High School Students’ Fight for School District Equity Fueled by a Classroom Unit on Gentrification

By Cierra Kaler-Jones

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Picture high school students filing into a school boundary town hall meeting for their local school district. They sit down amongst parents, community members, administrators, and teachers, waiting patiently for the opportunity for public comment. As the meeting breaks into small group discussion, students disperse and share their concerns about the racism and segregation they witness in their own community. They not only draw from their powerful and moving personal experiences, but tie in literature, examples from history, and data.

As Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) deals with contested debate over their school boundary lines, students are at the forefront of lobbying for the school boundary study to focus on diversifying schools. This is the first time in at least 20 years that the district is looking at changing the boundaries and some students have argued that equitable access to resources could help to end the de facto segregation of their schools. Many of the students have used their understandings of gentrification and housing segregation to address how race, class, and overcrowding affect school boundary lines in their community. The students are thinking critically about social justice issues and working as active agents to create change.

Where did it all start?

The classroom.

Neha Singhal, a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School (MCPS), teaches an anthropology course as both an elective and as part of their International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which features a unit on gentrification.

Singhal shared about the anthropology course,

It's really important that my students know that change is not only possible, but being driven by  grassroots organizing wherever there is injustice. Another thing that's important in my classroom is to ask difficult questions and not rely on dominant narratives to understand complex issues.

In the class, students read an article that captured local parents’ negative opinions about MCPS boundary changes, which fueled their desire to ensure their voices, stories, and input were heard. The discussion of the article, coupled with larger class conversations about the social reproduction of racism, classism, and sexism in schools, set the stage for students to speak out.  

To further build on their learning, about 45 junior and senior high school students from John F. Kennedy High School, with social studies teachers Neha Singhal and Sarah Park, visited Washington, D.C. to hear from Dr. Sabiyah Prince about gentrification in the city. As part of Singhal’s and Park’s anthropology courses, students read Prince’s book, African Americans and Gentrification in Washington, DC: Race, Class and Social Justice in the Nation’s Capital. Inspired by both her organizing work with Empower DC and her commitment to sharing stories of local Washingtonians, Singhal reached out to Prince to facilitate a dynamic discussion with students about power, privilege, and gentrification in the nation’s capital.

Prince told students about the history of the term gentrification, showed before and after pictures of gentrified areas, and examined different displacement scenarios, such as the demolition of public houses, high rent, and homelessness. She described her personal experiences growing up as a D.C. native and how she never learned about the rich history of her community during her years in school.

She asked the group,

Why do you think D.C. hasn’t been studied as much or in the same way as other major cities?

One student replied thoughtfully,

They probably talk mostly about policymakers and the federal government, but not so much the people that live here.

Prince continued by describing when researchers did talk about people who lived in D.C., they would talk about it from a deficit, or negative, view where they focused on crime and poverty.

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Students asked critical questions about immigration and gentrification, about how local businesses get pushed out of areas, and about the effectiveness of journalism and anthropology when sharing information about social issues. Their insightful questions reflect the work they’ve been doing all year to learn about anthropology and the effects of gentrification.

Following the dialogue, students went on a walking tour of the U Street area. As students stopped to take pictures in front of the many colorful murals, they engaged in reflective conversations about the impacts of gentrification. They noted local business’s signs that read “Closing Soon” and compared that to new high-rise apartments being built just around the corner.

After they visited D.C. staples, like Ben’s Chili Bowl and Oohh's & Aahh's, they ended the walking tour at Shaw’s Metro PCS – the site known for proudly playing go-go music, which originated in D.C. Singhal mentioned how students talked about the #DontMuteDC demonstrations and how the community banded together to create a petition and ultimately secured their right to continue to play go-go music after a nearby resident threatened to sue. Students were able to visibly see examples of the material they have been studying in class.

This anthropology course is a powerful example of a transformative learning opportunity where students think deeply about, connect, and apply what they’re learning in class to the world around them.


Cierra Kaler-Jones is the Education Anew Fellow with Communities for Just Schools Fund and Teaching for Change. She is also a Ph.D. student at University of Maryland, College Park studying minority and urban education.

Mykella Palmer