Teaching Girls The Power Of Learning

Courtland Milloy
March 9, 2005

At the Washington Middle School for Girls, the 38 students start each day with a pledge to do their best. Standing at attention in blue skirts and white shirts, some topped with vests of brightly colored kente cloth, the girls invoke "the spirit of courageous women" as they recite and, in doing so, convey a sincere reverence for learning.

The WMSG is a private school for girls in grades 5 through 8. It started in 1997 as an after-school enrichment program and operates out of an apartment complex in a particularly rough section of Southeast. Tuition is $25 a month.

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Courtland Milloy can be reached at (202) 334-7592 or by e-mail at milloyc@washpost.com.

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Although run in part by Catholic nuns, it is not a religious school but one where the transformational power of the human spirit is acknowledged and nurtured.

"We help our girls tap into their own inner resources, which are usually well developed," said Sister Mary Bourdon of the Religious of Jesus and Mary. She is the school's co-founder and director. "They can get back and forth to school while avoiding drug dealers or cook a meal for their siblings and put them to bed. That is very powerful, and we emphasize their resiliency."

Therein lies a special ingredient guaranteed to improve any recipe for education reform.

Jennifer Gibbs-Phillips, co-founder and headmistress of the school, put it this way: "It is important for our children to believe that there is something bigger than themselves out there, something they can look to when they're feeling that they can't go on and when there appears to be nobody in their corner for them to turn to."

The school draws its students from areas with some of the highest poverty, homicide, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, school dropout and unemployment rates in the city. In 1995, a small group of women representing two Catholic orders -- the Religious of Jesus and Mary and the Society of the Holy Child -- and the National Council of Negro Women began meeting to discuss the educational needs of at-risk girls in those neighborhoods.

"I did research and found girls dropping out of school in fifth grade," said Gibbs-Phillips, who spent more than 29 years as a teacher and high school principal in D.C. public schools. "So I went around asking principals to send me those girls whom they knew to be smart but who needed something else to convince them that they could be courageous and successful women."

The result was a school where girls go from feeling incapable of learning subjects such as science and math to believing that any obstacle can be turned into a steppingstone.

Their daily pledge invokes the spirits of women such as Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, who started a school for black girls in 1904, convinced that through education they could overcome prejudice; Cornelia Connelly, founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, who promoted education based on trust and reverence for every human being; and Claudine Thevenet, founder of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, who led a group of church women after the French Revolution in opening schools that helped girls reach their full potential with economic autonomy and a sense of dignity.

School starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. Of the 400 girls who have graduated so far, all have done well in school, Gibbs-Phillips said. And all are tracked through high school and even into college by WMSG staff to make sure they continue to receive the support they need.

"We have a super-duper committed faculty that goes way beyond the call of duty to help our girls learn," Sister Mary said.

Come fall, the school will move from the Washington View Apartments to a permanent home at the Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus (THE ARC), a beautiful, new facility at 19th Street and Mississippi Avenue SE. The girls will get a new library, computer lab and well-equipped science lab, along with access to a 375-seat theater, two ballet studios, a full gymnasium, a playground, art and music studios and a family wellness clinic.

Gibbs-Phillips and Sister Mary call that a blessing. Miracle would be more like it.