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For more than 50 years, Dr. Bernida L. Thompson, with the help of several conscientious mamas and babas, has provided an African-centered education for hundreds of Black children who’ve walked through the halls of Roots Activity Learning Center and Roots Public Charter School, both located in Northwest.
As she gears up for her retirement and emeritus status, Thompson, who goes by Mama Bernida, remains steadfast in her assertion that Black children in the District benefit from an educational model that promotes the greatness of their African culture and heritage, immerses them in a family-oriented environment, and exposes them to academically enriching material.
In making her point, Mama Bernida points to what she describes as her vibrant school community that, even in the midst of the charter school boom, spans three generations. Decades after opening, Roots Public Charter School continues to serve young people, some whose parents have matriculated through the program. Several alumni are even serving as instructors.
“As long as Washington, D.C. has children of African descent, Roots is here to take care of their psychological, emotional and academic needs. And even with the other races of children, it’s a scientific fact that all races came from an African woman,” said Mama Bernida, principal and founder of Roots Activity Learning Center and Roots Public Charter School, both located in Northwest.
“Our young people [should] know about the genius that’s in our genes and how the enemy can do things to make us not accomplish [our goals],” Mama Bernida added. “African-centered education inculcates children with who we are, where we are and what we must do to liberate ourselves and our community.”
The Establishment of a Legacy
On Aug. 27, students, parents, alumni and family members will celebrate Mama Bernida’s decades of service during her emeritus and retirement party at Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Rashiki Kuykendell, Roots’ vice principal who community members know as Mama Rashiki, will take Mama Bernida’s place in the fall. As of July 24, 104 young people are slated to attend Roots Public Charter School around that time.
In 1977, Mama Bernida launched Roots Activity Learning Center on North Capitol Street where infants and preschoolers, including her children, learned foundational songs, games and stories as they participated in activities inspired by the African-centered curricula that she developed.
Nearly a decade before launching Roots Activity Learning Center, Mama Bernida taught in Ohio, and later at Brookland Elementary School in Northeast and Seton Elementary School in Northwest. Though teaching had been a lifelong dream for Mama Bernida, she said she developed her African-centered pedagogy while participating in study circles on the campus of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio during the 1960s.
In 1999, at the request of parents in the community, Mama Bernida launched the accompanying Roots Public Charter School during what had been the beginning of the District’s charter school movement. She said that move served as an opportunity to provide an independent, African-centered education that children could access at no cost.
From that moment, Roots Public Charter School would operate in tandem with Roots Activity Learning Center, with the former serving students from first to eighth grade and the latter taking in children as young as six weeks old all the way up until four years old.
Soon after opening, Roots Public Charter School received accreditation from the Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools of the Middle States Association. It also became accredited by the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
As other African-centered public charter schools in the District struggled to keep their doors open, Roots Public Charter School remained in good standing with the D.C. Public Charter School Board and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, thanks in part to Winifred Wright.
Winifred Wright, a longtime administrator at Roots Public Charter School who’s known to all as Mama Winni, entered her role in 2000 at the recommendation of a friend who connected her with Mama Bernida.
Before joining the Roots family, Mama Winni worked at two other public charter schools, one of which she helped launch. Shortly after starting at Roots, Mama Winni helped the African-centered public charter school secure its accreditation.
As director of programs and compliance, Mama Winni writes grants and serves as the point of contact for attendance, special education, immunization and enrollment audits. In speaking about the longevity of Roots Public Charter School, Mama Winni said that the consistency of teachers and staff members instills confidence in students and families about the atmosphere and quality of education.
Per Mama Winni, all of the administrators have been working at Roots Public Charter School for more than 20 years. Out of the nine teachers on staff, six have been there for more than a decade.
“Families get accustomed to the teachers,” Mama Winni said. “The main thing that draws parents to this school is that children feel safe. We don’t have bars at the door or metal detectors. We don’t have a high truancy rate with the children coming and going during the school day. The main walkway goes past my desk so the students are monitored.”
Community Members Reflect on Their Roots Experience
Once one walks along Kennedy Street in Northwest and steps up to Roots Public Charter School, they see the U.S. flag and D.C. flag atop the front of the building waving alongside the globally recognized Pan-African flag adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League in 1920.
Upon entering the school, students, parents and community members are surrounded by photos and paintings of African and African-American figures, along with West African artifacts, world maps, ancestral sayings, flags of African and majority-Black countries, and drawings that promote self-pride and knowledge of self.
A walk down a long hallway takes people to the main classroom where mamas and babas work with students in small cohorts throughout most of the day. Each school day starts with the pouring of libation and drumming before students jump into the curriculum.
Instruction runs the gamut, from the core subject matter to guest instructors, like Pan-African history teacher and playwright Obi Egbuna, providing supplemental cultural material. During the last Friday of every month, Roots Public Charter School acknowledges students whose birthday falls in that month with the celebratory cutting of a birthday cake toward the end of the school day.
Roots Public Charter School graduate Nebyu Mahtemework called his alma mater a microcosm of what D.C. residents once knew as Chocolate City. Mahtemework, a D.C. rapper known to many as Ras Nebyu and Thunda Man, told the Informer that the culture and traditions of Roots instilled a sense of pride that followed him throughout his adolescence and adulthood.
Mahtemework counted among the first enrollees at Roots Public Charter School before leaving at the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year to live in Senegal and Gambia. He later reenrolled in Roots in 2001 where he stayed until graduating in 2005.
In reflecting on his upbringing at Roots, Mahtemework acknowledged his former instructors Mama Rashiki, Baba Camara and Baba Yokemi with making him a better reader and writer, creating a calm academic atmosphere, and upholding high standards of manhood, respectively. Those elements, Mahtemework said, became amplified in an intimate classroom setting where students grew up with one another and around the same teachers over a number of years.
“To see classmates who weren’t exposed to Afrocentric culture affected by it in real time gave us a sense of community,” Mahtemework said. “It was a relief to know that we could still learn and be on par with people who had all these resources without having to compromise our Africanness. Roots was the perfect place to know our history and keep our childhood intact.”
Upon the renewal of Roots Public Charter School’s 15-year charter in 2004, administrators started enrolling at the charter school. They also stopped instruction at fifth grade instead of the eighth.
They did the latter due to what Mama Bernida described as the influx of charter schools in the surrounding area that attracted middle school families.
Roots Public Charter School has since continued to serve families in the community, including that of Rita Daniels. In June, Daniels’ grandson Zion McKinley Butler graduated from Roots Public Charter School after having spent his entire elementary school career there.
That however wasn’t Daniels’ first time experiencing a Roots graduation.
In 1987, Daniels’ husband, the late Ted Daniels, enrolled their son in Roots Activity Learning Center after visiting the school during his lunch break. At that time, their son Ted Daniels, Jr. was attending a private school that Daniels said didn’t affirm his Black identity.
Over time, Roots became a family affair, with Daniels’ other son and daughter, Damany and Maia Daniels, following in their older brother’s footsteps. While attending Roots, Daniels’ children gained wisdom from the late Kamau Robinson, a teaching principal who doled out journaling assignments and brought in a highly skilled math teacher.
Ted Daniels, Jr. would go on to Gonzaga College High School in Northwest and later Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) where he successfully completed a five-year masters of business administration program. Meanwhile, Maia enrolled in advanced placement classes at what’s now known as Jackson-Reed High School in Northwest. Damany, the youngest sibling and also an alumnus of Jackson-Reed High School, would go on to serve as a youth ambassador to Cape Town, South Africa at the age of 14. Maia and Damany once again followed their oldest brother and completed their undergraduate studies at FAMU.
Mama Rita remained a constant presence on the campus of Roots Public Charter School for 11 years, even serving as a long-term substitute teacher. She said that was the least she could do for a school that instilled a sense of pride in her children that has taken them to great heights in their professional journeys.
“Roots gave our children what we wanted them to have to excel and learn and they definitely did that,” she said.
“They made friends [with people] who are still his friends to this day. I have friends who are Roots parents and we stay in touch. They had the opportunity to grow up in a multiclass room and learn from each other [while] getting the same information. It was a great experience educationally and culturally.”