New Ward 8 high school principals Willie Jackson and William Haith are focused on the positive as they look to not only strengthen Ballou High School (3401 Fourth St. SE) and Anacostia High School (1601 16th St. SE) but also change the schools’ image in the public eye.
A Clear Understanding of the Community
Ballou Principal Willie Jackson, who graduated from the high school in 1987, has spent his entire 25-year career in education with District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). He was assistant principal at Walker-Jones Education Campus in 2005 before becoming principal at Hine Junior High School, continuing in the role when the school merged into Eliot-Hine Middle School. He later became DCPS director of athletics before serving as interim principal at Phelps Senior High School in 2012. Jackson holds a bachelor’s degree from Cheyney University in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in education leadership from George Mason University.
William Haith grew up in Savannah Terrace and began teaching at Wilson High School 13 years ago. From there, he spent three years as Wilson’s dean of students, directing and assisting social, recreational and curricular programs for 1,600 students. Haith moved into the assistant principal position at Wilson in 2013 and then, in 2017, transitioned to Kelly Miller Middle School as the resident principal and member of the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Liberty University, a master’s degree from Liberty University, and a master’s degree from Virginia College.
Both say that their roots in the neighborhood give them advantages as they set out to turn the reputation of the schools around.
Jackson, noting that he had lived in Barry Farm, on Sales Place and in Trinidad, said that his local background gives him a leg up. “Having a clear understanding of the community, first and foremost,” Jackson said, “understanding how things work helps in being able to navigate and get resources and advocate for the schools.”
Both he and Haith say that knowledge about what kids are dealing with everyday helps them identify with students, but also helps students identify with them.
Haith said that having beaten a lot of the odds to succeed before coming back to the community gives the two a mental model of concerns and risk factors faced by students, and gives them tools for assisting with change. “Being a product of the school system, being a product of the community – they can see themselves in me, and they can say: well, if Willie can do it, then I can do it,” said Jackson.
Parents and Students Are Excited
Ward 8 State Board of Education (SBOE) Representative Markus Batchelor said he met with both Haith and Jackson prior to the school year. “I think Principal Jackson really understands the situation that he’s walking into and I think he’s really passionate about getting things done for the students,” Batchelor said. “Just his connections with the community will be transformative.”
“He’s just a really good school leader,” Batchelor added. “I think he will do great things at Ballou.”
Batchelor said that Haith and his team have been focused on driving up attendance at Anacostia High. “I think Haith is in particular focused on making Anacostia a place of really high-quality instruction, but also a place that supports students and family.”
The SBOE representative was enthusiastic when he described his visit to both schools on the first day of the academic year. “What I got from visiting the schools was that it seems like both parents and students are excited,” he said, “and I think a part of it is the leadership. All of them have connections in the community and in the Ward 8 community in particular, and the track records necessary as far as being able to help get through these challenges.”
Focused on the Positives
Jackson and Haith stay focused on all the positives coming out of the two schools. Jackson, a former basketball and softball player for Ballou, pointed out that Ballou has excellent band and sports programs, having won both the city and state football championships the previous year (“I wasn’t a part of it, but I’m claiming it – and I’m looking forward to going back-to-back.”).
He also points to the excellent teaching staff and academic opportunities, including the option of dual enrolment with Howard University, the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism (AOHT) program, as well as opportunities to study abroad.
Haith extols the Public Safety Academy at Anacostia High School, through which students can earn credits toward the completion of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Cadet Program and paid employment with MPD, while completing the program at the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC). The school also offers dual enrolment and study abroad programs in addition to SAT and PSAT prep. Haith, who went to Liberty University on a football scholarship, acknowledges the tremendous success of the girls’ cheerleading and basketball teams, both repeat city champions.
Both principals are looking to turning around the images of their schools. Jackson said that much of the reporting on the schools misses the good things that are going on at Ballou. “When I was in the school and I was walking the school, I realized this is not the Ballou that folks are portraying,” he said. “This is a great place to learn and grow and study.”
“So, my job that I’m tasked with is creating that safe space where great things are happening, and where we’re communicating those great things outside the four walls of Ballou.”
Haith has been out in the community, speaking to parents and kids about their perception of Anacostia High School. He said the view of the school is like that of an iceberg: most of it goes unseen. “You have all of these negative things that people see, and they’ve built this iceberg; but underneath it’s a beautiful place.”
“We call it the heartbeat of Southeast,” Haith said. “We are a viable option right now to receive a high-quality education but we have to re-brand some of this so that the community understands that Anacostia is a great place.” Haith said he challenges people coming to his meet-and-greets to leave with a positive message about the school and to use it to counter anything negative that they hear afterwards.
A Principal Outside the Building
Both principals acknowledge that there is work to be done, particularly with regard to student attendance. Jackson has four new attendance councilors monitoring students, and staff will be out enforcing “safe passage,” helping school security and MPD ensure students arrive and are seated for instruction at the new start time of 8:45 a.m.
Haith said that Anacostia High School will also have a safe passage program. “What we know is that where students want to be and where they like to be, that’s where they will be,” he said. He wants to ensure that students are welcomed when they arrive at the building, and that every adult in the building will work to build a rapport with students.
Both have visions for their schools. Jackson wants Ballou to be a premier high school where kids love to come and grow and parents love to be. “I want it to be one of the hubs of Southeast,” he said. His team has analyzed course offerings to ensure the school has a high-standard curriculum and will graduate students that are SAT, ACT and college and career ready. “We’re going to make sure when they come into school our kids feel safe, validated and supported,” he said.
Haith said that his vision is to change the perception of Anacostia by focusing on restorative practices and trauma-informed instruction and building bridges with the community through porch visits and enrollment cookouts. He wants to ensure Anacostia students graduate college career ready and prepared to compete in a global society.
“I cannot just be a principal inside the building,” he said. “I also have to be a principal outside the building.”
Batchelor said that the new leadership gives him hope for the future of the ward’s schools. What is needed now, he said, is participation from the entire community in nurturing them. “This school year it feels like we have the best leadership in our buildings. Despite what we’re facing, the brightest days of our school system are ahead of us,” he said.
Batchelor poses a challenge to the community this year: “Find one thing a month to do for neighborhood schools or students. Fully commit to being a part of the school.” He continues: “We’ve got the leadership in the school buildings that faced the greatest challenge over the past school year. Now we just need the community to make sure it will happen in a real way.”