Edmund Burke School at center of Van Ness shooting

Placeholder while article actions load

When Laura Manatos first toured the Edmund Burke School, she immediately knew it was the right fit for her daughter. Other prep schools in the DC area seemed too demanding and competitive, but she felt that Burke valued each student, wanting to understand how the students view the world.

She enrolled her 10th-grader, Sienna, at the beginning of the academic year — and the teen has loved it.

Last week, Burke — a private school of 220 middle- and high-schoolers located on the Connecticut Avenue corridor in the nation’s capital — was thrust into the national spotlight after a gunman sprayed more than 200 bullets out of an building, shattering the glass walkway that connects the campus’s buildings. No one was killed, but one child and three adults, including the school’s security guard, were injured. Two of the victims remain in critical condition Monday.

DC police Chief Robert J. Contee III said the meaningful shooter, 23-year-old Raymond Spencer, had his sights on Burke, but police have not established a motive or a connection between the suspect and the school.

“The school was certainly in his crosshairs,” Contee said.

Their classmates were murdered, then they took the SATs: How gun violence shapes academics

Burke, founded in 1968, bills itself as a “progressive, college prep school” that features an “inclusive environment” for students in grades 6 through 12. At each grade level, Burke students undergo a year-long “integrated civics, equity, and leadership curriculum, grounded in social justice pedagogy.” The school was founded at the height of the civil rights era, and its founders wanted an education that would imbue students with a sense of civic responsibility. They named the school after Edmund Burke, a British philosopher and politician who supported the American Revolution and opposition.

The school, which costs about $45,000 a year to attend, says it devotes 15 percent of its annual budget to financial aid. Burke uses a needs-blind and needs-based admissions process — applicants’ financial status is not considered in the application process, and aid is distributed based on need not merit — and more than a third of its students receive financial aid.

Its four-story building front on Connecticut Avenue in the Van Ness neighborhood is wrapped with large windows and connects to the high school through the elevated glass-enclosed bridge named after Albert Einstein.

“It is progressive-minded, it cares a lot about social justice and belonging for adults and students and making this world a better place,” said Jennifer Danish, a former member of the Burke Board of Trustees, whose two children graduated from the school . “It’s extraordinary; it’s a really special spot.”

Burke is the type of school, parents said, where students call their teachers by their first names, an attempt to create close relationships between students and staff. Typically, the students choose what social causes the school will support. Guests at back-to-school nights can purchase books for incarcerated parents so they can read to their children.

In her first year at the school, 16-year-old Sienna has grown more confident and more comfortable advocating for herself and others, able to navigate sensitive conversations about politics, sexuality and race.

Active-shooter training appears to have saved lives in Oxford

“It’s full of creative thinkers, social justice-learning kids,” said Manatos, her mother, who lives in Bethesda. “There’s more of an eccentric feel there, a come-as-you-are feel.”

The school is a block away from the Van Ness Metro train station, and students travel by Metro to field trips on the Mall and to join downtown concerns. Many participated in the 2018 student-led March for Our Lives protest, which called on Congress to enact stricter gun-control laws to end the nation’s more than two-decade stretch of campus shootings.

Although violent crime is less common in this upper-income portion of Northwest Washington than other city neighborhoods, Burke is just the District’s latest school community shaken by gun violence. Earlier this month, a Roosevelt High freshmen, Malachi Jackson, was fatally shot near the Columbia Heights Metro station. In 2019, bullets punctured the lobby windows at Hendley Elementary in Southeast Washington as students sat inside the entryway waiting for a movie night to begin.

The city’s schools are frequently placed on short lockdowns because of everyday gunfire in neighborhoods, although this is the first shooting in recent memory that appears to have targeted a school.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sousa Middle in Southeast Washington was placed on lockdown for 25 minutes, police said, as multiple gunshots were reported nearby. A spokesman said no one was found injured, but at least one vehicle was struck.

“The vast problem that this shooting highlights has been on our mind a long time,” Danish said. “Burke shouldn’t be special, this happens all the time across the country, but it’s shattering to the sense of safety and joy at the school.”

Daily life at Burke rested on that sense of safety. Every day, older students are walking around Connecticut Avenue, eating out for lunch during the day. While the school’s athletic facilities are under construction, students walk to their physical education classes at a nearby Gold’s Gym.

An important part of its identity is that it’s close to a Metro, said Amy McNamer, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which supports 76 private schools in the region. “People can travel to it from all over the city.”

The Burke school has not yet resumed classes since the shooting. But parents and students have gathered on their own, supporting each other as they navigate the aftermath of the tragedy.

So many parents have reached out to the staff that it sent a note to families saying staff members were overwhelmed by the offers of support and to stop sending them. Instead they directed parents to a centralized Web page where they could list their ideas of how to help the school. Parents could post articles on how to process the tragedy or start a meal train for a family that was particularly affected.

On Monday, Laura Manatos and her daughter met at a park with other parents and students to talk about what happened, a necessary and therapeutic gathering, she said.

Sienna, who was on the glass bridge when the bullets pierced the building, said she is anxious about returning to the campus. Since the shooting, Burke staff has been texting and checking in to make sure she is okay.

“The amount of comfort and safety I feel at the school gives me great hope to reenter school,” Sienna said. “And be able to walk over that bridge.”

Leave a Comment