SE Community, Classes Are a Study in Fresh Starts

Karen Wright, left, participates in a psychology class as professor Satira Streeter, center, and a fellow student look on. Wright, 38, says she was
Karen Wright, left, participates in a psychology class as professor Satira Streeter, center, and a fellow student look on. Wright, 38, says she was "crazy excited" about Trinity's program, which helped her to set goals. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Most of the time in class, the students are either laughing, or about to laugh, as the professors sass at them and they sass back, tossing a little religion, a little philosophy, a little black history in with the lesson at hand. But one night recently, Karen Wright had to step out of class and hide down the hall to cry.

The professor had asked the students what their goals were, and it hit Wright: She was 38, and she'd never had a single one.

"I never learned to do that," she said. "I was just floating along."

Wright and her classmates are part of an experiment of sorts: They are apparently the first to take degree-granting courses east of the Anacostia River from a private university. As both Trinity (Washington) University and the Southeast neighborhood around its new satellite program evolve, all are learning to start anew.

It's like the theory their psychology professor had taught them: Anything learned can be unlearned.

Trinity used to be an elite liberal arts school for privileged young women. But after enrollment dwindled as most colleges went co-ed in the 1960s and '70s, it reinvented itself to stay afloat. Now, nearly half of the students are from the District, almost all are black or Latino and many are poor. Some alumnae complained years ago that Trinity, based in Northeast Washington, was turning itself into a half-rate night school; others were glad to see it save itself and reinforce its Catholic mission of social justice.

This semester, Trinity pushed it a step further. Classes started in January in Southeast in a neighborhood that Wright's family had fled when she was a girl. Students can take classes toward an associate in arts degree in general studies, which they can use to transfer to a bachelor's degree program, or they can earn a master's degree in nonprofit management.

Like so many neighborhoods in the city, the area has changed dramatically.

When Winston Robinson Jr., now assistant chief of police, came to the police district in Ward 8 in June 1993, there were 20 homicides that month and 133 that year.

When the William C. Smith & Co. real estate and management firm renovated run-down apartments in the early 1990s, almost none of the first-floor units could be rented, because tenants feared stray bullets. They talked with Robinson about ways to make the neighborhood safer, and now, he said, he's thinking, "Did this really happen?"

Run-down housing complexes were torn down, and a big, fancy pool was put in. First-time homebuyers moved into shiny three-story townhouses. This week, developers broke ground on a big grocery store; this summer, they'll build houses costing $400,000 and up. Crime has plummeted.

And now there's the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus, launched by the real estate company and nonprofit groups including a health clinic, a theater, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Levine School of Music, the Washington Ballet -- all in a dramatic $27 million glass-sided building on Mississippi Avenue SE.

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