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  • Zoe Fisher

What Was SWW Like 30 Years Ago? A Picture of Walls in the ‘90s

Artwork created by Ms. Reinhard’s mother, which inspired her to attend Walls / Credits: E. Ethelbert Miller

It’s the early 90s, you are about to turn 15, Nirvana and the Notorious B.I.G. are playing on the radio, you have baggy jeans and Adidas on, and it's your first day at School Without Walls. All except for the year, this story is relatively familiar for many students today as 90s musicians and fashion trends remain popular among Gen Z. But, how has Walls changed in the last 30 years? Willa Reinhard, Class of 1995, can answer this question. 

In the 90s, “[SWW] was sort of like an alternative high school to some degree.” Ms. Reinhard chose Walls because she thought the students were cool and unique. She wanted to go somewhere different from Jackson-Reed, to a place that could challenge her, which is what she found. 

In 1991, junior high went until 9th grade, so many students started at Walls in 10th grade. The Class of 1995 graduated with about 60 students, making the community much smaller and tight-knit. Ms. Reinhard explained that even though there were some cliques, “there was also like intermingling across some of those groups and across grades.” However, the community began to feel smaller much faster than it does today. To paint a picture, there were few enough students that all 200 pupils were able to crowd into the entrance hallway of the old school, and the principal, Emily Crandall, stood at the front and gave announcements. 

The 90s Walls community wasn’t just different in its size. “[Walls] was definitely diverse racially, and I know the friends that I had there were friends from Southeast and like different parts of [DC] and it didn't feel like there was a whole block of kids that came from Deal, for example. There were a few, but it felt like kids came from all over,” Ms. Reinhard explained. Today, Walls has lost some of its diversity as it is made up of 48% White, 26% Black, and 26% Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial students, according to DCPS. 

Students would go off campus at lunch and hang out in food courts at GW and in front of Leo’s Deli across the street. There they used the Deli’s payphones to reach friends from other schools. Ms. Reinhard added, “We would all just be like sitting on the steps of the building and hanging out.” Ms. Reinhard’s mother, Judy Byron, created a woodcut piece of art that showed students in 1991 on the front steps. This piece is what inspired Ms. Reinhard to attend Walls, as the students looked “cool” to her. 

Willa Reinhard, class of 1995 / Credits: E. Ethelbert Miller

Walls also had a similar relationship with GW, holding its assemblies and graduation in the Lisner Auditorium, as is done today. Students also had access to classes at GW similar to the current Exposure Program. At GW, Ms. Reinhard took one class on the Bible and literature simply because she did not know much about the Bible and was curious to learn more. She also attended two Spanish classes, and two Creative Writing classes, which inspired her to study creative writing when she went to college. 

At the time, Walls did not yet have a new wing, so most elective classes like music, PE, art, etc. were in alternate locations. Also, students would leave the building for their internship during the afternoon in their Junior or Senior years. Still, Ms. Reinhard said, “The ‘Without Walls’ wasn't as true then … we were more in the building than we weren't.” This is the reality even more so today. Now, students only leave school for lunch, internship, the odd drill or trip to the GW gym, and official field trips as most classes can happen in the Walls building itself. 

Going to School Without Walls has influenced Ms. Reinhard’s career, as she is now an administrator at Parkmont School, a small private school committed to helping students with learning disabilities. It may be only 75 students but, like Walls, it has a strong community that is focused on helping students become strong learners. 

Ultimately, School Without Walls was a great place to be in the early 90s in similar ways to today. Students continue to be interesting and curious people, get to take classes at GW, and to simply be high schoolers. Now, the Walls might be over three times the size, but at its core, it remains the same.

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