Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts is ready to write a new chapter in its rich history—a chapter that would make famous alumni, like Cab Calloway, Thurgood Marshall and Kweisi Mfume proud.
The Baltimore school is launching a program for parents, teachers and students to accelerate its academic turnaround.
A coalition, formed to strengthen the community, school connection and improve Black students’ academic achievement, is helping Booker T. Washington take the next step.
On Jan. 15, coalition representatives, community leaders, and the school’s principal will gather at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore to announce the launch of the Strengthening Families Program and teacher development plan at Booker T. Washington.
The Saving Tomorrow, Today Coalition will be represented at the event by the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and University of Phoenix Chief Financial Officer Byron Jones. Radio One’s founder Cathy Hughes and the company’s CEO Alfred Liggins are also contributing resources to help the students, teachers and their parents.
In her comments at the event, Booker T. Washington’s Principal Jessica Johnson will speak about how far her students have come and the plan for continuous improvement to ensure every middle school student is prepared to attend a high school of their choice, she told NewsOne.
“We have made progress in academic achievement and school climate; we still have a lot of work to do together, but we’re on the right track,” said Johnson, a former Baltimore school teacher and central office administrator who is in her second year as principal of the middle school.
Booker T. Washington has a special place in the history of Baltimore’s Black community. Johnson said it was built in 1895 for the city’s African-American students. The school has educated students who became elected officials, admired musicians, educators, entrepreneurs and community leaders.
In recent decades, the school’s academic standing has fallen—as poverty, drug abuse and violence increased in the surrounding community.
The Title 1 school has a population of 257 students that is 99 percent African-American and lives mostly in West Baltimore.
Eight principals have passed through the school since 2009, and it has also seen a revolving door of teachers. When Johnson became principal, most students were at least two years to three years behind in reading and math, and about 75 percent of the faculty were early career teachers.
During Johnson’s tenure, she and her team of educators and administrators initiated an approach that has turned things around. Their focus is on delivering “rigorous education and authentic art experiences in a restorative setting,” she said.
To that end, they’ve instituted daily reading and math interventions that have enabled 60 percent of students to improve more than one grade level in reading and math proficiency.
With the support of University of Phoenix and TV One, the school will now be able to offer its teachers additional professional development opportunities. Early career teachers will participate in a full year New Teacher Institute with the support of a school-based mentor, veteran teachers can engage in coursework and all teachers will participate in school-wide professional development opportunities.
Johnson noted there’s a cycle of trauma that the parents and students experience in their environment—from routinely witnessing violence to dealing with poverty and drug addiction—that creates dysfunction within the family and community.
“Our students have experienced 14 different types of trauma in the community since birth,” she underscored.
To address the consequences of the trauma, which can manifest as disciplinary problems in the classroom, her teachers use restorative practice exercises in their classroom each day to build community and resolve issues. The students sit in a circle and their teacher facilitates a discussion that encourages them to speak about their experiences, giving students a voice and sense of belonging.
Another challenge to success is the lack of parental involvement. Johnson said her team has found creative ways to reach parents, such as coupling performance events at the school with academic and data workshops.
With financial support from the University of Phoenix and TV One, Booker T. Washington will launch the Strengthening Families Program on Jan. 23 to educate parents about the importance of positive parental behavior, as well as being a role model, guide and mentor to their child.
Alfred Liggins issued this statement about TV One’s support of the initiative:
“TV One proudly partners with The University of Phoenix and donates $25,000 to the historic Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts in Baltimore, MD because we believe in the power of both education and the arts to transform a child’s life. The business community cannot afford to critique a problem we are not willing to be active participants to address. The Saving Tomorrow, Today program is a significant first step in modeling what happens when teachers’ professional development is invested in by the local, educational and business communities. No child can soar further than the collective force supporting their advancement. The African American community has supported the success of TV One, and our donation is simply another way that we re-invest back into this community.”
Strengthening Families is a 14-session resiliency-based family skills training program. It offers three age-specific curriculums for families. Booker T. Washington’s program will focus on its adolescent students. What’s unique about this program is that parents and children attend sessions together.
A typical weekly session includes a half-hour family meal. Parents and children then meet for one hour in separate classes to learn the skill from both the lens of the parent and child. The parent and child then rejoin to practice the skills they learned in their separate sessions together.
The skills include learning how to have positive interactions and how to improve communication. The children and their parents practice together while building their bond.
Twenty families will participate each semester. “We chose the first group of parents strategically,” Johnson explained. “They will become ‘room parent’ liaisons and will be charged with engaging with all the families in that section to promote school events, student academic success and build parenting connections.”
The goal, the principal said, is to continue Strengthening Families at Booker T. Washington until every family gets a chance to go through the program.
An equally important part of the school’s turnaround story is the involvement of key community partners. Dr. Sheridan Todd Yeary is the senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, which is hosting the Jan. 15 event. The principal said Yeary and his church have been “one of the most involved partners, filling every need the school asks.” They’ve provided coats for the coat drives, space for school events and helped build partnership connections.
The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. of Union Baptist Church has also been an important partner. His congregation provides space for events and hosts computer training for students at the church. Johnson said the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work assigned a full-time social worker to the school, who has assisted with many things, from facilitating a weekly community food pantry to finding resources for homeless families.
In the end, Johnson said her team is focused on helping their students get into a top performing high school and reach their fullest potential.
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