This article was first published on www.dcist.com
After Excel Academy Public Charter School lost its charter for poor performance earlier this year, 700 girls from preschool to eigth grade were left in limbo, searching for a new place to enroll during the upcoming school year.
Then, D.C. Public Schools snapped the school up, announcing it would take over and bring Excel into the traditional public school system.
Also, importantly for many of Excel’s parents and students: it would keep the school single sex.
“In terms of the all-girls school, this is something that the young ladies in the community are very eager to continue.These parents feel their daughters thrive in [an all-girls] environment,” says new principal Tenia Pritchard, who was named DCPS principal of the year in 2017 for her work at Whittier Elementary School.
Excel is the only public all-girls school in D.C., and one of just two single-sex schools run by DCPS. In 2016, the city opened up the Ron Brown Preparatory High School, an all-boys high school meant to address educational disparities in the District for boys of color.
That decision was the cause of controversy, particularly from the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who questioned the fairness of an all-boys campus when girls of color in the District also lag behind their white counterparts.
The U.S. Department of Education holds that when a district creates a single-sex school, it “must provide students of the excluded sex a substantially equal single-sex school or coeducational school.” Cheh asked D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to take a second look at the plans for Ron Brown, and he okayed them, determining that the existence of the school did not disadvantage girls.
Strangely, however, after the ACLU raised a fuss about Ron Brown, both DCPS and the attorney general’s office declined to provide a policy that states, in writing, that Ron Brown is a single-sex school. It is still unclear whether girls can technically enter the lottery and be admitted to Ron Brown. DCist has asked DCPS for a written policy for admission to Excel, and will update this story if it hears back.
Regardless, Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of D.C., says that Excel’s re-opening under DCPS does not fix the core issues the organization takes with single-sex education.
“In the era of the Me Too movement, if we educate boys and girls differently assuming they can’t learn together, how do they learn to coexist in the real world?” she says. “Single-sex education reinforces damaging stereotypes and institutional sexism.”
Still, Excel hasn’t faced quite the same level of scrutiny around single-sex education ahead of its re-opening on August 20.
Pritchard says the District chose to re-open Excel as an all-girls public school specifically because it was what the community asked for. She also thinks that single-sex education environments have benefits for some children that shouldn’t be discounted.
“You have to look at schools and children differently. Different children respond to environments in different ways,” Pritchard says.
Beverly Whyms-Rosario believes the all-girls atmosphere has proven beneficial for her grandaughter Naima, a rising fourth-grader at Excel.
Naima attended a coed school in preschool, Whyms-Rosario says, and after being bullied by boys in her class, she was having a tough time. So Whyms-Rosario looked specifically for a single-sex school. Although Excel struggled with low test scores, she says Naima flourished.
Whyms-Rosario particularly likes the school’s “sister circles” practice, where the girls gather around and praise is awarded.
“They’ve been trained by the sister circles that they are outstanding and they can be powerful,” she says. “I want Naima to stay in that environment until at least the 8th grade.”
The new iteration of Excel is keeping about 50 percent of the teachers that worked at the charter, and preserving some traditions, like the sister circle, according to Pritchard. She anticipates that the school will continue to serve mostly low-income girls of color in the District, as it did when it was a charter. They’re anticipating a drop in enrollment from the previous 700 students, but Pritchard says they’ve had more than 200 sign-ups in the last two weeks.
After (and even before) the school lost its charter in the middle of the school year, Pritchard thinks parents had lost faith in Excel, and believes that her first job as principal is mending those relationships.
As instruction gets underway, Excel will offer STEM-focused courses like computer science, robotics, and architecture, as well as arts courses like photography. They are meant to help encourage the girls to enter fields traditionally dominated by men, according to Pritchard.
“When we think about education in D.C., we should be trying to innovate to meet the needs of all students,” she says. “And sometimes that means doing things a little different.”