One at a time, students nervously shuffled to the front of classroom 210 in Capitol Hill’s César Chávez Public Charter High School on Thursday to read poems about their neighborhoods.
Standing in front of posters with lists of what neighborhoods “must” and “should” have, the last student finished reading her poetry only moments before a small group of student “soldiers” came thundering and chanting down the hallway during an afternoon march.
While these scenes may clash with the traditional vision of a high school classroom, they are the norm during the month of June at the Chávez school, which is located at 709 12th St. SE and is part of a branch of two (soon to be three) charter schools that focus on giving students firsthand experience with public policy issues.
For the first three weeks of June at the high school, freshmen and sophomores participate in capstone projects; the “soldiers” are studying the draft, while the students in room 210, all of whom are freshmen, are participating in a study of the Capitol Hill community.
The latter undertaking, which is called the Capitol Hill Student Project, aims to identify patterns in the development of the area and prompt students to critically examine them.
“We want students to be able to look at this community and how it’s changing and [to think] about how that affects certain stakeholders,” Chávez teacher and project co-leader Christie Imholt said.
To that end, the students have gotten to know the area surrounding their school intimately over the past week as they took walking tours, visited the National Building Museum and listened to speakers from a neighborhood panel and to a representative from Neighbors United, a local nonprofit organization whose members are trying to buy the eastern branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington when it comes up for sale so that they can keep it open to the community.
More events, including a meeting with a city councilman, will take place over the next two weeks.
According to Joy Pablo, a Chávez teacher and project co-leader with Imholt, these activities will turn the spotlight on a community that has undergone some striking alterations in recent years.
“There are very clear and evident changes that have happened even in the past years with new stores opening, with new condos put up,” Pablo said.
These developments have led to a shuffling of demographics, and many people have been forced out of neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly expensive.
Imholt said the students will evaluate whether this wave of “gentrification” will bring with it positive or negative results.
By studying these changes, the students will get snapshots of Capitol Hill that do not fit neatly into commonplace perceptions of the region and may peel away at some of the glamour associated with the neighborhood’s marble buildings and intellectual ivory towers.
On Thursday, for example, when most Americans saw Capitol Hill as the site of debate on an immigration bill, for the students in room 210 it was the neighborhood fighting to save its Boys & Girls Clubs so kids can have a place to go for recreation and do not turn to crime.
According to the representative from Neighbors United, who asked that her name be withheld, this conflict in imagery is indicative of a Capitol Hill that is far from homogeneous and whose outskirts, where the Chávez school and the Boys & Girls Clubs are located, both benefit and suffer from their connection with monuments and Congressional offices.
“We benefit because we’re technically in Capitol Hill, but it’s also a detriment because people assume that we don’t need services for children, we don’t need crime intervention for children,” she said following her presentation to the class.
Because students at Chávez come from all over Washington, D.C., and many do not live in the Capitol Hill area, there will be an emphasis on the transferability of the lessons learned during the study, as was evident with the poems the students wrote and the lists that were hanging in the classroom.
When describing their desires for their neighborhoods in their poems, the common references to ice cream and block parties could have applied to any area in the country. The list of what a neighborhood should have, which included a recreation center and playground, was similar in nature.
Students who were interviewed said they are enjoying the project and that it has helped them understand what a good community should look like.
More specifically, it has shed light on Capitol Hill and helped them understand “what kind of neighborhood it is and what kind of neighborhood we can make it,” 14-year-old student Canaisha Vaughn said.
But even for their teachers, it still is not clear whether the students ultimately will approve or disapprove of the changes in the neighborhood around their school. According to Imholt, the only certainty is that she and Pablo will not try to sway them one way or the other. “We don’t necessarily have a particular result that we want them to come to,” she said.