Confident Girls, Courageous Women at the Washington School for Girls

We couldn’t let Women’s History Month pass without putting the spotlight on one of our outstanding partners, the Washington School for Girls (WSG), an independent, tuition-free, all girls Catholic day school serving  grades 3-8 in Anacostia. Approximately 20 WSG students are living within the boundaries of DC LISC’s $50 million Elevating Equity Initiative.

Over the years, LISC has provided $55,000 in grants to the WSG to support the implementation of its family engagement strategic plan, which includes empowering parents to be more involved as a key tenant. Below, Beth Reaves, the President of the Washington School for the Girls, shared some of her reflections on the importance of women’s education and the founding of the school:

It’s Friday morning, and I’m headed to morning assembly with our elementary girls, who are rather boisterous as they file past me in the hall. Fridays are Sister Advisory Sets (SAS) days when our girls meet in their SAS advisory groups to work on a fun, team-building project often times competing with the other groups. Most of the girls are wearing neon knee-highs – pink, orange, green, purple, and yellow – the colors of their SAS groups.

I’m looking forward to this assembly; it’s been a long week for me, and I’m already feeling a lift from the girls’ heightened energy. I know the energy is similarly high at our middle school campus, where the girls are about to start their House meetings. It’s hard to feel dispirited on a Friday at WSG. Our girls are buzzing with excitement and the feeling of camaraderie is contagious.

As I look around the assembly room and watch the girls laugh and throw their arms around one another, I’m struck by their confidence and uninhibited joy. This atmosphere, this feeling of sisterhood and fellowship, this is why I came to the Washington School for Girls. I often marvel at the vision of the school’s founders – to educate and empower the most marginalized girls by placing them in an environment that reinforces an unwavering belief in their abilities, their potential, and their importance.

The school was founded at a time when the country was collectively obsessed with the plight of minority boys from low-income homes. In DC, educational and support services for boys in low-income communities were started to address this plight, and yet there seemed to be no concern for girls facing the same racial and economic gaps in addition to the gender gap. WSG’s founders saw this as a grievous oversight considering the high school drop-out rate for girls in the same communities. And so, the Washington School for Girls opened its doors, free of charge, to any and all girls who needed it.

I, myself attended an all girls’ high school in Philadelphia, and I remember that feeling of belonging, of being accepted exactly as I was, of being valued. It’s something I took for granted until college when I was once again in a coeducational environment. Even though I felt as if the invisible support system that had lifted me up throughout high school had been pulled right from under my feet, I believed in my self-worth and remembered that confident girls support each other. So I surrounded myself with good girlfriends, spoke up in class, and pursued the things that mattered to me – education, career, and family. Would I have been as successful had I attended a coed high school? Would I have the same confidence in myself? I will never know for sure, but I do believe that those formative years at a girls’ school made a difference in how I see and understand myself. And I strongly believe that girls’ schools are still relevant and just as important for girls today.

At girls’ schools, students are more free to be themselves as their energy and attention isn’t diverted by having to be presentable/available for the other sex. In adolescence, girls and boys are preoccupied by the idea of “being cool” – wearing the right things, saying the right things, and liking the right things. It’s not a preoccupation that our students are invulnerable to, but it doesn’t dominate their daily experience. Without the social pressures of a coeducational environment, our girls can dedicate more of their energy to their own growth and development. And we encourage them to do just that by exposing them to new activities and experiences, both in and out of the school, and pushing them to expand their horizons by pursuing those things that interest and challenge them.

We also ensure that they have a strong support system not just in the adults around them but in their peers. Traditions like SAS and school Houses motivate our girls to get to know their schoolmates across classes and grade levels and to develop pride in the school and in one another. Yes, some of the activities are competitive, but through them our students learn good sportsmanship and how to recognize the strengths and positive qualities that each girl has to offer.

The result is that our students are deeply engaged in their own learning and development; they take on leadership roles confidently and demonstrate great empathy for each other and the community. They are not afraid to speak their minds (sometimes to the chagrin of faculty) or to dream big. Is it any wonder that while less than 1% of girls attend girls’ schools, an impressive 20% of the women currently serving the U.S. Senate and House of representatives graduated from all-girls’ schools? Or that women who graduate from single-sex schools report higher self-confidence and greater public speaking and writing skills than women who graduate from coed schools? It certainly doesn’t surprise me or any of the faculty and staff at WSG. We witness the transformation of confident girls into courageous women year after year.

Back in the assembly room the girls are literally bouncing in their seats as they get ready to perform their SAS chants. Each SAS group wrote their own chant to represent their core value – goodness, generosity, confidence, excellence, perseverance, and joy. The chants express the exuberance of their youth and are invariably shouted out as if the girls intend to drown out anyone who would disagree. I’m awash in the creativity and optimism of our students, and I join in the cheers with a wide smile and a glow of pride that will stay with me all day.

Beth Reaves, President of the Washington School for Girls