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Spingarn High Students, Alums Brace For School's Closure

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Spingarn High School will close in July, one of 15 D.C. public schools being closed to consolidate resources and save money.
Spingarn High School will close in July, one of 15 D.C. public schools being closed to consolidate resources and save money.

Last month, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the final list of schools that will be closed by the end of the academic year. The closings will allow the District to save an estimated $8 million, the biggest savings comes from closing Spingarn High School. It's the first high school in D.C. to be closed in years. But for some alumni, it can be hard to let go of their alma matter.

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, just one in seven students meets reading and math standards.

But it wasn't always thus.

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.

Francis and Barbara Smith were in the first graduating class. "They were strict, but they taught us," says Francis Smith. "I mean, you had to be right in there. You walk there with a shirt on, you had to have a tie on. They did not play."

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.

"The school was crowded. We had lots and lots of students, not like today's class," says Margaret Wallace Pope, class of 1959.

Even though segregation officially ended in 1954, Spingarn was still 100 percent African American by the end of the '50s. The student body is all black to this day.

"The school was always — well, I can't say always — 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," says Pope.

Over the years, the alumni have spent a lot of time volunteering with Spingarn students, and they've raised thousands of dollars for scholarships. Francis Smith, who started the association, says when the school closes, they'll be a group without a purpose.

"I think it's like a piece of our history is gone, and I don't think it will ever come back."

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says Spingarn won't be torn down — it will reopen as a vocation school. But alumni say it won't be the same institution they grew up with.

[Music: Spingarn: "Schooldays" by Al Green from True Love: A Collection]

Photos: Spingarn High School


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