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Washington School for Girls celebrates excellence, Black and Catholic identity

A Black Catholic school in the nation's capital is thriving as the pandemic wanes, and their plans for the future are rooted in family, fortitude, and faith.

The Washington School for Girls campus at the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School in DC.

The Washington School for Girls, a 25-year-old Black Catholic school in the nation’s capital, is unique in a number of important ways.

It was founded by a coalition of historically White religious orders and the National Council for Negro Women. It is an all-girls school in an era when single-sex education is said to be going out of style. Their tuition-free model bucks the trends of unaffordability in many Catholic school contexts.

Simply put: in Southeast DC, an economically challenged area where Black luminaries such as Frederick Douglass once made their home, WSG is thriving.

“This year, nearly 100% of our classroom teachers returned for the 2022-23 school year,” said Susan Rockwell, the school’s communications manager.

The statistic is shocking, to say the least, considering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and various other factors on education, and perhaps Catholic education in particular. While many schools lost students due to health restrictions, and others faced criticism for returning to in-person learning too soon, WSG has managed to find a way.

One major method of recovery has been their efforts to bolster relationships with students beyond the classroom.

“A long-time focus for the school is family involvement,” said principal Kelly Lockard, who has worked for the school for more than 16 years.

“Here, families must come in physically and see the team and have that conversation.”

The integration of WSG families into the life of the school was on display Friday afternoon, when the students put on a step show for the school community—along with their teachers and staff from the school’s two campuses, at the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School and at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) a little over a mile away.

For the event, the students performed with their house groups, a relatively new concept at the school wherein the girls, who range from grades 3 to 8, are segmented into various groups providing support, skills development, and additional camaraderie.

They also spend several weeks at the beginning of the year preparing for the step show.

“Excellence! Excellence! That's who we are,” one group roared out during their performance, referencing their house name.

“Excellence! Excellence! We set the bar.”

The step show is one way the school has looked to champion the culture of the school’s predominantly Black student body, dedicating weeks of practice to the show and building the student community along the way.

“There's so much energy, and they're talking about [our core] values and thinking about what it means to be confident and persistent,” Rockwell said.

Confianza (“confidence” in Spanish) was one of the group names, alongside “Goodness,” “Imani,” “Faith,” and “Ausdauer” (German for “persistence), color coordinated and featuring matching outfits among the participants—who weren’t afraid to cheer on their fellow steppers.

One group even used their step to share a short version of the school’s founding, shouting out the names of the founding spirits—Mary McLeod Bethune, St. Claudine Thévenet, and Venerable Cornelia Connelly—in between stomps and claps.

The three women, who provide a combined inspiration of Black uplift, religious fervor, and educational excellence, had a vision in their own day for schools that would provide a path out of poverty and an opportunity to show future generations of girls how to succeed.

Today, the school is clearly keeping up with the times, and with the mission.

“We think about us as the best-kept secret in DC,” Lockard said.

“And we don't want to be that. We want everybody to know who we are.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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