- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Despite the growing tensions among reform advocates over how best to educate young people, one group is making a difference in children’s lives outside of the norm.

The High Tea Society, founded in 1997 by retired Judge Mary A. Gooden Terrell, is a nonprofit that mentors young girls and exposes them to various educational and cultural programs, including lessons in literature, history and social skills. And, yes, they have tea.

“We really are trying to groom the girls to be responsible, to build their self-esteem, to improve their social grace and etiquette,” said Mariessa Terrell White, executive director of the High Tea Society and daughter of its founder. “We believe that when you start with them early, you can really make a difference.”

Participants range in age from 9 to 18 years old.

Shanette Williams said she has noticed a marked improvement in the self-esteem of her daughter Bianca since Bianca began participating in the program. She said her daughter had often been picked on by classmates.

“She is much better,” said Ms. Williams, who attends the University of the District of Columbia. “She has the mentality that ‘I am here to learn. I’m here to make something of myself.’ She is always saying that ‘I’m not worrying about what nobody is saying about me.’ ”

The High Tea after-school program serves 40 girls at two D.C. schools, the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School and Anne Beers Elementary School, where the girls also receive social-skills training in personal grooming habits, hygiene and health.

Judge Terrell’s idea to work with girls was sparked by an invitation to speak before an all-girl audience at a D.C. junior high school. The girls were rude and obnoxious, Mrs. Terrell White said. The organization has since developed a boys program, and it is looking for a coordinator to run it.

“You want the girls and boys to be at the same level,” Mrs. Terrell White said. “You never want to have uneven development.”

Uesa Robinson said she decided to volunteer to work with the girls in the program because budget shortfalls have caused schools to cut many classes.

“So many people don’t take the time to focus on the kids,” said Ms. Robinson, who has three grandchildren. “There are not a lot of after-school programs, period, and they’ve taken so many things out of the classroom nowadays. They’ve taken a lot of art out of the schools. They’ve taken out [physical education], and if [girls] can come to a place where they can still do that, I think it’s great.”

Joseph Young is a writer living in Washington.

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