As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I reflect on my new career path with Washington School for Girls. I am proud to join a team that has high expectations for girls, encouraging more advanced opportunities to learn and progress. I specifically reflect on women’s contributions in the classroom and the role they have played in shaping the education system at large. I think of the opening scene in the film Hidden Figures, where the female teacher of a young Katherine Johnson recognizes her talent and arranges for her acceptance and scholarship at a more rigorous school. She tells Katherine’s parents, “You have to see what she becomes.” One woman made a difference for a young girl. But that story truly began many generations earlier, when women’s courage and perseverance catapulted the fight for the right to an education for women and girls, including Black women and girls.

The Washington School for Girls is built on the philosophies of women who dedicated their lives to fighting for educational equity for girls: during and after the French Revolution, Claudine Thevenet worked to educate girls who had been orphaned by the conflict so that they could become self-sufficient; Cornelia Connelly was an innovative educator who believed in educating young women and launched a legacy of all-girls schools in the 19th century; and Mary McLeod Bethune founded numerous schools for Black students who would otherwise not have access to education while also advocating politically for increased opportunities for Black people. So often throughout history, women have led the charge for educational equity, demanding a seat in the classroom, or when not given one, creating their own learning communities.

Black women and girls served at the forefront of desegregation, laying the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education, and were some of the greatest architects during the plight for justice. The fight for educational equality was an inevitable catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement: the segregation of schools further perpetuated racial inequality and injustices, as Black schools were often under-equipped with inadequate conditions for learning. Black girls and women found themselves taking on the responsibility of advocating for change, as they committed themselves to bringing the issues of segregation to the courts. Families began independently filing lawsuits demanding the desegregation of schools, with a substantial portion of them filed on behalf of or by girls and young women.

However, too often the role that girls and young women played in the desegregation of schools goes unnoticed. They selflessly walked through angry mobs and sat in what was once an all-white classroom in the pursuit of integration. Amongst these hidden figures was a young girl, Ruby Bridges, who became one of the first African Americans to integrate an elementary school in the south. Ruby Bridges’ integration was not without challenge. The isolation, sabotage, and violence that Ruby experienced is the story of many young girls today. Last summer, the “Black @” social media movement allowed Black students to anonymously expose the many instances of racism that they experience at primarily white schools, even those schools with proactive administrations committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Thanks to phenomenal women in history, Black girls have made tremendous strides in the fight for inclusion, however, our communities continue to face educational inequity. The issues that affect Black girls' social, emotional, and spiritual growth are prevalent. The stereotypes associated with Black girls further perpetuate disparate discipline practices in schools, and oftentimes administrations’ tainted views of Black girls continue to create systemic barriers, impeding girls’ educational success and self-perception. While women still dominate the education field in the K-12 space, only 34% of university professors are women, and Black women hold less than 3% of tenured positions. As inspired as I am by the impact women have had in education, there is more work to do to ensure that the future of women and girls in schools is brighter.

Black girls need classrooms where they can simply thrive. We are called at WSG to ensure that girls have a safe space to be seen and heard by our community, and to cultivate an environment of support. Our mission, to ignite the joyful pursuit of learning and inspire faith-filled lives of purpose, leadership, and service, is inspired by gratitude for the bold and courageous women who have come before us, and our belief that each of our girls can and will shape the future. We rely on the collaboration and engagement of our community to push forth these efforts. We alone cannot solve the systemic gender and racial inequities in education: the work must continue at all levels, from the teachers in each classroom across the country, to the leadership of schools and school districts, to the philanthropists who invest in our education systems and our politicians who create education policy. We must continue to address the educational barriers that slow the advancement of girls and women in education.

Women’s History Month is almost over, but the future is female.

For the second year, our faculty and staff have used a collective book read as a way to ground and define our whole staff professional development for the school year. Last year, we read Carol Dweck’s book Growth Mindset (explored in a prior blog here), and spent the year thinking more deeply about the implications of applying a growth mindset to our work as educators and ourselves personally. Through all-school meetings and small and large group discussions, we used the book as an opportunity to connect around a common theme for our work at WSG.

This year, we’re delving into Dr. Monique Morris’s book, Sing a Rhythm Dance a Blues, as our whole school read. Dr. Morris wrote the book as a follow up to her groundbreaking research, book, and documentary Pushout, discussing the school to prison pipeline and the near crisis facing Black Girls in schools. Sing a Rhythm Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown girls creates discussion and a framework for exploring what schools could and should look like to fully embrace and support young Black and Brown girls. It is the perfect topic for us to explore as a school composed of girls of color, and is especially connected to our current exploration into defining our pedagogy and all makes WSG special each day (naming our “special sauce”). From policies and procedures to curriculum, teachers, administrators and the community that defines a school, this book has been a great springboard for our team, challenging us to explore all that needs to be uniquely considered and developed in a school that truly focuses on liberation for girls who are typically underserved in their schools.

Discussions with our WSG staff have been robust and plentiful, particularly on our own school experiences as young elementary and middle school students, the discipline policies we remembered in the schools we attended, and the impact that has on our adult selves working in schools. We’ve also explored some of the defining statements in the book (“real queens fix each other’s crowns” as an example) and how those connect to WSG students and our school environment. It has been invigorating for our staff to collectively determine ways to enhance our understanding of best practices in schools serving young girls of color, as a step towards better serving our students.

Recently, we expanded our book study by convening a book club for our WSG volunteers. Because of COVID and distance learning, our committed volunteers have not had the same opportunity to volunteer on campus with our students, and are missing the ongoing connection to WSG. We thought this book club would be a great way for our volunteers to understand, and also contribute to, the exploration that we are undertaking as a staff. Over the course of a month our volunteers read the book and joined in zoom meetings for group discussion. Since our volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds both personal and professional, it was important for us to provide insight into our student’s experiences while in school and our overall educational approach. Learning more about the experiences of Black and Brown girls through the context of broader research also provided an additional lens to understanding our students.

When we say our mission is to ignite the joyful pursuit of learning, we don't mean only for our students. We were excited to share in this ongoing learning with our dedicated volunteers and members of our community - something that we hope to continue even as we return to campus. What started as a bridge to keep us connected during COVID brought forth valuable conversations and and again demonstrated the commitment of our wider community to best understand and serve our students.

The public conversation around schools returning to campus continues to frame current education options as a simple choice: on-campus or remote, with the further suggestion that on-campus is good and remote learning is not. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced and since March 2020, every school has been challenged to find the best educational model that meets the needs of their school community. Would we all like to return to pre-pandemic times when schools were open and social distancing wasn’t part of our vocabulary? Of course, yes! But since that is an unrealistic option now, it is important for every school to find the best way for them to bring forward an educational program for their students.

At WSG, our decision making over the past several months has been clearly driven by our school mission, recognizing that meeting our students’ needs would require flexibility and a shift in resource strategy. Through ongoing surveys with our families beginning last Spring and continuing through the end of 2020, we heard our families’ concerns about students being in-person on campus. Most notably, families have felt the disproportionate impact that COVID has placed on the Black community and in particular, the high rate of unfavorable COVID metrics in Ward 8 in DC, where we are located. Families wanted to ensure a strong educational program for their daughters, while also recognizing the very real concern of keeping their families and communities healthy and safe.

As a result, we established a robust distance learning program for our students, ensuring that every girl had access to technology, reliable wifi (providing hotspots when needed), and a quiet space to work (with noise cancelling devices if needed). Our teachers have live instructional classes each day with our students, offering office hours for individual and small group support in the afternoons. The weekly schedule was rearranged to allow for social-emotional and organization skills learning and extracurricular activities on Mondays to start the week. Daily morning prayer led by students, a critically important part of our faith based school, continues virtually, allowing students and staff to come together in quiet meditation and prayer to start the school day. If students need additional support, they can meet with academic coaches individually throughout the week. The student supports available on campus have been replicated online, and our students take advantage of those opportunities. Finally, we recognize that many of our families have been particularly impacted during the pandemic, through loss of employment, food insecurity, economic vulnerabilities and so much more. With the generous support of our benefactors we’ve provided some emergency crisis funding to our families to help. We know that partnership with our families is critical to having our students show up ready to learn each day.

It is this intensive and comprehensive program that comprises WSG now - and we are proud of our results!

  • Daily attendance by students in our distance learning program averages 98% each day

  • Fall and Winter MAP testing results of students returning to WSG for this current school year indicate academic progress and growth in both reading and math, when compared to testing done in Winter 2020, testing completed pre-pandemic

  • Extracurricular activities continue, with students virtually exploring robotics, entrepreneurship, leadership, newspaper writing and more

  • Family support is strong, with continued participation in recent virtual parent teacher conferences and our Family Engagement meetings and parent education webinars, focusing on topics of interest, such as Financial Literacy

Anecdotal evidence suggests that our students feel engaged with their teachers (dropping by office hours just to chat) and continue to experience the joy of learning remotely, while also still desiring to be back on campus with their peers and teachers in person. And we agree! You can both miss being in person AND reap the benefits of a well organized virtual program.

In February, we initiated a very limited return to campus with small groups of girls, specifically focusing on those students identified who could benefit the most from the structured environment of on campus learning. We hope to continue to increase the number of students and time on campus over the next few months. Meanwhile, our primary method of education remains a robust online learning program. With both options our school families continue to be supportive and active participants in making sure our students show up for learning each day. Our teachers continue to find new ways to make learning engaging and relevant for our students and keep the connections going.

As our country continues to navigate through pandemic life, it could be that a full return to pre-pandemic operations is not likely to come for quite some time. The vaccine is promising news, but as with other COVID news, the positive indicators do not seem as widely relevant to the Black community (where the vaccination rate is lower at this early stage) - and thus our school planning acknowledges that fact. We will continue to make decisions that reflect and honor our school community - and navigate the combination of online and in-person learning that serves our students and families well. When the time is right, we look forward to a full return on campus, joyfully celebrating with our students.