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Sunday, June 16, 2024

New Home for Washington School for Girls at THEARC

A fourth phase of expansion is coming to THEARC (1901 Mississippi Ave. SE) and it will unite a school community.

Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR), the non-profit operator of THEARC and the Washington School for Girls (WSG), are partnering to build a 33,000 square foot building that will unite all the school’s students, from grades 3 to 8, in one location.

“I feel hugely blessed,” said WSG Director Beth Reaves. “This is an opportunity as a small school you don’t often get: to have your big dreams come true in a way that you can see that is real.”

The School
The Washington School for Girls (WSG) is an all-scholarship independent Catholic school in Anacostia for girls in grades 3 to 8. Initially established as an afterschool program, the school was founded in 1998 to give additional educational opportunity to Black girls living in the east end of the District. Today, the school serves 100 students on two campuses. This project will unite the elementary and middle school students on one site. A great deal of enthusiasm is shared amongst the many stakeholders.

“I don’t know if anyone could be as excited as [WSG Director] Beth Reaves,” said W.C. Smith CEO Christopher Smith, Jr., “but we’re a close second.”

W.C. Smith is the development company that founded non-profit Building Bridges Across Rivers (BBAR) in 1997 to offer additional opportunities for education, recreation and connection east of the river.  serves as Chairman of the Board. THEARC is one of several BBAR projects; others include THEARC Farms, Skyland Workforce Center and the 11th Street Bridge Park Project.

Smith said there is a long relationship between WSG and BBAR. BBAR helped WSG find their initial location in the Washington View Apartments, and WSG has been a partner at THEARC Campus since the latter opened in 2005.

When the school opened at THEARC, it was a middle school offering grades six through eight located in 10,000 square feet of purpose-built space on the site. WSG later expanded to include fourth, fifth and then third grades, taking on a second campus in 2013 to serve those grades at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish (1600 Morris Rd. SE).

Getting Together
Today, WSG is one of 14 partners on the THEARC Campus, most of which collaborate to provide the students with opportunities. Those include DC Central Kitchen, providers of school lunch; Washington Ballet, which offers dance classes; the Boys and Girls Club, where students participate in afterschool programming; and the Philips Collection at THEARC, which offers the Art Links to Learning program to WSG Students.

THEARC have found ways to ensure the younger students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help have access to programming. DC Central Kitchen supplies school lunches on both campuses, for instance, and the Boys and Girls Club provides transportation so that students can access the programming. But, Reaves said, it will be much easier to walk around the corner.

Shortly before the pandemic, WSG presented a new strategic plan. One goal was to unify the two campuses in a single building. Reaves said this would not only allow WSG to expand curriculum and create a state-of-the-art learning environment, it would most importantly allow for cross-grade connections, for the students to both have and be role models.

“We really wanted an opportunity for the younger girls and the older girls to be together, to have a cohesive program. There’s so many benefits to being in one place,” she said. “We really love and value all of the things that BBAR [and] being at THEARC brings in terms of collaboration and partnership.”

Phase IV of THEARC will include a three-story, 33,000 square foot building that will house the Washington School for Girls (WSG). Courtesy: W.C. Smith

So WSG brought their goals to BBAR and W.C. Smith. BBAR President Rahsaad Bernard said the board assessed the compatibility of such a project, both with the THEARC campus and with its overall goals. He said a 2019 Urban Institute Study found that WSG students were one of the greatest beneficiaries of cross-utilization of campus partners. It made sense, therefore, to ensure that all WSG students had ease of access to the services on site.

The Building
The new, three-story, 33,000 square foot building is Phase IV of THEARC’s expansion. It will be built in the space that is currently a parking lot, located between the buildings housing Children’s National and the Washington Ballet, at 1865 Mississippi Ave. SE. It will include a cafeteria, lab space, meeting and study rooms, flex common space, fitness areas and classrooms and will house up to 150 students.

The building is being built in partnership between BBAR and WSG, who will jointly fundraise to cover the $24.3 million price tag. W.C. Smith has donated $1 million to the project.

WSG will sign a 30-year lease with BBAR, who manage the 16.5 THEARC campus located on National Park Service land.

BBAR President Bernard said the new building fits with the nonprofit goals to build metaphorical and real bridges across the river.

The building, Bernard said, is also a bridge to additional opportunity, educational excellence and opportunity for WSG students. He said the addition of 50 to 60 girls in grades 3 to 5 will also benefit the campus community overall.

“It brings a level of vitality, vibrance and interaction [to the] community, and the partners will open their doors a little wider for these young girls,” Bernard said.

The expansion will more than triple the WSG space at THEARC; it is also 12,000 square feet more than the 20,000 square feet that WSG currently occupies between its two campuses. Right now, W.C. Smith is finishing drawings in preparation to apply for construction permits. The timeline calls for a June 2023 groundbreaking with delivery of the new building in November or December 2024.

That’s an aggressive timeline, all three parties acknowledge, and it requires aggressive fundraising which is already underway. You can donate now at bbardc.org. Select “Phase IV THEARC” under “Donate” to designate your gift for the new WSG building.

W.C. Smith CEO Smith said it has yet to be decided what will happen to the space WSG vacates in the building they currently occupy at THEARC. While designed for educational use, it is unlikely to host another school, he said, as THEARC tries to avoid hosting competing partners. (The other school on site, Bishop Walker, is an all-boys Catholic School). “I think it will be an important topic throughout 2023,” Smith said.

WSG President Reaves said the best part about this opportunity is that the school will have space available to make academic program decisions based on the students’ needs and can adapt the program as needed in the future. A grade level expansion is not yet in the cards, she said.

“We know that small class sizes and direct support from teachers, support and learning specialists and others is important to our students’ success,” Reaves said. “Our new building will give us generous space to implement that strategy.”

“It is a great partnership,” Reaves continued. “This is the best of all worlds, and I feel like it demonstrates a commitment to the girls of the community. I want the best that we can possibly do for the girls that we serve, and I feel like this is an important step towards that.”

BBAR President Bernard said that the nonprofit believes in that mission. “We are building bridges to opportunity here,” Bernard said. “This opportunity that BBAR, W.C. Smith and WSG are embracing is really uplifting the courageous young women in our neighborhood, and really giving them what they deserve,” he added.

“These women will rule the world one day, and I will say they got their start right here on the campus at THEARC.”

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