Eastern High School sits in the Northeast neighborhood of Washington D.C., a short ride from Capitol Hill. It’s a place of rich history, a school that has educated D.C. youth since 1890, through segregation, two World Wars, desegregation, and the modern struggle for civil rights. As the fortunes of the neighborhood shifted, and as neighborhood schools shuttered, Eastern High remained constant. The longevity of Eastern – and the passion for this place – lends a prevailing sense that come what may, this school will always be.

On an afternoon in January, I climbed the bleachers to watch the junior varsity basketball team play. I was there to see the coach, Alex Clark, a former COMPASS staff member with a meteoric trajectory that propelled him from Hartford, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C. He is the Physical Education teacher at Eastern, and known around the school as Coach Clark because – depending on the season – he leads girls’ soccer, serves as the assistant coach for boys’ basketball, and has plans to start a lacrosse program. All told, he wakes up every morning at 6:30AM, and most days doesn’t return until well past sunset.

“Alex is so consistent,” notes head basketball coach Emmanuel Kakulu. “I can’t overstate what he’s meant to the program. He came at a time of great change, and he embraced the kids wholeheartedly.”  Coach Kakulu is the Intervention Coordinator at Eastern, a Boston transplant who has an abiding affinity for his new home. He watched the game next to me, his eyes never leaving the floor, and contextualized Alex’s impact in terms of time and place.

It became clear that this is not just the story of one person’s success, though Alex’s commitment and caring are extraordinary. The story unfolding at Eastern speaks to something larger: the nexus of individuals like Alex, the grassroots organizations like COMPASS that foster them, and the schools like Eastern that maintain a covenant to educate young people. This one example acknowledges that school improvement can happen in grassroots, community-driven ways, and recognizing how this process is successful is of equal importance to appreciation of those who make it possible.

Part 1: Prologue

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.”

Resilience research contends that a relationship with a caring adult is the single most determining factor of a child’s ability to overcome obstacles. Alex credits COMPASS with instilling his relationship-based approach and starts off every class with two weeks of relationship building. “I really get to know my kids,” he says, and because of it, “I don’t have any discipline problems in my class.”

Alex’s friend Stockton, now a paraprofessional in Hartford Public Schools, believes that being a caring adult of color makes it all the more impactful. Youth view him and Alex in a different light, he believes, because “we were one of these kids, and we can give them a message that they might not otherwise hear. I tell them all the time: I’m here to help you, and I refuse to lower my standards. If I made it, you can too.”

Despite the benefits that teachers of color bring to the classroom, the teaching force in America’s schools remains largely homogeneous: 83% of teachers are white. This is far less true for the staffing of youth development programs. COMPASS largely recruits staff from within the community, and the organization’s demographics are more reflective of the youth served.

One day, youth development programs may count towards a teacher training experience for universities that provide credentialing. For now, the many COMPASS alums who have landed in classrooms through their own ingenuity sew a legacy far beyond the scope of any individual program. They ensure that the mission of being all about youth reverberates far beyond Hartford.