Changing Perspectives: Zach Taylor ’17 Shepherd Intern Zach Taylor explores a holistic approach to middle school education at the Washington Jesuit Academy.
In the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas police officers killed at a Black Lives Matter protest in early July 2016, the school counselors at Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA), where black and Hispanic students constitute the entirety of the student population, decided to have a school-wide discussion led by teachers about the recent violence. As a teaching assistant at WJA, I decided to observe a discussion facilitated by a pair of my teacher-friends, one a white woman and the other a black man, with the seventh grade students whom I taught on a regular basis. In the middle of our conversation, a discussion broke out about stereotypes. For the first time in a public forum, I was called out for my whiteness. “All white people aren’t bad,” the black teacher, Mr. Shepperd, assured the students. “I mean, look at your teachers. Look at Ms. Mallahan, look at Mr. Taylor. They’re nice people. They’re not racists.” The students burst into laughter. I suppose it disoriented them somewhat to consider that their white teachers could actually represent whiteness. For a brief moment, I felt as if my skin color defined me, and that was the first time that had happened because of the privilege I enjoy as a white man in twenty-first century America. It is a privilege that my seventh grade students, who live at the intersection of oppression with respect to both race and class, do not enjoy.
In the end, I walked away from our discussion about police brutality and systemic oppression energized and hopeful, both for the future civic engagement of my students and at the possibility of respectful social justice dialogue between students and teachers in other American schools. This kind of social engagement is not uncommon at WJA, which is a truly special place. Out of all fifty states and the District of Columbia, where WJA is located, D.C.’s public academic performance ranks dead last. As a private, tuition-free, middle school for boys, WJA thereby seeks to address low-income students’ academic concerns before they enter high school, beginning ideally in the fifth grade. In order gain admittance to the school, students must, among other things, qualify for the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program, and private donors sponsor each student to cover the costs of his tuition. The WJA education model is rigorous; students attend school for eleven months of the year, including the mandatory summer program. During the regular school year, students are in school eleven hours a day and receive breakfast, lunch, dinner, and extracurricular enrichment all in addition to academic instruction. During the summer program, students are in school for approximately six hours each day and receive breakfast and lunch, attend three classes, participate in clubs and intramural athletics, and visit Smithsonian museums or the Botanic Gardens on field trips. For perspective, WJA students spend approximately 2,050 hours in school each year—approximately a thousand hours more than their peers at public schools.
WJA’s commitment to the Jesuit philosophy of cura personalis, or care for the entire person, may not be evident to those not working at the school, but it constitutes an important part of its mission. While WJA is first and foremost an academic institution, its administrators, faculty, and athletic coaches are all deeply committed to addressing almost all of students’ needs—academic, athletic, artistic, religious—and their emotional well-being. For instance, every school day at WJA starts with a ten-minute speech by one of the faculty that focuses on a theme for that week. Themes this past summer included “Being Open to Growth,” “Grit,” and “Being Men and Women for Others,” the latter a core Jesuit value that students and faculty constantly try to embody, regardless of their faith. These speeches, carefully prepared by the teachers that give them, typically touch upon students’ achievement goals in the classroom, on the sports field, for the future, and at home. WJA students pay impressive attention to their teachers during these speeches and sometimes reference them in the classroom. I am inclined to think that they actually influence students’ attitudes and behavior in and out of school. This morning ritual represents the unique way in which WJA pays careful attention to the lives of its students.
Students’ families also play a critical role in supporting their children’s academic, athletic, and extracurricular achievement and intellectual and emotional growth. Through its Home to School Association, a board dedicated to parental involvement that parents exclusively govern, WJA strongly encourages its students’ parents or other relatives to volunteer at school events, attend teacher appreciation lunches, and facilitate summer barbeques, one of which I had the privilege to enjoy during my internship. As Marcus Washington, headmaster of WJA, told Shepherd interns at the Frueauff Opening Conference at Marymount University, these volunteer opportunities ensure that parents have a stake in their children’s education, even if they do not pay for tuition. Rather than entrusting this education to WJA faculty and staff alone, parents work alongside teachers and counselors at community events and at home in a concerted effort to foster students’ continual development.
Notably, WJA continues to look out for its students beyond their middle school years. The Director of Graduate Support, Howard Blue, is a consistent presence on WJA’s campus; this past summer, he hosted an internship program through which alumni learned leadership skills and helped with the summer program as chaperones and mentors. Beyond this, alumni frequent WJA regularly to play basketball, use its gym, or simply to talk with their former teachers. I actually had the chance to meet many of WJA’s past graduates, who have all encountered academic and extracurricular success in high school and who deeply appreciate the education they received at WJA. Their testimony, perhaps more than any statistical data, speaks volumes about the efficacy of WJA’s rigorous academic program.
As a future educator, I wanted to intern at WJA not only to learn more about the education system in the United States, but also to have an opportunity to actually teach at the front of a classroom. Fortunately, the teacher in whose classroom I helped, Mr. Brace, encouraged me to teach a number of classes on my own. I even had the chance to craft a few lesson plans myself with the help of material provided by Mr. Brace. In our seventh grade “Reading” class, students and I read Joseph Lekuton’s autobiography Facing the Lion, his coming-of-age story as a Maasai warrior in Kenya. The conversations I facilitated at the end of each chapter I taught, through which students compared their lived experiences to that of Lekuton in Kenya, helped engender curiosity in multiculturalism, social justice, and globalization. As a classics and philosophy major, I found these discussions with my seventh grade students truly enriching and not unlike those shared in seminar classrooms at Washington and Lee. Clearly, the teachers at WJA foster this kind of intellectual growth on a regular basis, evident by my students’ genuine enthusiasm to learn. On a practical level, teachers also promote civic engagement in the classroom. After the July shootings, for example, one teacher encouraged her eighth grade students to write letters to their respective city council members with questions or suggestions about police brutality. I respect the faculty I worked with immensely; the commitment, energy, and patience they demonstrated day in and day out substantively impact the lives of their students.
I had never taught middle school before, and I was so impressed with my seventh grade students’ level of engagement with the material we worked through together. As a teacher, facilitating conversations was fun, mostly because my students were always eager to add their acute insight to our discussions about race, culture, and their own lived experiences. WJA demonstrates that with the proper resources, dedicated teachers, and consistent structural support, students from low-income families can excel in school and often attend college. Ninety-eight percent of WJA students, for example, have graduated from high school. Most importantly, the achievements of its students upend stereotypical assumptions about the academic potential of low-income students of color in urban areas. While WJA may not address the systemic issues that afflict the Washington, D.C. education system, it can nevertheless serve as a model for elected officials seeking to craft education policy at the state and federal level. Just as WJA’s private donors invest heavily in its students throughout their time in middle school, we as citizens should collectively invest more in public education across the United States. The consequences may very well reflect those positive outcomes facilitated by WJA and its remarkable faculty and staff.
WJA can provide its holistic liberal arts curriculum in tandem with enriching extracurricular activities and specialized one-on-one student counseling in large part due to its small size and extended school day model. Not every public middle school in the United States can serve only one hundred students for eleven hours a day over the course of nearly ten months and offer a mandatory summer program. In addition, private sponsors individually fund each student’s tuition cost of $18,000 per year for three or four years, whereas per pupil spending in the United States was $10,700 on average in 2013.* Still, public schools across the country can emulate WJA’s dedication to the Jesuit philosophy of cura personalis with what limited resources they have by introducing social justice concerns and issues pertaining to civic engagement in their classrooms. While this may require additional training for teachers, I am confident that with the right resources states can integrate this approach into their official curricula.
The deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers were tragic. The hateful rhetoric propagated by those unwilling to listen to the lived experiences of people of color in the wake of those murders was disheartening and frustrating. While it is so easy to lose heart, to disinterestedly consume news of violence day after day, I caught a glimmer of hope at Washington Jesuit Academy in the midst of a violent summer across the world, as my students demonstrated time and again their commitment to productive social justice dialogue. My internship made me realize that, as a teacher, I can fulfill a critical role in those kinds of conversations, especially at a school like WJA that fosters a safe space for students to express themselves without scorn or ridicule.
*“Per Pupil Spending Varies Heavily Across the United States,” United States Census Bureau, accessed August 30, 2016, http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-98.html. I should note, as the title of this article indicates, that per pupil spending varies widely in different states. Whereas New York spends $19,818 on each of its students, Utah spends $6,555 on each of its students.