SE Community, Classes Are a Study in Fresh Starts

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.

Not that there aren't still signs of the old neighborhood: On a recent evening, blue and red police lights flickered on a bank of metal apartment mailboxes up the hill. A group of teenagers shuffled past the new community center, heads down.

But two boys carrying trumpet cases almost skipped out of the building, beaming. The shouts of more than 100 kids playing at the Boys & Girls Club echoed inside. Still-wet paintings hung along a window, drying, and newsprint was spread over a long table for the next art class.

And in the Trinity classroom, a dozen grown-ups had their notebooks out, textbooks open, learning how to be students again.

Goals Within Reach

Karen Wright stopped by the open house for Trinity in January on a whim, and before she knew it, she was getting whisked into a seat, tested and signed up. Classes are much cheaper than at the main campus, low enough that federal grants could cover the cost.

She had thought about going back to school, bored with her job as an executive secretary for a federal office.

As a teenager at McKinley High School, she got through school memorizing the answers, she said, but never learning to think. "I wasn't used to stretching out my brain so I could think about the consequences. . . . I wasn't taught I had chances and choices above what I saw every day."

Wright didn't give much thought to college back then. She knew she could work at the carry-out soul-food corner store her parents owned. And so it went, a series of non-choices and bad judgments, she said, drifting along through life.

A few days before classes started, she drove to Trinity's main campus and walked into the big 100-year-old stone Main Hall, all burnished wood and pillars, just to see if she was really a student. Someone in the admissions office showed her her name, right there on the computer screen.

"That's something I thought was really unattainable, a private school," she said. " . . . I was excited, just crazy excited."

And a little scared. "I was hoping maybe they'll take it easy," she said, "and feel sorry for us because we're east of the river."

The classes are small -- 22 students all told. The school hopes to offer a full bachelor's degree for a couple hundred students within the next year or two; school leaders think the demand is there.

Claudia Queen, a neighborhood health outreach worker, thinks that with more education, she could be a social worker. Earlean Davis, an aide at an after-school program, thinks she could be a teacher if she had a college degree. Bernard Smallwood gave up hustling years ago, he said; he volunteers helping kids. He wants to learn to manage a nonprofit community center.

And for now, at least, anything is possible.

Learning How to Learn

Professor Kevin Washington, the one who asked about the goals, told the class to hold on to those answers and not to lose sight of them, because that's what would carry them through. He preached, cajoled and riffed his way through class. The students were rapt, taking notes, repeating phrases, responding to his calls. "Sometimes we can major in . . . ," he said, and the class boomed, "Minors." He was teaching them how to learn: how to set priorities, how to manage time, how to keep focused. How to be students.

In the next class, psychology professor Satira Streeter was teaching about learning, too. She told them about Pavlov's dogs and her dog Leo. She explained the different ways that learning is reinforced, according to one theory.

Variable-ratio schedules are like slot machines, she said -- you never know just when the reward is coming. "That's the most resilient" type of learning, she said.

"Like shoplifting," Wright said, and the class cracked up. "People never know when they're going to get away with it."

Streeter pushed the students to explain things she expected them to know for an upcoming exam: What is the difference between applied and basic research? What are the parts of neurons?

Streeter sent Wright down the hall and told the rest of the students that they would teach her to pick up only certain shapes from a pile. It was an experiment designed to show how learning happens -- but in this case, it didn't, since Wright didn't get the pattern. They got the point, though, and laughed, and Streeter ended with "Call all your friends that aren't here tonight!"

A couple of weeks into class, and they were all old friends already.

Somehow the mix of nurturing -- Wright's math class started with subtraction, she says, and the professor didn't even make them feel stupid -- high expectations and badgering seems to be working. "It's kind of contagious," Wright said. "You start believing, 'Maybe I can do this.' "

Besides, she said, "I feel like if I give up, they're going to come after me."

She knew what she wanted to do: in the long term, have a career as a counselor, working with women who have been abused and teenage moms.

And in the short term, she was going to bust an A.

So as the students were leaving that night, walking back out into the old neighborhood, she said, "Who wants to get together and study for psychology?"

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

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