Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Driving down Suitland Parkway in Anacostia, one comes across an unexpected jewel just off the Stanton Road exit. There, inspiration is waiting, tucked away in a neighborhood better known for tragic news than good news. One of the District’s most visionary projects sits in a gleaming glass-and-steel building with the letters THEARC stamped across the entrance.

Opened in 2005, the Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus is a 110,000-square-foot facility built on 16.5 acres in Ward 8. It’s is home to 10 nonprofit agencies ranging from Covenant House Washington to the Washington Ballet to the Children’s Health Project of DC, run by the Children’s National Medical Center.

Walking into THEARC, one immediately is struck by the rich range of services available to the neighborhood’s children and families. However, it’s not until one walks upstairs that the true impact of THEARC is felt.

The hall is lined with lockers, and young women are streaming from class to class in crisp uniforms. When one eighth-grader is asked her goals for high school, she immediately reels off an impressive array of choices. There is no doubt in her eyes — just confidence in the possibilities that lie ahead.

These are the students of the Washington Middle School for Girls. Launched in 1997 as an after-school program through an unlikely partnership between the National Council of Negro Women, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and the Religious of Jesus and Mary, the private Catholic school has grown to serve girls in grades four through eight.

Guided by the motto “In the Spirit of Courageous Women,” the school recruits girls from underserved communities who are at risk of dropping out of school. Eighty-eight percent of the students come from single-parent homes, and 85 percent qualify for federally funded free or reduced-price lunches.

Though the Catholic school includes morning services and prayer, its educational approach is holistic in nature, offering an academically rigorous curriculum emphasizing science, math and language arts. Individual attention, high expectations and trusting adult relationships are important parts of the equation.

The classes hold no more than 12 to 15 girls, though a peek into the classrooms shows one group of eight girls studying math while another teacher offers individual tutoring in reading.

The results are promising: Although most of the girls enter the fourth grade at least two grade levels behind in reading, the majority are reading at or above grade level by sixth grade. To date, 76 students have graduated from WMSG, with many of them going off to the city’s finer high schools, including the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Maya Angelou Public Charter School and Georgetown Day School. Ninety-five percent of WMSG’s graduates have finished high school, and the school’s full-time director of graduate support actively stays in touch with the few who have dropped out. (All alumni have her cell-phone number.)

The initial college-matriculation numbers are comparably good but not off the charts at 55 percent, leaving one wondering whether WMSG would be well-served to start its own high school.

Contributing to the students’ growth is WMSG’s commitment to leadership development and to expanding the girls’ minds and experiences. Once the school day ends at 3:30 p.m., a notable number of extended-day options are available, including courses on financial planning led by the Women’s Group of MassMutual and courses on adolescent health with doctors and nurses from the Children’s National Medical Center. There also are courses in music with the Levine School of Music, dance with the Washington Ballet and fine arts with the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Students also engage in world affairs, including developing a project to address genocide in Darfur and participating in the 51st session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, focusing on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against young girls.

Perhaps most remarkable is that the school receives less than 10 percent of its budget from taxpayer dollars — mainly in the form of participation in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. The rest of its $1.5 million annual budget is raised privately, with 25 percent coming from individuals. The school is rolling out a program for individuals or groups to adopt individual students, providing not only needed funds, but also an opportunity for mentoring.

Relationships, relevance and rigor — these often are alluded to as the critical ingredients for keeping students engaged in school. One needs to go no further than the Washington Middle School for Girls to see the results in action.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company. They can be reached at authors@lifeentrepren

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