Eastern Senior High began educating Washington D.C.’s white students in 1890. In 1954, the Supreme Court disavowed ‘separate but equal’ and Eastern desegregated. It was ostensibly a watershed moment; one that carried with it the hope that all children would have full and equal access to the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Brown would serve as a legal repudiation of segregation, but the aftermath would be complex and largely dictated by the systemic injustices that went unaddressed.
“The world is moved by diverse powers and pressures,” wrote civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell, “creating cross-currents that unpredictably, yet with eerie precision, determine the outcome of events. Often invisible in their influence, these forces shape our destinies, furthering or frustrating our ambitions and goals.”
Indeed, Eastern post-Brown is a tale of two places: what happened within the school, and the forces brewing just outside the walls that would – as Derrick Bell describes – have an eerie precision on the determination of events.
Within the school, the student body rallied for their education in ways that would be lauded today as a strong demonstration of youth voice. Teachers followed curriculum relevant to the student body, and Eastern offered an array of extracurricular activities: a renowned marching band, various clubs, and a well-regarded athletic program. Yet Eastern could not abate that which afflicted the neighborhood. Like any school, the neighborhood’s struggles seeped through the porous school walls, and for years, Eastern wrestled with ways to cope.
In 2009, DC Public Schools decided to remodel Eastern and revamp the curriculum. The school relaunched in 2011, with a renewed effort to reclaim the traditions that made Eastern so special. The athletic department relaunched the basketball program, and the team became a district contender. And every October, as summer melts into autumn, Eastern’s marching band leads the teams in a homecoming parade through the streets. The neighbors, like they did in decades past, sit on their porches to watch the procession.
Part 2: From COMPASS to Washington
The history and hope of a place like Eastern appealed to Alex Clark, who by then was in his second year of teaching in Hartford and looking for something greater. He could have done anything with his life, and during his undergraduate study, he thought seriously about a career in sports medicine. It was an encounter with an old friend, Stockton Farmer, that changed his direction. “Stockton and I were friends in undergrad,” Alex explained. “He helped me land a job in a COMPASS afterschool program, and because of that, I began to see my future in education.”
The practical lessons learned at COMPASS – how to connect with youth, how to facilitate groups, how to set expectations – laid the foundation for Alex’s career in teaching. The lessons were especially helpful as he found his footing in Washington. “I’d be the first to say that the first two months were tough,” he remembers. “I needed to change my approach. The dynamic was just different here. The slang was different; the needs were just immense. A lot of our kids have a story that they don’t tell.”