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7 Questions with Sister Mary Bourdon, Head of School of Washington School for Girls

“While there was a large national discussion about the school-to-prison pipeline and the challenges facing African-American boys, there was little conversation about the girls. We kept thinking to ourselves, what about the girls?”

In honor of Black History Month, we welcome Sister Mary Bourdon, Head of School at Washington School for Girls. Washington School for Girls offers a solid and holistic education in the Catholic educational tradition, featuring intellectual challenge, respect for diversity, and support for the spiritual, social and emotional growth of each student.

  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

While working in the DC area in the late 1990s, it became very clear to me and a few of my colleagues that girls in Wards 7 and 8 were struggling to make it through school. While there was a large national discussion about the school-to-prison pipeline and the challenges facing African-American boys, there was little conversation about the girls. We kept thinking to ourselves, what about the girls? The girls were the ones who were increasingly ending up pregnant as teenagers, unable to complete high school while taking care of a child. The girls were becoming mothers, then grandmothers, unable to pursue their educations and careers. We wondered, could we help these girls to take charge of their education, their goals, and their lives? We thought about the many ways we could serve girls in Far Southeast DC, and determined that a school founded on the principles of the faith, courage, and perseverance was the way that we, as educators, could make a difference for the girls who needed us.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

The innovative change that is on my mind almost every day is the addition of our new third grade program, which will begin July 15, 2015. By expanding into 3rd grade, we will be able to reach students at a crucial point in their educations: when they transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Research shows that Black and Hispanic children who are not reading proficiently by the 3rd grade are twice as likely as similar white children to drop out of high school later on. Our experience with our existing 4th-8th grade program has shown over the years that our students are already below grade level when they join us in 4th grade. It was obvious to us that we could do more for our girls if we meet them earlier in their educational careers. Not only will this new program expand our student population by approximately twenty students, but also it will serve as a pilot program for year-round school. The 3rd grade students will join us in mid-July and participate in the program for a full year, a model that has been proven to improve academic success in populations like ours. We are eager to have more classroom time with our students in core subjects, as well as the flexibility in schedule to increase our enrichment curriculum in the arts and other areas. The full year program will enable our exceptional teachers to adapt their curriculum based on student needs, without fear of running out of time. We believe that adding the year round 3rd grade program will help us to better serve our students and their families.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I often find myself thinking about Claudine Thevenet, the founding mother of my religious order, the Religious of Jesus and Mary. Claudine was a teenager during the French Revolution, and watched two of her brothers be executed during the conflict. She was inspired by their last words, Forgive as we forgive, and dedicated the rest of her life to relieving the suffering of the many children who were orphaned as a result of the Revolution. She is remembered by history as a woman of courage, faith, perseverance, and an unyielding belief in the goodness of God. Her commitment was always to the most vulnerable, believing that they could find purpose through the combination of education and coming to know God. Claudine is one of three Founding Spirits who inspire everything we do at WSG. The others are Cornelia Connelly, founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (another religious order that is dedicated to education) and Mary McLeod Bethune, an African-American educator and civil rights activist who founded the National Council of Negro Women. Each of these women holds a special place in my heart for what she contributed to education and progress in her era.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

WSG thrives thanks to many partnerships with area organizations, including our Catalogue for Philanthropy peers: Higher Achievement, THEARC, the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, Joy of Motion, and many more. All of our partnerships help us provide rich and engaging experiences for our students throughout the year. In recent years, WSG has been fortunate to partner with the Christ Child Society to provide counseling services to our students. This ongoing partnership places a counselor on each campus (The VIEW Campus for grades 3-4 and THEARC Campus for grades 6, 7, 8) for individual and group sessions as well and consultations for teachers, administration, and families. A counselor is at The VIEW Campus for three days each week and a counselor is at THEARC Campus for four days per week. This is a tremendous resource for our girls, who benefit greatly from the consistent availability of counseling services. We are also particularly excited to be partnering with the National Park Trust and the Buddy Bison Program. This connection has enriched our Science program over the past two and a half years, as the outstanding guides have led our students on multiple field trips in many of the national parks in our region. These trips coincide with our Science curriculum, and also provide an opportunity for students to explore and enjoy the outdoors.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

The greatest challenges that our organization faces are the challenges that our students and their families face in their community: socio-economic strain, violence, crime, and social or familial conflict. What happens outside of school has a great impact on what our girls can achieve in school. While we can’t prevent every negative influence in the community, we can make WSG the safest place for students. With that goal in mind, we begin every morning with community prayer and maintain an atmosphere of calm and positivity throughout the day. Students have many avenues of support, from their teachers, advisors, administrative staff, and the on-site counselor, all of whom help students work through the problems they face both in school and in their personal lives. Finally, we strive to engage families at every possible opportunity. A student’s parent or guardian is the primary educator, and we seek to collaborate with and support them to the best of our ability. Often this can come in the form of connecting them to resources in the community that they may have been unaware of, or sometimes it may mean providing meals and emergency support following a tragedy. Ultimately, we hope that our families know that they can come to us and that we will do all we can to help them.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

My strategy for leadership has always been a blend of discernment and collaboration. My advice to other directors would be to create a blueprint for action informed by two things: your own instinct, and the informed insights of experts in your field. The principles of good management and leadership are so-called because they work, so seek out mentors and advisors who can help you develop those skills and structures within your institution. Having a framework in place allows you more time to think about the big picture and to make the important decisions that will move your organization forward.

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

My interests have always centered on fostering the well-being and promotion of young girls. While our students remain in the forefront of my mind, I am also increasingly concerned about the international issue of child trafficking. What young children go through in some parts of the world, even in our own back yard, is absolutely devastating. I am interested in learning more about this issue and considering how I might be able to make a difference for these young people.

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