Setting Their Caps for Bright Futures

By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Last week in Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, the members of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School's Class of 2008 received their diplomas. All 73 are going to college.

That might seem like an anomaly for a public high school in the District, but for Banneker, pursuing higher education is part of the school's mission statement.

"It all settles to one thing," Principal Anita Berger said. "We're college-bound."

Banneker presents a challenging four years. Freshmen take Latin unless they're in the International Baccalaureate program. All students take four years each of a foreign language and math. Even the grading scale is strict: a 94 on a test is a B, and an 87 is a C. (Fifty-nine percent of students have a GPA of less than 3.0.)

But all students are serious about academics. Applicants must be in the top 18 percent of their eighth-grade class and must be recommended by their teachers and principals. Candidates are interviewed by Banneker teachers, administrators and Berger.

Many students become overwhelmed by the coursework and transfer to other schools.

Jasmine Dunn, 17, nearly did. "Banneker wasn't my first choice," she said. By sophomore year, the workload -- three to four hours of homework a night, even without AP or IB courses -- seemed too much. But she persisted. "Banneker gives you that motivation to do something better," Dunn said. "I'm glad I stayed."

She graduated June 2 and will attend Delaware State University in the fall. She wants to be a teacher.

College is part of the curriculum from Day One. Incoming freshmen tour local colleges. The school's walls are covered with posters about colleges and student loans, bulletin boards full of information about the AP and IB programs and signs listing the school's no-nos: no cellphones, no gum. There is no uniform, but there is a dress code: no hats, bandannas or tank tops, and no skirts or pants above the knee. Students are told to think of themselves as future professionals.

The focus on academics pays off. This year's valedictorian, Darlene Zephyrine, 18, is bound for Brandeis University. Zephyrine, a native of Trinidad, said she wants to study aerospace engineering and dreams of working for NASA on manned missions to Mars. "I'm really big on sciences," she said.

She is also captain of the volleyball team, plays for the tennis team and ran track for three years. But it wasn't easy, as she sometimes did four to five hours of homework a night. "In general, to me it was a good experience. Sometimes it was horrible. I would give it an A-minus," she said.

Banneker, across from Howard University on Georgia Avenue, is the only public high school in Washington with an IB program, which it instituted seven years ago as an alternative to AP classes. Students must apply to be in the program; about 25 are accepted. Zephyrine said she was in it because "they said it'd be hard. . . . When I hear [about] challenging stuff, I think it's going to be good."

Before graduating, every student at Banneker must complete 270 hours of community service, which often serves as job training. Dunn and Zephyrine worked as tutors.

Academics, community service and extracurricular activities are the elements of what guidance counselor Vernita Jefferson calls the "development of the whole child."

Berger, who arrived at Banneker 15 years ago after teaching at Howard, summed up the school's success in achieving its mission: "This is a school that people look at as a school that works." Seventy-three rising college freshmen would probably agree.

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