Sept 13, 2021 By: Mark Zimmermann

Photographer: Andrew Biraj

Original Article:

After pivoting to remote learning during the pandemic, the new school year at the Washington School for Girls has a special meaning.

“We’re calling it a comeback,” said Dr. Beth Reaves, the school’s president.

On Aug. 2, more than 100 girls returned to in-person classes at the school, which is a tuition-free Catholic school for grades three through eight primarily serving girls of color from Wards 7 and 8.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Washington School for Girls, which began as the dream of women from the National Council of Negro Women, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and the Religious of Jesus and Mary. The outreach began as the Washington Middle School for Girls in 1997 with an after-school tutoring and enrichment program, and the next year it began offering a full-day program. Now the year-round academic program serves students at two campuses in Southeast Washington, including at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.

Reaves said the school, while maintaining its emphasis on academics and faith, has another priority as it continues serving girls and their families during the pandemic.

“We want to keep everybody safe and healthy,” she said.

That priority could be seen at its Aug. 20 Opening of School Mass celebrated by Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory at Our Lady of Perpetual Church, as students, teachers and faculty all wore facemasks and sat in alternating pews. The liturgy marked their first all-school Mass since they transitioned to a remote learning program in March 2020.

Cardinal Gregory said he was glad to be at the Washington School for Girls as they began a new year, and he said he hoped “that you will learn a lot, enjoy each other’s company, and (that) everybody will remain safe during the pandemic.”

In his homily, the cardinal said it was important for the students to do well in all their subjects at school, but he noted that Jesus in that day’s Gospel reading taught the most important priority for everyone in life, to “love God and love your neighbor.”

“If you do that, you will be a success,” Cardinal Gregory said.

Joined by Josephite Father Michael Thompson – the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help who concelebrated the Mass – the cardinal then offered a special blessing to the school’s faculty and staff, and students stood and pledged to be young ladies of faith, courage and service. Prayers were later offered for students and graduates of the Washington School for Girls, that they continue to be lifelong learners, guided by God.

In a later interview, Reaves, now in her fifth year as president of the Washington School for Girls, reflected on the school’s special mission and on the heroic work of teachers and students during the pandemic.

Reaves, who holds a doctorate in management and leadership from the University of Phoenix, and a master’s in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania, is originally from the Philadelphia area, and before coming to the Washington School for Girls, she was the head of school at the Friends School in Mullica Hill, New Jersey.

At the Washington School for Girls, she succeeded Sister Mary Bourdon, a Religious of Jesus and Mary, who helped found the school and served as the first head of school there.

“I was completely drawn in by the mission of the school,” Reaves said. “I am committed to supporting young girls on their educational journey and providing opportunities working towards educational equity for young girls of color.”

The girls’ spirit of joy “and the fact they bring their full personalities and selves to school each day,” is what she finds most inspiring about the students there.

Asked what she hopes students of the Washington School for Girls gain after graduating from there, Reaves said, “I would hope they take with them a sense of the deep commitment we have for their full success, and they feel they can do that wherever their life’s path takes them.”

Reaves said that as a faith-based school, they emphasize to the girls that their relationship with God will help them navigate the world. “We tell them frequently that God is always at their side,” she said.

As soon as the COVID-19 shutdown of local school campuses happened in mid-March 2020, the Washington School for Girls pivoted to online learning.

“We felt it was really important for us to provide a robust online program with support,” said Reaves, who said they made sure that all the girls had devices at home such as Chromebooks to connect with their virtual classes, and they helped families with unreliable internet access to get Wi-Fi hotspots. She noted that they also provided some students with noise-cancelling headphones at home “so they could have a quiet environment for school.”

During the school’s remote learning, its teachers taught students online classes live in the morning, and then they had office hours in the afternoon for one-on-one help.

The Washington School for Girls had 95 percent daily virtual attendance of its students during distance learning, and 93 percent of its students logged on to supplemental online educational programs to strengthen their academic skills outside of class. During the remote learning, the school continued to offer daily virtual prayer and faith formation experiences for its students.

“Our teachers are the amazing heroes of all of this. They worked so tirelessly from their own homes with their own commitments, to be there for our students,” Reaves said.

Some of the families of students at the Washington School for Girls included parents who were essential workers, making it challenging for them to manage virtual learning at home, while other parents worked in hospitality industries and lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“In our families there were food insecurities and economic vulnerabilities,” said Reaves, who added, “We’re a school that is completely based on philanthropy. We had some very generous donors step forward to provide emergency funding for families.”

According to the 2019-20 annual report for the Washington School for Girls, the school has more than 875 donors, 55 volunteers and numerous community partners. With the support of donors, the school was able to provide grocery store gift cards, emergency rent and utility assistance, and emergency cash grants for families out of work. The school sent a weekly digest to families to help them know about available resources from local non-profit groups and agencies.

During the pandemic, the Washington School for Girls also provided virtual counseling sessions with current students and had phone calls and virtual meetings with graduates to provide them with emotional support and spiritual guidance.

In a letter in that annual report, Reaves noted that during that challenging period, the school earned reaccreditation from the Middle States Association after 18 months of self-study and external review.

“We are most proud that we were able to keep educating our students when so many young people, particularly those of color, have been left behind,” she wrote in that letter.

A fact sheet from the Washington School for Girls notes that 98 percent of its students go on to graduate from high school, compared to a neighborhood average of 60 percent.

In her interview, Reaves said the school continues to provide its students with a strong academic and spiritual program, as students are back in class again for in-person learning with safety measures in place as the pandemic continues.

“We’re using our staff to provide scaffolding and a support structure, to get their foundations of learning” in place, to help build a successful future for them in school and in life, she said.

What does it mean to give?

August is Black Philanthropy Month, an opportunity to recognize and celebrate those in the Black community who give of themselves to support community growth. Recognizing that Black philanthropists were often not included in the perspective on philanthropy, Black Philanthropy Month was established nearly a decade ago by Dr. Jacqueline Bouvier Copeland and the Pan-African Women's Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet), to elevate visibility of on-going philanthropy in the Black community. A recent article by Ophelia Akanjo, Black Women In Philanthropy: the Art of Everyday Giving as Activism, published in the Nonprofit Quarterly furthers the discussion on philanthropy and giving in the Black community, particularly focusing on Black women's long history as philanthropists. Akanjo states “Black women philanthropists are essential to the growth of the philanthropic space and yet are often sidelined. Seemingly, some of the core guiding principles for their philanthropic activism include community building and advancement, leveraging access and equity, religion and faith, and sparking change within their communities and beyond.” She notes that Black women have always been involved in supporting families, organizations and communities, but haven’t necessarily labeled themselves philanthropists, or been included in the overall vision of philanthropy.

One definition of a philanthropist is someone who “seeks to promote the welfare of others.” Yet when you search on philanthropists, the immediate results are focused on those giving the most money. Missing are the many community developers, family supporters, champions for churches and faith based organizations and others who do indeed “promote the welfare of others.”

We need a fresh inclusive view of philanthropy.

As a Black female leader of an organization wholly focused on educational equity for girls of color in Washington DC, I have seen firsthand the generous commitment and support given to our school by Black women. In fact one of the shoulders our school's foundation rests on is Mary McLeod Bethune, a great humanitarian and philanthropist. It is through being guided by this founding spirit that the Washington School for Girls has been able to thrive in serving Black and Brown girls for nearly 25 years. Our school is 100% scholarship for our students, and as such, relies on important philanthropic support to sustain our program each year. And each year Black women with their many gifts support our school program. There is an innate desire to give of themselves often because they see themselves in the very faces and families of the students they are called to support. They remember what it’s like to be a young girl. They want to be the voice that they perhaps didn’t have at that age. They feel a desire to share their success with others. They want to use their life experiences to inspire. They feel inspired by our young girls. They want them to know that as girls of color, they are so much more than what others may say - and so very deserving of all that life has to offer.

Yet what I’ve come to notice is consistent with what Akanjo states in her article: some of the Black women who generously support our school tend not to categorize themselves as philanthropists. She further reflects on Black women “givers” throughout history stepping forward to support their communities, meeting the needs of others in their everyday lives. I think many of the Black women givers at WSG share that perspective. Even as they joined our school community volunteering with students, providing needed supplies to the school program, and yes, giving monetary donations for support they have humbly shied away from words like philanthropist and donor. They have found connections to our school personally that leads them to be here with our students. Akanjo notes that the elevated title “philanthropist” often leaves Black donors and more specifically Black women feeling like they are too small for the title because its perceived historical meaning is staked in the size of a gift. However, a philanthropist in its most plain definition is a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others.

An inclusive view of philanthropy would now consistently include the many ways that people connect with and share their time, treasure and talent to support organizational and community growth. Black women, as givers--as philanthropists, are an important segment of philanthropy. Recognizing them, calling them to the proverbial giving table allows more Black women to see their own giving as philanthropic. They need to see themselves through others that are a reflection of themselves. We can do this by honoring more Black women givers at galas for their contributions, expanding our definitions of major gifts to include more than just a top dollar amount--meaningful gifts can have a lasting impact on an organization and an individual, and by actively asking Black women to give to organizations.

Updated: Sep 2

The motto of the Washington School for Girls is “In the Spirit of Courageous Women.” Inspired by the spirit of three women in history, WSG's co-founders established an organization that would bear the legacies of that spirit. These Founding Spirits (Cornelia Connelly - Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Mary McLeod Bethune - National Council of Negro Women, and Claudine Thevent - Religious of Jesus and Mary) were intentionally chosen by WSG co-founder Sr. Mary Bourdon, RJM, and other courageous women as they collaborated in the late 1990s to form a Catholic school for girls in Ward 8. The essence of these women’s lives permeates the school’s spirit today - with a focus on perseverance, generosity and a commitment to education. As a school for girls led by women committed to their success, WSG is a vision of collective support for our students. Additionally, by regularly highlighting courage demonstrated by both women in history and women in our school and current lives, students are able to see varying perspectives.

It seems completely appropriate then to share with our students recent examples of courageous women, particularly young women of color that they see in the news. Gymnast Simone Biles stands out right now as an exemplary example as her recent olympic journey has been widely featured in the news. Recent events detailed how she arrived at the Tokyo Olympics a highly decorated and favored athlete, expected to win events and medals, securing success for herself and leading the USA gymnastics team. Simone decided to take a step back from the competition, focusing instead on her mental and physical health, thereby creating space in the gymnastics arena for others to earn medals and shine. And finally when she returned to competing at the tail end of the Olympics gymnastics segment, she participated in just one event. Biles took control of her own narrative and defined her boundaries. After performing, she received a standing ovation from athletes in the venue and a bronze medal. What she shared regarding this experience reflects her courage and spirit: “It means more than all of the golds because I’ve pushed through so much the last five years and the last week while I’ve even been here” further noting how proud she was of herself for the accomplishment.

And so, with this Olympic journey, Simone Biles creates a current version of a courageous woman for our young girls to see and understand. She put herself and her mental and physical health first. “At the end of the day, we’re human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” says Biles. She demonstrated a commitment to her own wellness and self care before agreeing to work to meet others’ expectations. She showed that by continuing to work towards personal goals, even shifted goals, you can achieve success that makes you proud - and acknowledge all that you know you’ve overcome.

At WSG we shifted back to in-person learning this week with our students and are thrilled to be present with them again. While the school environment has changed with needed safety protocols (masks, social distancing, etc). there is nothing like the positive energy of students in a school building to feel inspired in your work. As the school year unfolds and we continue to reinforce our school climate as one that positively affirms young girls of color, we can hold up Simone Biles as a current role model demonstrating the boundary setting needed for self-preservation and an intentional focus on wellbeing as a measure of success. Simone Biles also displayed the perfect combination of personal yet outward expression of joy, perseverance and success, especially as a gift to oneself - a great example for our students.