant said. Those students tend to be more affluent and from whiter wards of D.C. As the applicant base shifted, so too did the composition of the school.
Over- and underrepresentation can be measured by subtracting a demographic group’s share of Walls students from its share of the city population. In the 2022-23 school year, white students were 11 points overrepresented relative to the city. Black students were 17 points underrepresented. Asian and Hispanic students were both within two points of the city makeup.
Another example of underrepresentation at Walls is the limited presence of “at-risk” students, those from lower-income families who qualify for certain public assistance programs. “The students who come to School Without Walls tend to be fairly well-resourced as compared to other urban schools in D.C.,” Ms. Piper said. Walls has long educated the lowest level of at-risk students of D.C. public schools. In 2012, 17 percent of Walls was considered at-risk. That number has fallen to just 7 percent last year, and has fallen every year since 2016. The result is a less socioeconomically diverse student cohort.
In recent years, DCPS and Walls administration have recognized that the school is not fully reflective of the city’s demographics. Seeking a more diverse pool of admitted students, they have made several changes to the admissions process. In 2020, the school opened a second testing location east of the Anacostia river, seeking to attract more applicants from Wards 5, 7, and 8, according to Ms. Grant.
The following year, in response to COVID, the admissions exam was canceled, leaving only a GPA requirement and interviews. That policy continued in the following admissions cycles in the hope that eliminating standardized entrance testing would give students of all backgrounds a fairer chance of getting in.
The school has also attempted to reach out to students who might not otherwise apply. Ms. Grant said that “we partnered with the NAACP in D.C. … [to] have some type of interview preparation because we know some students are nervous when they come to interview. Some students don’t have experience interviewing.” She explained that the goal of the changes to the admissions process is “to even the playing field between all the applicants.”
There is some sign of improvement in the data. Last year, the disparity between Walls and the city decreased slightly from its peak in 2021. In 2022-23, when half of students had not taken the entrance exam, percentages for all races inched in the direction of D.C. It is a slight mark of progress for the administration. This year, though official data is not yet available, Ms. Grant said “there is a higher percentage… of minority students in the building this year over last year”
It remains to be seen whether reforms to the admissions process will make a difference in creating a school reflective of D.C. Additionally, the inclusion of an essay and teacher recommendations as requirements may further affect the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the school.
The number of at-risk students at Walls has shrunk to below 10% in recent years / Credits: David Sipos