The United Nations declared October 11th as International Day of the Girl Child, an internationally recognized annual observance designed to “amplify the voices and rights of girls everywhere.” As a coalition of NativityMiguel-modeled, independent middle schools from across the country, we are united in the common purpose of educating girls in communities that have largely been excluded from economic resources and empowering them to become their best, most authentic selves. We recognize the vast potential of our female scholars, and embrace this and every opportunity to lift their voices for the good of their own, their communities, and their world’s future.

In the pursuit of solutions to educational inequity and the rising political debate over school choice, the work of small, gender-specific schools can be easy to overlook. Unfortunately, the opportunity to choose a small school with small classes and individualized attention, something we know as essential to optimize learning among middle school girls, is nonexistent for those families who do not have the financial resources to afford it. Our coalition of all-girl schools, which provides this exceptional education to our scholars tuition-free, are often the only option provided to those who have been excluded from such access.

Today, on this auspicious occasion hailed around the world, our coalition of ten schools stand in solidarity with, and advocate on behalf of girls everywhere who hunger for a better education, one where they are seen, heard and can grow to be their full selves. We see you, we hear you; you can grow here.

Daniella* was enrolled in a local public school where she quickly learned the best place for her was in the back of the room, not to be noticed, picked on, harassed, etc.. Daniella has power within her that goes untapped and unrecognized in environments that cannot make space for cultural, social, and economic differences.

We all know Daniella’s story. It is the story of many students who enter our schools year after year. Daniella and her sisters from across this nation inspire us every day with their desire to learn and drive to lead. In response, devoted teachers and staff, tireless volunteers, and dedicated mentors work hard every day to earn students’ trust and empower them to take agency for their own education. Within days or weeks of attending Washington School for Girls our students express relief at feeling safe and respected at school, renewed excitement to learn, and gratitude for the deep bonds of sisterhood they share with their schoolmates. The transformation is palpable.

Our coalition of all-girl independent middle schools serving over 3000 students remains deeply committed to providing girls in our communities with access to education and enrichment opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Because of this educational model, our schools boast a 99% high school graduation rate among our alumnae, far beyond that of the nation or any local municipality. We enthusiastically embrace this part of their journey, successfully carrying the educational baton through the vital middle school years while under our roof, and through high school where we support them readily but with some distance, watching them grow into their power. Their journey continues long past high school, taking many far from their Washington D.C. home, as do the challenges. As a coalition of schools dedicated to seeing our scholars succeed, we are growing into a national alumnae network that will connect these young women with their alumnae sisters anywhere and everywhere, as well as to the resources and opportunities that will help them succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

The International Day of the Girl will most often conjure up images of girls in need across the globe. As we cast our gaze abroad, we cannot forget that many girls here in the US are vulnerable to the trauma of poverty, racism, and systemic oppression. This year, join us in recognizing and supporting our girls and celebrating their vast potential, as we do for those abroad. Cast your eyes on the girls in our that they too may be seen, heard, and grow.

*Daniella is not the name of any particular student. This name and the story that follows represent the general experience of our students.

Coalition Members:

Dr. Beth Reaves, President, Washington School for Girls, Washington, DC

Sister Iliana Hernández, PVBM, Principal, Nora Cronin Presentation Academy, Newburgh, NY

Peggy Prevoznik Heins, President, Serviam Girls Academy, Wilmington, DE

Caroline Erisman, Executive Director, Cornelia Connelly Center, New York, NY

Annmarie Quezada, Head of School, Mother Caroline Academy & Education Center, Boston, MA

Mary Elizabeth Grimes, President, Marian Middle School, St. Louis, MO

Delia M. Dowling, SSND, President, Sisters Academy of Baltimore, Baltimore, MD

Matthew Fitzsimmons, President, Grace Academy, Hartford, CT

Nancy Langer, President, NativityMiguel Middle School, Buffalo, NY

Jadihel Taveras, Head of School, Esperanza Academy, Lawrence, MA

Daniel Perez, Executive Director, NativityMiguel Coalition, New York, NY

Social-emotional learning is a term often used to describe a school’s approach to building what may be considered the softer skills - regulating emotions, building interpersonal relationships, navigating the internal desire to succeed. According to CASEL, a non-profit that aims to make evidence-based social emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of preK-12 education social-emotional learning is:

... the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

In a school community, the approach to social-emotional learning is evident both in the school climate and culture and how adults and students relate to each other. It is also demonstrated through the time allocated to navigating these important skills with students, while balancing the core academic subjects.

Because there can be differences in how social-emotional learning is approached in schools, defining it for a school community is important. What then, is social-emotional learning at WSG?

As is illustrated on this graphic, there are two layers to social-emotional at WSG:

WSG Core Values (within the girl’s face) and specific Qualities of SEL (the blue circle surrounding the girl).

WSG Core Values:

Since the school’s founding, these core values have been an integral part of the WSG’s overall program, with a focus on helping students develop skills of leadership, fortitude and resilience. It is with these qualities that students will engage with the world and exert a positive influence.

Our core values are:

  • Confidence - providing an environment where students can positively engage and understand their gifts and talents.

  • Excellence - in teaching and learning develops critical thinking and a thirst for knowledge and truth.

  • Faith - in God is the source of our lives and strength and so we encourage each student’s deepening of her spirituality.

  • Goodness - encouraging each student to respect her own dignity and goodness, as well as that of others.

  • Joy - in the learning environment as children best learn when they are happy and feel safe.

  • Peacemaking - focused on teaching and modeling forgiveness to help students shape an alternative future for our world.

  • Perseverance - helping students to face inevitable obstacles in their own lives yet to also pursue their goals with faith, vision, resilience and courage.

  • Generosity - encouraging a willingness to contribute positively to our communities and the world.

Layered on top of our core values for social emotional learning are the important skills that WSG incorporates into the daily experience for students, further supporting their growth into young women.

Qualities of SEL at WSG are:

  • Self-esteem - ensuring that the school environment is a positive place where students are nurtured and supported for who they are.

  • Relationship building - focusing on nurturing positive relationships between students and adults/students including important conflict resolution.

  • Responsible decision making - providing the conditions necessary for students to develop independence in decision making.

  • Self-awareness - enhancing students’ understanding of who they are and their unique capabilities.

  • Motivation - establishing and maintaining a positive attitude towards school and learning.

  • Cultural identity - creating positive conditions for inclusion and belonging, particularly cherishing their experiences and perspectives as girls of color.

Thus, it is the combination of these two groups that makes WSG’s approach to social-emotional learning particularly unique. Blending the perspectives initiated at the school’s founding with an intentional focus on highlighting the skills needed for students to become career or college ready in their future lives are what permeates WSG’s program. In addition, by further incorporating cultural identity into effective SEL learning, WSG acknowledges the particular importance of positively embracing the cultural identifiers of Black and Brown girls.

What does this all look like in practice at WSG? An important aspect is ensuring time is built into the schedule to ensure that teachers are able to implement the strategies needed for SEL growth. With a regular schedule for community building and engagement and plentiful opportunities for individual reflection and growth, SEL is ever present at WSG. In addition, through specific aspects of the school’s pedagogy, including conflict resolution and experiential learning, WSG further supports students in developing the skills needed to be a positive member of her school community and the larger world. Finally, through regular examination of current events combined with refinement of curriculum when needed, WSG can lean into the cultural perspectives needed to positively impact students’ learning. Offering opportunities for students to reflect on, discuss and critically think about what is going on in their lives and the world can solidify their internal fortitude and is regularly included in the school day.

SEL thus is the process through which students at WSG have the experiences needed in their school environment to develop their perspectives, recognize their strengths and the gifts of others, build community, and feel good about themselves. SEL gives students insight into themselves as learners while also helping them to think about their future goals for their lives. SEL at WSG helps girls to see the unique and beautiful perspective they bring to the world, establishing a foundation for positive personal growth.

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

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.