DC’s 'Social Justice School' Empowers Students to Create a More Just World

When Myron Long and his wife welcomed their daughter Honor into the world, the less-than-perfect state of Washington, DC’s public school system became uncomfortably relevant. Conversations weighing the pros and cons of sending their child to a traditional public school or a charter were no longer entirely theoretical. In a few years, Honor would join the more than 90,000 students attending DC public and DC charter schools, and the nation’s capital remained in need of significant reform. As a veteran educator, Myron wanted his daughter, as well as other children across DC, to have access to high-quality education that provides students with the skills required to create “a more just world.”

Alongside a team of passionate and experienced educators, he created the Social Justice School, a fifth-through-eighth-grade charter institution with unique and specialized curriculum that focuses on equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to confront contemporary social justice issues. As a longtime educator and former principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, Myron is the perfect candidate for navigating Washington DC’s bureaucratic approval process for new charter schools. Charter schools represent an appealing alternative to traditional public education for families who believe neighborhood schools fail to adequately prepare students — especially those of color — for the modern world. The lack of educational options in DC often causes families to enter the lottery system, which places them on individual school waitlists of up to 1,000 students for extended periods of time in hopes of gaining access to the limited supply of quality seats at select DC schools.

At his previous institution, Myron noticed students learned most efficiently when they could “find a connection between what they learned and the real world.” For example, when the then-principal introduced students to texts and seminars relating to police brutality, race, and equity, the classroom became a far more engaging environment.

The unique educational experience Myron provided ultimately inspired his students to create a podcast entitled The Reality of Intersectionality, which explores relevant issues such as race, gender, equity, and immigration.

The mission of the Social Justice School is “to catalyze and integrate a community of scholar-activists who are designers of a more just world,” says Myron.

Here, students aren't simply prepared for economic success, but to “make the world a better place.” He strongly believes that every child deserves a quality education “regardless of the neighborhood or the ward they live in,” and, with this vision in mind, Myron and his team created the Social Justice School. As the Social Justice School began to take form, Myron’s team, which he calls a “community of designers,” sought to build a school “with the community and not for them.” The team conducted over 100 “empathy interviews” to get a better understanding of what the community wanted in an ideal middle school. The Freedom Academy, which acted as a pilot program for the Social Justice School, led students through 12-week courses on the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. After years of this kind of planning and preparation, and following the defense of the school’s charter application, the Social Justice School was finally approved to begin serving 150 fifth and sixth graders across multiple wards in DC, starting in August 2020. At full capacity, the school will serve 300 students from fifth through eighth grade.

The Social Justice School will be “diverse and integrated” by design, says Myron. It’s unique location in Ward 5 will enable students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds to share an educational space. Myron believes many young people today limit civic engagement to voting and protesting. To combat this trend, the school hopes to produce students who are “not just knowledgeable about social justice issues, but deeply committed to making a change.” Students will benefit from high-quality teachers, research-based curriculum, as well as “acceleration and intervention as needed.” To achieve this end, Long plans to create The Social Justice Makerspace within his new school. It will serve as an area in which students have the chance to “create and implement solutions to the issues they’ll be studying in their class.” Every cohort at the institution will also take a field trip to one of Alabama’s Civil Rights museums to gain real-world context about the history learned inside the classroom.

Three primary components define the school’s unique model. The first element is “Crew,” which seeks to create a coalition of justice-minded students, families, and teachers with similar goals.

The second component, “Learning Exhibitions Rooted in Social Justice,” utilizes DC’s historic landscape as a backdrop to “explore issues that matter most to our children, such as gentrification, mass incarceration, and immigration.” Finally, in the “Liberatory Design Lab” students have the opportunity to make changes in their communities. The school will also document student achievement in a more equitable fashion.

“We want to be measured by the amount of growth that our students obtain while they’re with us,” Myron says. “We don’t want to create a culture where we are solely focused on a select group of students achieving. We want to hold ourselves accountable to our most vulnerable students.”

DC is currently embroiled in a controversy surrounding charter school expansion. As DC Public Schools and charter school leaders battle it out over the best way to successfully respond to changing student populations and evolving educational landscapes, it’s clear that the Social Justice School will certainly fill a large gap for the communities it will serve. For the school to be successful in empowering youth to confront important issues, Myron says, “We need ambassadors, co-conspirators, and financial resources.” The Social Justice School is also looking to put together a “Street Team,” to help others understand what makes the institution so unique.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.