D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser greets students at Excel Academy in Southeast, the city’s first all-girl public school, on Aug. 20, the first day of the 2018-2019 traditional school year. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser greets students at Excel Academy in Southeast, the city’s first all-girl public school, on Aug. 20, the first day of the 2018-2019 traditional school year. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)

Community members, public figures and affiliates of the D.C. Public Schools system started the first day of the 2018-19 academic year this week by celebrating new beginnings, specifically those concerning personnel, renovated school buildings and a commitment to boosting student attendance.

On Monday morning, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of her administration waved large signs at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Howard Road in Southeast, advising drivers to slow down as the city’s youngest residents, sporting neatly pressed uniform shirts and pants, new backpacks, fresh hairstyles and clean sneakers, made their way to school.

An hour later, Bowser counted among the celebrants who welcomed hundreds of young girls into Excel Academy, the formerly shuttered charter school that became D.C.’s first public all-girls institution, during a gathering on the front steps of the Southeast school building.

“We demand equity in education in schools across the country,” Tenia Pritchard, principal of Excel Academy, said before an audience of students, parents, community members and public figures Monday morning as Bowser and interim DCPS Chancellor Amanda Alexander stood by her side.

In January, Excel Academy, a school that serves girls in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade, lost its charter due to poor academic performance. As a newly opened public school, it stands as a counterpart of the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Southeast that exclusively serves young men.

Pritchard’s comments followed that of Bowser and Alexander, both of whom likened school to a job that young people need to attend every day, and noted recent systemwide milestones, including the acceptance of infants at Ketchum Elementary School in Southeast, four modernized school buildings, and selection of who they described as strong educators.

In her public remarks, Pritchard gave a history lesson of sorts about the quality of education in the United States for Black people, starting from enslavement and working her way through the civil rights era before exploring present-day conditions.

“Our children are victims of institutionalized racism because of implicit and explicit bias,” said Pritchard, an alumna of Eastern Senior High School in Southeast. “They are sent to the office and placed in special education. We fight for social justice in education by opening schools like the Excel Academy. Equality and equity aren’t the same. Our children deserve the same education I got.”

As the young female students walked onto the school grounds Monday morning, women from Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta sororities, along with other organizations danced to songs by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly and Beyoncé blazing from jumbo speakers and chanted “Black Girl Magic!”

Administrators also passed out snacks, water and valuable information about educational resources to students and parents.

Tiffany Edwards, the mother of a returning fourth-grader, said she dropped off her young scholar confident that she would build healthy relationships with her peers and take advantage of the enrichment programs in the D.C. public school system.

“[My daughter] was here when Excel was a charter school,” Edwards, 37, of Southeast, said as she walked out of the gates of the school campus. “I’m expecting to see this school rise from where it was last year and bring the kids where they should be academically. They’ve seemed to have implemented activities and academics that make a total difference.”

For Victoria Robles, safety within the school building and its surrounding area remains a top concern as her daughter, an eighth-grader entering her seventh and last year at Excel, continues her journey to high school.

“I hope Excel builds up that community feel. It was close-knit, so I’m hoping that it gets back to that now that it’s a public school,” Robles said, a 38-year-old Southeast resident. “My daughter should feel that this is a sisterhood. I just want her to be as comfortable and safe as possible. Last year, she passed with honors and [was named] mathematician and historian of the years. She’s an awesome student.”

Monday morning’s activities counted among a bevy of gatherings that occurred across the city within the last week as residents prepared for the impending school year.

Last Saturday, the Greater Washington Urban League hosted its sixth annual Health & Wellness Back 2 School Festival at Columbia Heights Community Center in Northwest that attracted hundreds of young people and their parents. For five hours, guests played games, tasted healthy food selections and gathered materials that would ease their transition into the school year.

Later that afternoon, residents and public officials in Southeast converged on the grounds of Boone Elementary School, a newly constructed educational facility, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included Mayor Bowser, Interim Chancellor Alexander, Boone Principal Carolyn Jackson-King and the family of Lawrence E. Boone, the onetime principal of nearby Orr Elementary School for whom the building is named.

When plans coalesced around tearing down Orr Elementary, named after a White segregationist, and replacing it with a new school, five young people who learned about the late Boone sparked a movement to name the state-of-the-art building after the man who became a pillar of the surrounding community during his more than 20-year tenure as principal.

“First they wanted to change the name of the school to Barry, but folks said ‘No, this was Mr. Boone’s building.’” Littyce Boone, the historical figure’s only daughter, said as she explained the process to name the new school building after her father and his achievements from the 1960s to the mid-1990s.

“[Folks] signed petitions and went downtown to get officials to sign off on it,” Boone added. “My father initiated school uniforms and safety patrols. He worked with other schools in the areas and met with drug dealers to let them know they weren’t allowed on the premises,” she said.

Recounting her past experiences with the school formerly known as Orr, Shanetta Brinkley, a Southeast mother of a returning third-grader and preschool student, said she saw the legacy of excellence firsthand when she enrolled her daughter last year.

Brinkley, 30, said she looks forward to continuous improvements in her daughter’s learning in the upcoming months.

“I wanted a strict teacher who wouldn’t baby her. Some parents thought the teacher was mean, but my daughter loved it,” Brinkley said. “When she transitioned over to Orr, she had trouble reading, but she improved to the point she made honor roll. She’s always participating in special events. I love hearing my daughter telling me things she didn’t know before when she comes home from school.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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