At the Washington School for Girls, ‘the world is wide open’ to students
Mar 5, 2019
Founded by women and for women, the Washington School for Girls, located in Southeast Washington, D.C., is dedicated to closing the educational gap and expanding opportunities for girls from economically disadvantaged communities. All 135 students, who come primarily from Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, attend the Catholic school tuition-free, thanks to scholarships provided by more than 1,500 individuals who support the school.
“There is such a great commitment on the part of the adults who work here to carry out the mission,” said Beth Reaves, the school’s president. “It is why they come here; why they stay here. That’s what grounds us all.”
In 1997, the “Washington Middle School for Girls” began as an after-school tutoring and enrichment program for fourth and fifth grade girls, through collaboration between women from the National Council of Negro Women, the Religious of Jesus and Mary, and the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Over the years, the school grew in size and became a full-day program, expanding to teach girls in grades 3-8 and changing its name to simply the “Washington School for Girls.”
Now, the school that started in the basement of an apartment building has two campuses, both in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington: The VIEW Campus, holding grades 3-5, and THEARC Campus at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, holding grades 6-8. It was recently chosen out of more than 1,000 schools to be one of the four schools honored for its innovation by the National Association of Independent Schools.
“Girls of color can be underserved in a lot of ways,” said Reaves, noting that at the Washington School for Girls, they have the opportunity to gain a strong education and serve as leaders while at the school.
Brianne Wetzel, the school’s principal, began teaching at the school in 2005 and “fell in love with the mission of the school,” she said.
“I really love the mission that we are helping young girls meet their full potential,” said Wetzel.
The school goes out of their way to recruit students to their school from families who otherwise wouldn’t consider sending their kids to receive a private or Catholic education. They visit churches, attend community events, and rely on word of mouth from current school families.
Once the students enroll, the school provides support for the entire family. The school’s family relations coordinator meets once a month with the Family Action Engagement Team, comprised of parents, guardians and staff members, which plans community events like Family Fun Day. They have a licensed social worker available at each campus in order to help students and their families work through issues at home that may be impacting a student’s ability to learn.
“We believe partnerships with families is how we will create success for our students,” said Reaves. “The family is the first teacher.”
The Washington School for Girls embraces a year-round model of education, beginning in mid-July and running through mid-June, which is aimed at easing the burden on families and also at making it easier for the students to retain what they are learning. They have three two-week breaks throughout the year and four weeks off in between school years. During school breaks, they have the opportunity to participate in inter-session programs such as dance camp at THEARC through Word Dance Theater or arts integration through a partnership with the Phillips Collection.
The school also has a “leadership series” where leaders in different fields come to talk about their careers. In the library at the VIEW Campus, there is a display of famous African-American poets and authors. At THEARC Campus, the grades are split into two sections, each named after an Ivy League School or an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
“The best thing for our girls is to think they have lots of good options for their lives,” said Reaves. “The world is wide open to them.”
Makaj Tubman-Tatum, a fourth grade student at the school, said her favorite subject is math because even though “sometimes it is challenging, I can find my way through it and persevere.” She hopes to someday be an astronomer, because she also loves the solar system and stars.
Marli Hardy, another fourth grade student at the school, said she hopes to be a surgeon, “because I like helping other people.” As she works toward that goal, Hardy said she likes being at the Washington School for Girls, because “the teachers and staff have faith in you.”
“They help you when you need help,” she said. “They celebrate when you achieve something.”
One of the ways the school celebrates those achievements is through “Core Valuable Players,” awards that students get when they demonstrate one of the school’s core values: confidence, excellence, faith, goodness, joy, peacemaking, perseverance and generosity.
According to Reaves and Wetzel, part of the importance of having an all-girls learning environment is that all of the leaders are girls, including the student council, the top athletes, and the best students. Wetzel said this builds a “spirit of courageous women,” where they are not afraid to speak up and take leadership roles in the future.
“Girls are in every role in the life of the community,” she said, noting that one of the goals of the school is “to try to have every girl recognize that her voice is important,” by affirming that they are needed in the school community.
Inspired by the educational philosophy of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Wetzel said she sees the face of Christ in her students and believes they are “unique individuals who challenge themselves and grow into leaders who will make a difference in their community.”
“I love the community here,” said Wetzel, also adding that she particularly loves “the light in the students’ eyes for learning…[and] seeing them meet goals they didn’t think they’d meet.”
Because of the school’s tight-knit community, Reaves said it is impossible for anyone to slip through the cracks, and they try to give their students the message, “I need you to be fully present because you are important.”
Reaves added that because the school is Catholic, they can tell the girls, “God loves you perfectly, just the way you are.”
The students gather together every morning for prayer, and although very few of the students at the school are Catholic, Reaves said families frequently say they like that their children are able to talk about God during the school day. In addition to daily prayer, the school offers theology courses and spiritual retreats.
About half of the school’s graduates in recent years have gone on to Catholic high schools. The school supports them in their high school application process through mock interviews, preparation for high school placement tests, and navigating financial aid.
Even after they leave the Washington School for Girls, the students continue to be supported by the staff. Through their graduate support program, the school remains in contact with the student, her family, and her new school, helping to navigate any problems that may arise. Graduates of the school go on to complete high school at a rate of 99 percent, in a neighborhood where less than 50 percent of their peers do so.
Wetzel has been at the school long enough that she has started to see some of her students graduate college and go on to graduate school, to start families and to pursue careers such as teaching, nursing, business, technology, and social work. She said she enjoys seeing “where life has taken them,” and they know “the line is always open for them.”
For Quanise Wooten, who attended the Washington School for Girls in grades seven and eight, the sisterhood she experienced at the all-girls school became quite literal.
During her time at the school, she made a close friend who her family ended up taking into their home and raising through high school.
“My parents took care of her like she was another child of ours,” Wooten said.
Wooten, who now teaches third grade at the school, and said her hope for her students is “that they can empower each other and help each other,” so the support system that the school first provides for them, they can later be for each other.
Wooten said the things that she learned at the school helped her through high school, college, and the rest of her life.
“I feel like the school opens up the eyes to not just seeing things we see in our community,” she said, noting that the school takes the kids on field trips to see the monuments in downtown Washington, D.C., which many of them otherwise would not see, despite living so close.
“I fell like a lot of the people that graduated from here are doing great things,” said Wooten. “When I graduated, the school was just a phone call away.”
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.