For Joseph Bell, a 19-year-old senior at Phelps Vocational High School, the walk across the auditorium stage yesterday was one of the highlights of his young life.
Along with about 100 other students from eight D.C. schools, Bell received a letter from school Supt. Vincent Reed, praising him for getting all As and Bs on his first-semester report card. He also received a handshake from Reed, some words of encouragement, and a big round of applause from the audience.
"I think it's wonderful, it's very wncouraging," Bell said afterward. "The students who have all As and Bs sometimes don't want it to be known around the school because of how the other students react. If you do well, you're alone. You have to push yourself. But here was the superintendent pushing with you."
During the past three weeks. Reed has attended honor assembles at nine Washington high schools, and shaken hands with almost 1,000 students who have earned top grades.He has given them all-letters of commendation that he signed himself, and posed with hundreds of them for photographs.
"We want the kids to know that when they do good work, we're proud of them." Reed explained yesterday. "We want them to get recognition just like the football players and the basketball stars, who usually get all the attention.
"There are a lot of kids who have the ability to do good academic work, but they don't do it because of peer pressure. They're afraid of other students making fun of them. They're afraid the other ones will tell them, 'You think you're so smart, you know it all.'
"We're trying to change all that. We're trying to put the scholars up on stage."
Yesterday morning's special assembly, which was held at Sharpe Health School, 4300 13th St. NW, honored the top students at Washington's citywide high schools, including the five vocational schools, the Ellington School of the Arts and the School Without Walls. In the evening, Reed attended an assembly at the Springarn STAY school, which teaches students in their late teens who had dropped out of school but have decided to return.
Earlier this month, Reed attended honor assemblies at seven of the city's regular neigborhood high schools. He plans to go to three more of them next week.
At the program at McKinley High School on Monday, principal Athel Liggens announced that all honor students would be given a gold-colored ID card, called a "golden pass," entitling them to free admission at all school activities until next January.
Last week at Eastern High School, the program included a special song by the school chorus with the names of many of the honor students included in the lyrics.
Reed said the message he gives is about the same everywhere.
"The students know the football players, they know the basketball star, but they don't know the academic stars," he said. "Well, I want everybody to know who they are, and I want the good scholars to know that they are just as much superstars as the guy who can carry a football for three touchdowns or the one who can score 30 points in basketball.
"I'm not knocking sports," he added. "I was an athlete myself, but there's no reason we can't have both (sports and academics), and honor them both."
But, in his school, Phelps Vocational, most students are more interested in sports than in anything else, Bell said. The same thing is true, Reed said, in many other schools around the city and around the country.
"Many of the minority students feel that sports is the only way they are going to get into college," Bell said. "But if you're get a sports scholarship and you're just interested in sports, once you get out of school, you don't have anything else to do.
"A lot of my friends in school mess with me and tease me," he continued. "They call me, "Brian. But I don't care about what anybody else calls me. I just made up my mind I'm going to push hard on my science and math so I can become an engineer."
Next year, Bell said, he is going to the University of Wisconsin.