We are concerned about our students' learning.

Let me rephrase and restate that for emphasis:

More specifically, we are concerned about the ongoing challenges that the pandemic has presented to our girls as related to their education.

Last year in August 2021, we were excited about the prospect of returning to in-person learning after having been remote for nearly a year and half. We dubbed the new year as “The Year of the Comeback,” as we readied the campus with strict social distancing measures, put a variety of health and safety protocols in place, and with mask reminders everywhere, opened our doors again on campus. Our students, families, teachers and staff were so thrilled at the prospect of getting back to normal.

For all of our careful planning, there were so many factors that we needed to see and experience first-hand before we could truly understand the impact of the pandemic on our students. Very quickly, we learned that a more apt theme was “The Year of the Pivot.” So adjust we did, assessing the social and emotional needs of our students and creating space for shared growth, shifting our academic support model to meet students where they were, and of course, responding to surges of COVID-19 within our community that changed our plans with little notice. We may have come back on-campus, but the name of the game was adapting and pivoting at nearly each step of the way.

Fast forward to now, summer of 2022. As I reflect on what might be a uniting theme for this school year, with all that we know from last year, Cultivating Success is what comes to mind. The word “cultivate” as defined is to improve, develop, to assist. It is an action word and succinctly frames how we approach our work. What we know for sure is that we need to continue to cultivate success in our students despite all of the many external factors that may present barriers to their education, including a pandemic. It’s our school mission and our clear goal.

We’ve designed our learning environment to cultivate success by prioritizing the following, which we know help our girls learn best:

  • A structured and predictable environment each school day

  • Time for them to reflect and nourish their souls

  • Clear academic success expectations and knowledge that their teachers will support their learning to success

  • An intentional focus on their emotional health and wellness

  • Attention to communication and developing healthy peer relationships

  • Repeated exposure to their future possibilities in life

  • Classrooms that support, affirm and uplift them each day

These core priorities manifest in so many ways in our classrooms - and I’ve already seen them in practice in just these first weeks of school. We welcomed our students back with a red-carpet celebration that included the encouragement and support of our friends at Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, DC United, and NCNW, who served as both cheerleaders and examples of the successful Black women that our girls will become. Our 5th grade students practice positive self-talk at the “affirmations mirror” when they enter their classroom - I recently stopped by and was directed to visit the mirror before joining in with the learning! We recently welcomed families for our Family Institute - back in person for the first time since 2019 - where we laid out a clear path for student, family, and teacher collaboration this school year. We look forward to expanding our arts offerings through partnerships this school year, and bringing volunteers back into our classrooms. Many of these are ongoing or revived traditions that have been proven to cultivate success.

This year also brings with it some changes. After 17 years, we said goodbye to our Head of School, Brianne Wetzel, as she took on an exciting new role as the Executive Director of the Connelly Center, a Nativity Miguel Coalition school in New York City. With her departure, we restructured our senior leadership team to include a new position, the Director of Student and Graduate Success, and promoted Tracy Johnson to the role. Tracy has been an educator at WSG for 5 years, originally serving as our Reading Specialist and having taken on additional project leadership roles including spearheading our instructional equity initiative last year. Tracy will collaborate with Kelley Lockard, Principal, to further develop the continuum of support for students, families, and graduates. This new structure brings several existing independent roles together on a team with a shared purpose and intentional opportunities to collaborate more deeply.

Our biggest asset is our dedicated teaching staff, who will bring so much of this vision to life this year. At a time when so many educators are experiencing burnout and frustration, and after a year that was challenging for all of us, I’m so grateful that our teachers are ready to continue cultivating success for our girls: 12 out of 13 of our classroom teachers returned to WSG this year. While our students have seen academic growth over the past several years in spite of all the challenges, we know that the impact of learning disruptions will be evident for years to come (note, for example, this year’s third grade class missed part of their kindergarten year and in most cases, the majority of their first grade year!) Creative and flexible teachers are critical as we strive to accelerate learning and make sure all our girls are high school ready.

We hope for fewer pandemic disruptions to a regular school schedule, but we are prepared after a year of many pivots, if needed. We also expect that the clear expectations for ourselves and our students to cultivate those aspects of learning that they need to achieve will always be in the forefront of our work. We can’t wait for COVID to pass; we need to continue to bring forward a strong learning environment now for each student. This year we are cultivating success at WSG.

“Please don’t ever change the love for these beautiful girls.”

“Please don’t change the student to teacher ratio. The close attention from teachers was very beneficial to my learning.”

“Please don’t change the learning curriculum and how we learn.”

~WSG 8th grade students, 5/25/22

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to understand how a school is doing is to ask the students. Students in the right environment will just tell you what they think! It’s why I’ve always hosted a lunch with our 8th graders shortly before they graduate and move on to high school. It’s been a tradition for me as a school leader and one that I was excited to continue to do at WSG. How our students experience WSG beyond what we, school leadership, say their experiences are, provides context for the ideas we put in place each year. Most importantly though, it is moments like these that ground me in my work here.

I was devastated that the COVID pandemic and remote learning interrupted this plan for the past two years, but I, along with our Head of School and Principal, recently joined our 8th graders for the 8th grade luncheon.

Graduating 8th graders are in a particularly unique position related to their school journey. As they prepare for their transition to high school, their maturity in thinking about their current school becomes more evident. At WSG they’ve been the oldest students in the school for a full year now told by adults in the community to take their place as role models for younger students. They have enough classroom, teaching and learning experiences in school to offer insight. And while they are also excited to go to high school they are also nervous to go to high school. So, WSG continues to be their familiar and safe space after they leave our classrooms. They can share their feelings, their insight, their hopes and dreams for the future and it is all grounded in their own personal perspective of being a student here.

As I threw out questions and they shared their responses, I was delighted to hear them repeat some of what we say are the best parts of WSG:

  • Small class sizes,

  • the student/teacher ratio (truly the words from one girl) and

  • the inclusion of prayer every day

were among the aspects of WSG that they felt we should never change.

Not surprisingly, the “strict” uniform policy, the lunch program (always the lunch program) and the addition of a prom were among the suggestions of changes for the future. But even within these predictable school life criticisms, the girls shared what they would see as a meaningful change.

In discussing why the uniforms feel so restrictive for example, they mentioned a desire for more self-expression in small areas (more earring choices or an option for acrylic nails) and not necessarily a complete revamp of the school uniform. It is exciting to see them at a stage in their maturity where they are able to both express understanding for aspects of WSG while also offering their suggestions for improvement.

When we are all done listening, it is a treasure trove of student feedback for me, allowing us to put words and thoughts beyond the data measurements we use to evaluate our school program. It helps to see if in fact the mission statement that we have on paper really does come alive. I appreciate the suggestions for improvement and feel a sense of pride on behalf of our staff for the positive memories they share. It brings me personal joy to see the pursuit of joyful learning alive and well at WSG.

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) joined together to declare a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.

Think about that for a moment. A National State of Emergency is primarily used in situations when there is a clear need for additional visibility and resources in order to save lives and protect citizens, such as natural disasters. By acknowledging the mental health crisis impacting children today, this group of health care providers and experts recognize the need to elevate this concern in our national consciousness in order to pay attention to our children and their overall well being.

Understanding the mental health wellness of children requires an appreciation of the overall state of a child’s thoughts and feelings; their whole person being. It demands that we as adults and their caretakers admit that anxiety and depression are important indicators of wellness, and “having the blues” can perhaps be the sign of a larger problem.

Nationally there have been reports on increase in suspected suicide attempts among adolescents and a significant increase among emergency room visits for adolescent age girls since pre-pandemic times. As someone in a school serving girls in grade 3 - 8, this is alarming. Our overall school experience also indicates an increase in mental health concerns for our students. Our school counselor in particular notes that student mental health concerns come into our hallways and classrooms, resulting in disruptive behavior at times. In addition, the pandemic has led to some of our students with an over-reliance on technology and social media and a resulting increase in anxiety.

As a school, we continue to prioritize the attention given to our students’ mental health through intentionally focusing on it as part of the school day. This is done through:

  • Scheduled time for social emotional learning, highlighting the important skills students need to be part of a community

  • Office hours for the counselor, allowing students to receive support at school, both individually and in small groups

  • Connecting with families to create a circle of support around our students

  • As a faith based school, prayer and reflection opportunities throughout the day provide spiritual nourishment

  • Peer time together with team building

  • Curriculum and a school climate that supports our students in being their authentic selves every day

Additionally, If you are reading this and want to know what else we might each do, following are a few suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that mental health concerns in children are real, and should be taken seriously in order to find support that works for each child.

  • Children need caring, trusted adults in their lives, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be their parent. Are you that person? Let them know you are there to support them. Keep communication open and talk often and openly about your concerns.

  • Promote respect and positive relationships between children and their peers. Help them to see the importance of both being respectful and being respected in their peer groups.

  • Normalize personal challenges to offset the social media “perfect life.” Children need to learn how to bounce back the inevitable bumps in the road of life. They need help in understanding that setbacks are temporary. By honestly acknowledging the challenges that we all face, children are better able form a realistic view of what it means to persist through a problem.

  • Know when to be concerned and develop your own awareness of social-emotional wellness. Be aware of what may indicate a change in behavior, lingering anxiety or depression, articulated mental health concerns from a child, and engage a professional accordingly.

The current state of our children demands that we pay attention to their overall wellness and help them continue to grow and mature into balanced lives.