Back to school: An opportunity to work together and learn

August 16

Burroughs School in Northeast Washington once had only white students, but it had opened to all children by 1955, when this photo was taken. (The Washington Post)

It’s almost here: the end of summer. Saying goodbye to those lazy days may be hard, but saying hello to the school year doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of great things about school: learning new things, making friends, getting time away from your little brother.

But did you know there was once a time when kids didn’t have to go to school? It wasn’t until 1918 that all kids in the United States were required to attend school. Before that, kids might have been at home every day helping their mom and dad with chores. And how fun does that sound?

So this fall, think of school in a new way. As you walk into your classroom, think about the kids and the teachers who went before you, and think of how lucky you are to have the opportunity to learn.


In 1899, D.C. public school classroom were segregated, either all black students, as this one was, or all white students. That changed in 1954, when the Supreme Court decided separate schools were not fair. (Library of Congress )
Looking back

Today, more than 46,000 students attend dozens of D.C. public schools. In 1804, when Washington’s school system began, there were only a handful of elementary schools, overseen by a board initially led by Thomas Jefferson. (Yes, that’s the same Thomas Jefferson who was president of the United States at the time.) Those first elementary schools were for white kids only. African Americans didn’t have the right to attend these schools; many were slaves.

In 1807, private schools for black children started popping up in church basements in Washington. The city opened its first public school for African American kids in 1864. After the Civil War ended in 1865, a change in the Constitution abolished slavery. But the public schools remained segregated, meaning white and black kids could not attend school together.


In 1872, one of the first elementary school buildings for African Americans, called Charles Sumner School, opened on 17th Street near Dupont Circle. The building is now a museum for D.C. Public Schools. (Charles Sumner Museum and Archives)
Charles Sumner School

In 1872, one of Washington’s first public elementary schools built for African Americans, called Charles Sumner School, opened on 17th Street near Dupont Circle. Several hundred children attended classes in the red-brick building, which was designed by well-known architect Adolf Cluss.

The Preparatory School for Colored Youth — the first African American public high school in the country — also moved into the new building. In 1877, the school held its first graduation. Frederick Douglass, a famous opponent of slavery, gave a speech at the ceremony for the 11 graduates. (The building, which held this historic event, is now a museum dedicated to D.C. Public Schools.)

As Washington’s population grew, separate schools opened for black and white children. It wasn’t until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that separate schools were unfair. Public schools would need to integrate, or accept children of all races.

Mary Thompson was in her second year of teaching at Bunker Hill Elementary School, a white school in Northeast Washington, when the law changed. African American kids began attending the school in the fall of 1954, and Thompson said the principal was uncomfortable with the change. Thompson said that none of her students, however, had a problem with it.


Constance Laws said kids today speak up more than during the years she taught in D.C. Public Schools. (From Constance Laws)

Joyce Jamison, who was an educator in the city schools for 42 years, encouraged kids to see their teachers as partners. (McGogney Elementary School yearbook)
Passionate pros

Schools have changed a lot through the years. Today, you have tools such as computers and interactive whiteboards. But what has not changed is the passion of a devoted teacher.

“Every day you could be excited going to school because you knew some good thing was going to be happening,” said Joyce Jamison, reflecting on her 42 years as a Washington educator. (She also attended the city’s public schools.)

Jamison had a few words of advice for kids. Expect that school will be fun and full of friends, she said. Also, listen, do your best and think of your teacher as a partner.

“You can learn more, enjoy more, get new things by working together,” Jamison said.

Thompson urged kids to think about their classroom as a community.

“Sometimes I have said to children at the beginning of the school year . . . think of their classroom as a little city in which everyone in it works together,” she said.

Constance Laws, who taught in D.C. Public Schools for 39 years, said kids today are different from those she taught. But that’s not a bad thing.

“Children today, they are born with the kind of . . . intelligence that didn’t exist two to three generations ago,” she said. “It’s amazing what children know.”

Kids today have opinions and speak up, and that’s good, she said.

“It makes you know the students really are listening to you,” she said. “If you can form a question, you’re learning.”

New year, new attitude

Many of the public schools in Washington are named after important people. Charles Sumner School, for example, was named for a U.S. senator from Massachusetts who lived in the 1800s and opposed slavery.

This year, before you meet your new teacher, find out something about the person for whom your school is named. Impress your teacher before you even start the year.

Learn more

D.C. public school students looking to learn more about their schools can visit the Charles Sumner School, which has photos and papers that date back to 1804.

What: Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives

Where: 1201 17th Street NW

When: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

How much? Free.

— Moira E. McLaughlin

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