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The Visionary: How Maria Tukeva helps immigrants succeed in D.C. schools

Principal Maria Tukeva created a program for immigrant children who'd been failed by D.C. schools and turned it into a successful high school

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By V. Dion Haynes
Sunday, April 11, 2010

To the nervous high school senior presenting her research project in the school library, this feels like an "American Idol" moment, and Principal Maria Tukeva is the judge she most wants to impress.

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The student, Lizbeth Macias, 17, rattles off data about the slave roots of Georgetown's Mount Zion Cemetery and laments all the ways it has fallen into disrepair. She tells the judges she even volunteered as a tour guide at the historic site and shared her knowledge with visitors for the class project. But not even a quarter into her talk, Macias loses her composure.

"I'm sure I'm blushing. I'm a really, really shy person," she says, fiddling with her note cards. She pauses, sucks in a deep breath and regains control. There's good reason for her angst: She must get a passing grade on her portfolio presentation to graduate.

When Macias is done, the other judge -- Denise Harrison, a manager at a local State Farm Insurance office -- offers a sweet, Ellen DeGeneres-like endorsement for the attempt at such an ambitious project. But today, Tukeva is Simon Cowell, albeit wrapped in a soft-spoken, non-sneering package. Tukeva tells Macias she was shaky on some details of a lawsuit involving the cemetery.

"One suggestion is to get more familiar with the court case. I think you were confused about who was whom," Tukeva says calmly before sending Macias off to review the case further and present again another day.

This is the Tukeva the students at Columbia Heights Educational Campus, formerly Bell Multicultural High School, know well: tough but fair. She has high expectations for them, they say, but she makes sure they have the resources they need to succeed. The portfolio project is just one of the programs Tukeva has implemented over the years to shape the school into a cross-cultural institution known for transforming poor minority students and non-English speaking immigrants from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Vietnam and about 50 other countries into scholars. Nine out of 10 seniors from the school are accepted into college.

In its near-30-year existence, the school has had numerous iterations, three names in four locations. It began as a federally funded program for troubled immigrant high school students, quickly grew into a full-fledged D.C. public school, and three years ago moved from its rodent-infested, century-old building to a gleaming new campus that now enrolls 1,300 sixth- through 12th-graders. But the school has had one constant: Tukeva. Her tenure is unprecedented in the modern world of the city's school system, where principals serve at the will of the central office and are lucky if they keep their jobs for three years, let alone three decades.

In some ways, Tukeva has been able to fly below the radar. She enjoys the background, preferring not to draw attention to herself. She works alongside parents and teachers, rather than using a top-down style. She resists taking credit, attributing the school's success to the students, parents and community members who through the years fought off the system's repeated attempts to close the school, and the corporate "amigos" who raised millions of dollars and used their political muscle to get a new campus built.

"Good organizations that survive do not just depend on a leader that's out in front," she says. "It's not healthy for an organization to develop that way."

In a show of confidence, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in August 2008 added Lincoln Middle School -- the feeder school that shares the new campus -- to Tukeva's responsibilities as principal. Now, the low-key leader is working to do for the middle school what she has done for the high school.

***

Tukeva was not long out of graduate school, working as an administrative assistant at a Hispanic mental health agency in Northwest Washington -- called Centro Hispano de Salud -- in the late 1970s, when she began noticing similar complaints from immigrant parents: Their children had been good students in their native country but were being referred to special education by their schools. That was before bilingual education courses were widely offered, and Tukeva knew the schools simply didn't know what to do with the students. At the same time, Tukeva said, word was circulating that some schools were asking for students' green cards, discouraging many from enrolling. She believed strongly that the school system was disenfranchising immigrants from the education process.


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