Spingarn High Students, Alums Brace For School's Closure (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Spingarn High Students, Alums Brace For School's Closure

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:00:08
I'm Emily Berman in this week for Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is Letting Go. So far, we've heard from a D.C. woman who was forced to say goodbye to her infant son and from a former drug user in Ocean City who's helping others kick addiction to the curb. And we turn now to a story of people who are letting go of the place they once went to school.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:00:36
Last month, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced which schools will be closing at the end of this academic year.

MS. KAYA HENDERSON

00:00:43
One of the significant challenges, of course, was that there are too many schools and too many small schools.

BERMAN

00:00:49
The closings will allow the District to save an estimated $8 million. And the biggest chunk of that savings comes from closing Spingarn High School. It's the first high school in D.C. to be closed in years. And as Jacob Fenston reports, no matter when you went to school it can be hard to let go of your alma matter.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:01:10
On a cold, gray morning students are making their way up from Benning Road Northeast, just west of the Anacostia River. Deja Willis and Asia Chasteen (sp?) are carrying gym bags and wearing Spingarn Track and Field hoodies. They say it's been a good school.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1

00:01:24
I improved more here than I did at Maryland schools. So, I mean, I'm one of the top 10 in my class so far.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #2

00:01:30
High fives. I did not know that.

FENSTON

00:01:33
Chequay Ojarika (sp?) is also wearing a Spingarn sweatshirt.

MS. CHEQUAY OJARIKA

00:01:37
I'm comfortable at Spingarn. So they are pushing us out. You've got no choice, so it sucks.

#1

00:01:40
It's like you don't have a choice but to leave. It's like you can't stay, you have to go, like, find somewhere else to settle down.

FENSTON

00:01:48
Closing Spingarn in July will save the school system more than $3 million according to the Chancellor.

OJARIKA

00:01:53
Because she was like just for like 300 kids.

#1

00:01:55
So she say--yeah, so she said we aren't worth it.

OJARIKA

00:01:57
Yeah, so we are not worth it. Yeah, that's when I felt offended.

FENSTON

00:01:59
The student body at Spingarn has been shrinking for years. It's now one of the District's smallest public high schools. In terms of test scores, only Anacostia High School has lower student achievement. At Spingarn, only one in seven students meets reading and math standards. But it wasn't always thus.

MR. FRANCIS SMITH

00:02:18
You know what page you're on, Barbara?

MS. BARBARA SMITH

00:02:20
Huh?

SMITH

00:02:21
What page are you on?

FENSTON

00:02:22
Francis and Barbara Smith are showing me their yearbook from senior year 1954.

SMITH

00:02:27
Yeah, that's us, man. You see, I had a necktie on.

FENSTON

00:02:31
The Smith's were in the first graduating class at Spingarn.

SMITH

00:02:34
We were the first bodies to enter that school. We were just so enthralled.

FENSTON

00:02:43
It was in that building the two first met. Francis was a basketball star always surrounded by adoring young ladies.

SMITH

00:02:48
And oh, they just irritated me, you know. And he's just smiling and whatever. And it just really bugged me. They would just, oh, but somehow he wooed me. He wooed me for almost 55 years.

FENSTON

00:03:05
Spingarn opened its doors in 1952, the newest and most modern of the city's so-called negro schools. It was just two years before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation. Spingarn was seen as one of the top black schools in the District led by Dr. Purvis Williams.

SMITH

00:03:22
Dr. Williams had picked the best teachers in the city. They were strict, but they taught us. And he believed in that and that was the end of it. I mean, you had to be right in there. You walked in there with a shirt on, you had to have a tie on. They held your feet to the fire. They did not play.

FENSTON

00:03:40
In 1952, D.C. schools were squeezed by different pressures than today, namely record enrollment, as baby boomers hit the schools. Spingarn in 2013 has about one-quarter the students it did back then.

MS. MARGARET WALLACE POPE

00:03:52
The school was crowded. We had lots and lots of students, not like today's class.

FENSTON

00:03:57
Margaret Wallace Pope…

POPE

00:03:59
I was a Wallace. There I am.

FENSTON

00:04:00
…class of 1959. Even though segregation officially ended in 1954, Spingarn was still 100 percent African American by the end of the decade.

POPE

00:04:09
I have come across at least one person, one white student that said he was the white student at the time. Now, I forget what year he was there. But, I know it has not always been 100 percent black. But I would say 99.9 percent.

MR. IVAN BROWN

00:04:27
Late '50s, early '60s you had the white flight.

FENSTON

00:04:30
Ivan Brown, class of 1963. Brown says he grew up near an all white elementary school he wasn't allowed to attend.

BROWN

00:04:38
And right across from that school was an apartment complex that was all white. Now, that school became integrated, but it wasn't long before all the whites had moved out of those apartments, you know. And they were gone. They just didn't want to go to school with us.

FENSTON

00:04:57
Spingarn student body today is 100 percent black, same as when it opened 61 years ago. But the neighborhoods around the school changed and changed again and are still changing.

BROWN

00:05:08
The white flight and there was a black flight. Black flight was the black middleclass.

FENSTON

00:05:13
Brown is now president of the Spingarn Alumni Association, a group that was started back in the '90s by Francis Smith. The alumni have spent a lot of time volunteering with Spingarn students and they've raised thousands of dollars for scholarships. Smith says when the school closes they will be a group without a purpose.

SMITH

00:05:30
I think it's like a piece of our history is gone and I don't think it will ever come back.

FENSTON

00:05:36
I’m Jacob Fenston.

BERMAN

00:05:39
If you have thoughts on D.C.'s plan to close some under-enrolled schools, we want to hear them. You can reach us at metro@wamu.org.
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