On a cool but sunny morning in late October, sixth graders explored historic sites in the Tenleytown neighborhood as part of a year-long initiative that will introduce the class to the history and culture of every one of DC’s eight wards.
Ninth grade students acted as tour guides, sharing with their younger peers what they had learned from their own history class research assignments. These types of interactions are among the many perks of having the School’s divisions on one campus, said Leigh Tait, director of the School’s Community Engagement and Experiential Learning (CEEL) office, which oversees the program, also known as the Sixth Grade District Corps.
“The purpose of including the ninth graders is to connect students with peers from other divisions, to allow high schoolers the opportunity to show off what they've learned during their history ‘neighborhoods’ unit, and to deepen the bond between our students from all divisions and the Tenleytown neighborhood,” Leigh said.
The students and chaperones kicked off the day by walking from the GDS campus to the grassy hills of Fort Reno Park, where they stood in the shadow of its medieval-looking towers at the highest natural point in Washington, 429 feet above sea level.
“We had about 20 minutes in class to plan our route,” said Ethan McKenzie ʼ27, who wrote a paper about the history of Fort Reno with classmate Lena Cole ʼ27. Ethan and Lena explained how the Civil War-era fort–known as Fort Washington when it was created in 1861–was built on that particular spot because of its high elevation, which served to oversee and protect Rockville Pike (now called Wisconsin Avenue). The name was changed to Fort Reno in 1863 in memory of Major General Jesse Lee Reno, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of South Mountain.
The students’ history lesson included Cold War-era trivia, including how the White House Signal Agency made Fort Reno a top-secret communications facility, concealing a radar dish in one of the towers.
The group also visited a few historic houses in what used to be a thriving Black community known as the Reno neighborhood. Beginning in the 1920’s, real estate developers destroyed the neighborhood in order to grow the surrounding all-White suburbs. By 1951, nearly nothing of the original community remained but a few houses.
The last stop in the neighborhood was the Tenleytown historic mural, a familiar fixture to neighborhood residents. Portions of the mural, entitled “Tennally’s Town: My, How You’ve Grown,” were painted to depict sepia-toned photos, a nod to the neighborhood’s Civil War-era history. The mural also captures modern developments, including part of a map of the Metro, and two of the neighborhood's public schools.
The students gathered for a group photo in front of the mural, blending in as if to demonstrate that they were a new, living part of the neighborhood’s history.