- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Elizabeth Davis, a dedicated technology teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School in Southwest and a teacher consultant for the D.C. Area Writing Project, was about to show off her students’ projects produced as part of her “50 Days of Brown” curriculum. First, she had to brush off the plaster from the ceiling that had fallen on top of the project and the bank of computers on which the projects rested.

Her nonchalant dusting was demonstrative of the separate but unequal doctrine that still exists in many urban school districts 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education school decision. Sousa was an integral part of that school desegregation case.

In 1951, Spottswood Bolling Jr. and several black D.C. students were denied admittance to the then-all-white Sousa at 37th Street and Ely Place SE. James Nabrit Jr. and George E.C. Hayes of Howard University’s Law School sued D.C. School Board President C. Melvin Sharpe arguing that their clients’ Fifth Amendment rights had been violated. The Bolling v. Sharpe case became a companion to the other four cases that culminated in the historic Brown decision.

At that time, the black student population in the District had tripled and they attended classes in shifts while many white schools were underutilized.

“After studying the Brown v. Board case and the Bolling v. Sharpe case, we realized that the conditions of our school is not much better than the conditions of the schools for black children before Brown v. Board,” Sousa eighth-grader TaShay Watkins told members of Congress last week during a town hall meeting called by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Along with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mr. Cummings is sponsoring the bipartisan Student Bill of Rights proposal that will require states to bridge the economic and achievement gap among urban, rural and minority school districts.

“Today, Sousa is a disgrace to the community,” wrote Brittany Franklin, an eighth-grader, in her essay, which has been used in testimony before other forums including the Senate yesterday. “The reason why Spottswood Bolling wanted to attend this school in 1951 was because it was a brand-new school. Garnett Patterson, the school that he and other black students had to attend, was rundown, lacked educational materials and had overcrowded classrooms.

“We have no librarian, so our library is closed,” she continued. “When it was open, the books looked like the same books from fifty years ago. Some of the books would fall apart when you picked them up. The library only had one computer, one printer, one dictionary and no thesaurus. The school is all black with about five Latino students. So Sousa is still separate and still not equal.”

The Black Caucus meeting, “Fifty Years Later: How Far Have We Come?” will be shown on Court TV on Monday, the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision. In addition to a star-studded gala at Constitution Hall, students at Sousa will present the products and projects from their yearlong Brown studies during an all-day anniversary commemoration that features Mr. Bolling’s widow, Mary.

Sousa students will be awarded cash prizes and commendations for posters and essays on “Brown, the Next 50 Years,” and for their participation in an architectural project that saved the school. The D.C. Board of Education planned to raze and rebuild the structure until it was designated a historic landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2002. After community comment led by the students, the board agreed to spend an additional $4 million (above the $14 million slated) to renovate the original Sousa instead.

Ms. Davis said the biggest community fear now is that once the school is turned into a state-of-the-art facility, it will be sold to the highest bidder for a charter school and the current students will be moved elsewhere.

“Now they are spending more money on charter schools than public schools and that’s not right. That’s being separate and not equal,” said eighth-grader Dozje Brown on Wednesday.

Dozje, whose face is framed by a mane of auburn-tinted braids, is beautiful and articulate. She misses the diversity at her former school in Prince George’s County where “you had all kinds of people, and you could learn from their cultures.”

Dozje was among Ms. Davis’ students who attended the “Brown 101” contest and seminar that was part of Howard University’s “Brown at 50” yearlong project. The teen was excited when she answered a question that stumped college students.

One of the major reforms needed in D.C. public schools involves developing a curriculum that is engaging and exciting, in part, to discourage truants and dropouts.

Ms. Davis’ “50 Days of Brown” lesson plans are part of a national curriculum project catching hold called “Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching,” co-authored by Alana Murray and Jenice View. (www.teachingforchange.org)

“I wanted a curriculum that would connect to their experiences in their school, home and community … but it took off and they have learned also the power of collective action to achieve a goal,” Ms. Davis said.

Dozje said, “Until Ms. Davis’ class, wow, I didn’t know people went through all this just to have a friend or just to go to school. … A lot of people still don’t know about Brown v. Board and what it did for black people and white people, too.”

Despite the current problems of separation and inequality at Sousa fostered by a lack of resources, no telling what willing and capable students such as Dozje, Brittany and TaShay, who must duck falling plaster from their classroom ceiling, could accomplish if the 50-year-old promise of Brown v. Board were realized.

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