On the first day of school at Excel Academy (2501 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE) a row of girls streamed into school wearing crisp, white collared shirts and navy skirts. Under colorful confetti, they gave high-fives to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Amanda Alexander and Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Together with Principal Tenia Pritchard, Bowser and Alexander selected the school as the site to welcome students at 103 schools to a brand-new school year, as well as to welcome Excel Academy to their first year as part of DCPS.
Bowser acknowledged the presence of the “strong, powerful women” present, describing them as “strong supporters of excellence in education.” Female leaders from across the city, including members of the District Commission for Women and Ms. Senior District of Columbia 2015 Ms. Wendy Bridges joined Mayor Bowser in welcoming the young women to Excel on their first day of school.
An all-girls school serving preK-3 through grade eight, Excel Academy’s goal is “providing girls a solid academic foundation and enrichment opportunities to prepare them to success in high school and college and to develop the skills and confidence they need to make healthy, positive lifestyle choices.”
Excel Academy previously held a charter from the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB). In January, DCPCSB voted unanimously to revoke Excel Academy’s charter because the school had not met its charter goals. In March, DCPS announced that they would take over the school in June, 2018. The school is the District’s only all-girls public school. DCPS opened all-boy’s Ron Brown Preparatory High School (4800 Meade St. NE) in 2016.
The Chancellor emphasized the school’s potential in her message at the opening event. “We are thrilled to welcome Excel Academy to the DCPS family as we continue to focus on educating and empowering our young women of color,” said Interim DCPS Chancellor Amanda Alexander. “Excel Academy scholars in grades prekindergarten through eighth will build community, confidence, and leadership skills, and gain the skills they need – from science and technology to literacy and the arts – to positively influence society and thrive in life.”
Excel Academy builds upon the DCPS “Reign: Empowering Young Women as Leaders” initiative, which Mayor Bowser launched in 2017 to close the achievement gap. Reign is a multi-pronged initiative for young women of color focusing on leadership, health and wellness, and identity. Reign programs work to close the achievement gap by providing programming to students and support to schools so that young women of color can thrive.
In her remarks Monday, Principal Tenia Pritchard said that across the nation, young minority students are still the victims of implicit bias that negatively impacts their outcomes and achievements. “Today we fight for social justice in education by opening schools like Excel Academy,” she said.
“It is important to know that equity and equality are not the same thing,” she said. “Equality is giving every student the same things. Equity is giving every student what he or she needs.”
Pritchard said that one of the missions at Excel will be to debunk the myths and stereotypes that try to define “who a woman is, what she does, and who she can become.”
Eighth grade student Kayden Hall introduced Mayor Muriel Bowser, who said she was excited to celebrate the first day of school at Excel. “Together, I know we will take every opportunity to ensure that all our families and students feel supported and are connected to all the resources they need to make it to school every day, be on time to class, and are on a path to success,” Bowser said.
Pritchard said that although she had marked many first days of school in her career, she was excited about the possibilities and opportunities for young ladies this year at Excel. She said the Mayor’s decision to open the year at Excel drew attention to the important work taking place there.
“It’s very important work that the Mayor is doing to empower our young ladies of color in the District,” she said.
Brigette Dunn said her daughter was excited to return to Excel Academy for the third grade, “and see her fellow scholars. For an 8-year-old, that’s the extent of her care right now,” she said. “Mom is the one with the most anxiety for the start of the school year.”
She said it is early days with the new administration, but she feels that the communication has decreased somewhat with the transition from public charter to DCPS school. She appreciates that Mayor Bowser chose Excel for the kick-off to the school year, but hopes that it is a harbinger for continued support of the school and its girls.
For Sammie Whitehurst, a second grader at Excel, the celebrations were especially significant. The first day of school was also her birthday.
“The school made a big deal of it,” said her father, Clifton Whitehurst. “Sammie told the crossing guard it was her birthday, and Excel’s staff heard her, and everyone joined in for a happy birthday chorus outside and inside which made it even more exciting for her.”
He said that although it was early for he and his spouse to comment overall, as of the first day of school, “we feel that they seem to be keeping the same values as Excel when it was a chartered school.”
Principal Pritchard said her goals were to give the students the same opportunities she had as a DCPS student. “We will educate, we will empower,” she said, “and our girls will Excel.”