Shifting a school to distance learning has revealed an important truth: small school communities are essential too - to students, to their families and to all of the educators who comprise the community. I raise this now as our daily discussion is infused with conversation and knowledge about what are considered essential services as the country, individual states, and communities consider expanding services and access as stay-at-home orders are lifted.

There is no disputing that our health care workers, first responders, food service workers, delivery people and others are among the most essential services for each of us during this pandemic. These selfless workers help us survive, both in our homes, and in health care facilities. We agree they are essential because our survival, our physical health, depends on them. It is clear to me in that same vein, that our small school communities are also essential. Good schools are more than just a place of learning academic subjects - they are an important community of humans connected together. Students build and form relationships with their peers and trusting adults at school. They learn how to interact with each other, respect others, navigate through adolescence, form friendships, and endure the hardships that come with those relationships.

Schools are also the place where children learn to strengthen connections outside of their family with other trusting adults. Schools help children discover what they are good at, what they like and don’t like. Children learn to negotiate and advocate for themselves and others at school. In smaller schools in particular, students are seen and known throughout the school. Teachers know each student by name, even those that they don’t teach. They know their families, their extended families, sometimes even their pets.

A school can also be a place of refuge for some students. It may be where they find acceptance, care and support beyond their families. It may be where they learn what their own personal strengths are; what supports their emotional health and strengthens their core. Fundamentally, there is an energy in a school that can’t be duplicated in other settings, that comes from a shared purpose of being together. Students in small school communities often describe their school community as their family.

And so during this time when school buildings are closed, it is even more critical that we are able to find a way to duplicate the important community features that many of our schools offer. I’ve read recently about many great examples of how schools have done just that, such as:

  • Providing regular on-going video chat opportunities for even young students, allowing them to both see and interact with their teachers and just as importantly, with each other.

  • Continuation of important school traditions, with creative remote spins. Remote prayer services and virtual or drive-by celebrations provide important connections to some of the best traditions of a school.

  • Informal distance activities with students such as teacher led bedtime stories, lunch bunch with counselors, socially distant dances, and more provide a social outlet for students and continue those important relationship connections that exist within a school.

Community building continues at great schools during these times. They continue to create the hope that students need to know that things will eventually get better. Many small school communities have extended themselves beyond what seems feasible during a pandemic to reach their students - with limited staffing and resources available. And so, I’d like to acknowledge that schools, while physically closed right now, are still very much open to supporting the ongoing growth of our children.

As the COVID-19 crisis has deepened so quickly throughout the US this week, the questions we have continued to ask ourselves at WSG are "how can we support our girls when we can’t be with them right now? How can we continue their education, be the friendly faces they see each day, and be a continual partner with their family, during incredibly challenging circumstances? How do we provide the reassurances that children need during this time to let them know it will all be okay, even when we feel so unsure ourselves?"

Every school is wrestling with their own decision-making on meeting the needs of their students, given their own school culture, climate and capabilities. For WSG, we wanted to keep our school mission in the forefront of our decision making, trying to do as much as we could to support our students and their families knowing the important role that WSG plays for so many.

As a result, some of our key decisions were:

Learning Continuity - To the extent possible, we want to keep students connected to their teachers and to each other during this time. Virtual classrooms are video enabled, allowing our students to see their teachers, ask questions and chat with friends. To accomplish this, we’ve continued to reach out to families to ensure students have appropriate technology at home, and if not, we provided it. It is important for children to feel the same supportive community around them, and we know our teachers are a source of that stability.

Structure and Consistency - Our virtual school day starts with student-led morning prayer, much like the day on campus. Students follow a schedule set by their teachers, with specific times to check in and office hours when they can be in live conversation with their teachers to get help. Classroom sessions allow them to see and interact with each other, and the girls have received information on classroom expectations while online. Consequences for not following those in the online classroom? A teacher may “mute” a student, allowing them to still see the classroom activities, but not interact, if unable to constructively participate without distracting others. We are all still finding how to adapt to a new classroom and learning experience, and yet the expectation that students will positively participate in class remains the same. Teachers and/or our school counselors may connect with any families individually when there seems to be prolonged difficulty for any student.

Checking In and Feedback - Each day, there has been a survey sent along to teachers to understand what is going well, what isn’t going well. We’ve held an open parent webinar to hear their thoughts and followed up at the end of the virtual week with a survey for them as well. We’ve tried to diagnose and solve as many technology problems as we can and parents have indicated they appreciate the support for them at home. The girls are their own best advocates as well! They’ve emailed their teachers, raised their hands virtually and indicated when they aren’t able to follow along. We’ve made changes to adapt to the feedback, and will continue to do so, understanding that hearing from students and families on how this is going on their end is an important indicator of our effectiveness.

Creating Community - Perhaps the biggest challenge has been identifying ways to recreate the WSG community that we all experience when we are not physically together. Starting the day with our Morning Prayer is an important part of that, as it mimics prayer at school. Hearing the students’ voices leading our prayer and seeing that there are over 100 others logged in at the same time to participate, is so warming to me in my home, and gives us all a sense of our community all together at the same time. Sharing the commitment to our students, providing opportunities for students to interact with each and their teachers, letting families know that we are there for help, supporting and learning from each other as educators, are all reflective of our WSG community and our core values of goodness, generosity and faith.

This crisis has forced us as educators to focus on being flexible in understanding how we might best serve our students now and to determine what is most important each day. What they are learning curriculum-wise and how that paces through the next few weeks may need to adapt as we assess the effectiveness of our distance learning, assessing what has not gone well. We hope that we will get back on campus with our girls during this school year, however, that is a big unknown at this point. We are proud of what we have done to provide for their education in the meantime. And we also know that at this time among the most important lessons we can deliver to our students is that WSG, and all the many adults who comprise our school, cares for them and remains committed to their learning, even during the most difficult circumstances.

Women’s History Month presents the perfect opportunity to pay tribute to all the many women in our school history that helped create the school we enjoy today. WSG was formed in 1997, the brainchild of a group of women who were inspired by women in history to serve, nurture and educate young girls. Southeast Washington, D.C. was chosen as the location for WSG: the co-founders felt it essential for WSG to be present where girls were most underserved educationally. WSG was founded on the premise of educational equity - acknowledging that girls East of the River should have the same opportunities, hopes and dreams as young girls everywhere else in DC, and deserve to have the education needed to help them reach their goals.

Our co-founders recognized the importance of values-based education, and selected three "Founding Spirits" that would serve as knowable and accessible examples of those values in the years to come. To this day, our Founding Spirits continue to shape and form our program. Cornelia Connelly (Society of Holy Child Jesus) promoted an approach to education based on trust and reverence for every human being. Her schools encourage children to develop to their full potential, based on her firm belief that all fields of study contribute to the development of that potential. Mary McLeod Bethune (National Council of Negro Women) believed as an educator and civil rights activist that achieving a quality education would be an important equalizer between races. And Claudine Thevenet (Religious of Jesus and Mary) was devoted to providing young women with opportunities for work that would imbue both economic autonomy and a sense of dignity. It is these real-life courageous women in history that led our own co-founders Sr. Mary Bourdon, Ms. Jennifer Gibbs Phillips and others to design a school that weaves together perspectives from each founding spirit to form our unique school identity.

From our humble beginnings in the basement of an apartment building in Southeast, D.C. over 20 years ago, to now on two campuses serving over 125 girls, the vision of a school inspired by famous women in history continues. Cornelia Connelly urges us to provide an academic program recognizing the whole child, which is evidenced by our commitment to social-emotional learning and a wide range of out-of-classroom experiences and learning opportunities for our students. From Mary McLeod Bethune we know it is important for our students, all young girls of color, to be positively engaged in school and that they see themselves represented in their education: in our classrooms, hallways, books in the library, and throughout the curriculum. And from Claudine Thevenet we are reminded to elevate the voices of those who are often overlooked, encouraging our girls to advocate for themselves and their learning.

We have a small “pop-up museum” on our campus at THEARC this month, with artifacts on our Founding Spirits generously loaned to us by each organization. Looking at the materials shows how Washington School for Girls is a perfect example of a school where women in history are still evident in the school today - and continue to influence how we look to our future. With our daily focus on supporting the development of future courageous women, we are inspired to build on the vision of our Founding Spirits and the co-founders of the school. We take all of what we’ve learned from these women and our 20 years of education on our journey to ensure WSG continues to be an important place for girls in the years to come.

Update: Since WSG will be closed for the remainder of March, the "pop-up museum" will stay on display when we return to school.

Washington School for Girls

THEARC Campus / 1901 Mississippi Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20020 / Phone: 202-678-1113 / Fax: 202-678-1114

The VIEW Campus / 1604 Morris Road SE, Washington, DC 20020 / Phone: 202-678-1714 / Fax: 202-678-5422

EIN: 52-2031849