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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Opinion: Preserving History and Building Futures

In the heart of Ward 7, John Philip Sousa Middle School is more than just my neighborhood middle school—it is a living testament to our history and commitment to justice. As the anchor in the historic Bolling v. Sharpe case, Sousa holds a unique place in our nation’s journey toward educational equity. Just last year, Sousa was declared a national historic site. It serves as a reminder that education is not just a pathway to success but a fundamental right that should be accessible to all. Preserving Sousa is not an option; it is our duty to honor the struggles of the past and ensure our future.

Today, Sousa is the middle school for half of Ward 7, which has over 30,000 residents. Yet its current enrollment hovers at just over 200 students. Because its student body is so small, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education is hosting an upcoming meeting to discuss Sousa’s future. This meeting is one step in a larger process: the Boundary and Student Assignment Study 2023, which reviews the boundaries and feeder patterns of DC Public Schools and the student assignment policies for public schools across the District. This process is ongoing, with final recommendations submitted to the mayor in March 2024. The boundary process puts everything on the table, from what programs are in schools to which neighborhoods go to what school.

Right now, we have the opportunity to demand more for Sousa. Despite its historical significance to our community, city, and nation, the school has not received consistent and significant investments. The community has been promised a fully modernized facility and 21st-century STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming to prepare our students to be future doctors, engineers, artists, and more.

Strategic investment is paramount to ensure the future of Sousa Middle School and our children. This investment must include high-quality academic programs, wrap-around services, school and community safety, and modernized facilities. The school has the potential to be a community hub with a world-class STEAM program with integrated education, health, and family support services. Middle school is a critical transition in a student’s academic journey, and by adopting a true community school model, we can address the holistic needs of our children and families. This approach recognizes that a child’s success in the classroom is intricately linked to their overall well-being.

Sousa’s large size gives us the opportunity to bring more resources into our community. We should integrate health services and job support by demanding Sousa have a school-based health center that could provide physical and mental health resources to students and families, creating an environment where they can thrive academically. Additionally, family support services create a bridge between home and school, fostering collaboration between educators and parents to better understand and address the unique challenges students may face.

We should explore offerings like classes from the University of the District of Columbia or vocational tech opportunities like the newly opened Advanced Technical Center, which offers two-year, four-course dual credit pathways in cybersecurity, health information technology, and general nursing to high school students. By fully realizing an investment in Sousa as a community school with strong academic programming, there will be dividends that pay beyond the classroom, creating a stronger, more connected community and laying the foundation for a city where every child can reach their full potential.

None of this will matter unless we address the underlying safety issues surrounding the school community. Ensuring school and community safety requires a multifaceted approach that combines proactive measures and community engagement. One solution currently in place is the Safe Passage program. At the beginning and end of the school day, trained community members are present to provide a secure journey for students traveling to and from school. By establishing a visible and supportive presence, Safe Passage programs deter potential threats and foster a sense of security. However, this is only one part of the solution. Enhancing school safety can only come with enhancing overall community safety. We must demand a holistic prevention approach for not only the beginning and end of the school day, but all day, every day for the entire community. Investing in community solutions that tackle the root causes of crime, such as poverty, mental health, and addiction, can significantly reduce the occurrence of criminal activities.

Preserving and investing in John Philip Sousa Middle School is not just a matter of maintaining a historic site or supporting a local school. It is a commitment to equality, education, and community values. With improvements in academic programs and facilities, we can ensure that Sousa continues to serve as a beacon of hope, providing future generations with the tools they need to succeed. By investing in Sousa, we invest not just in a school but in a community, ensuring every child can reach their full potential. In doing so, we honor the past and pave the way for a brighter and more inclusive future.

Eboni-Rose Thompson is the Ward 7 Representative and President of the DC State Board of Education. She is running as a democratic candidate for the Ward 7 Council seat in 2024.

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