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‘Comeback’ for the Washington School for Girls as students return to campus for class and prayer

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.