"If the people in this neighborhood and around the city came up here and saw what was going on, they'd be shocked," said Mattie Robinson, as she stood on the front steps of the Nannie Helen Burroughs School.
It's not that anything particularly out of the ordinary is going on at the private school, it's just that the school itself is out of the ordinary. Robinson wishes more people knew about the school, which sits atop a large grassy hill overlooking the Deanwood section of Northeast Washington and occupies a 13-acre, $3 million piece of land.
"Our school has been black-owned and operated since 1909," said Robinson, the school's headmistress. "We feel that that's quite an accomplishment, but if people continue to be unaware of what we're doing, we might lose this."
Officials of the D.C. Laymen of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Icn., an organization of about 100 men that bought the school in 1978 in ordre to keep it solvent, say there is no danger of the school closing in the immediate future. But they want to increase the visibility of the school in an effort to attract more students and generate new sources of revenue.
To that end, the grtoup held a parade last Saturday to call attention to the school, which it calls an invaluable community resource and historical monument.
The evergreen Baptist Church and the Stoddard Baptist Home, an old school dormitory that recently became a temporary nursing home for the elderly, also stand on the school grounds.
About 150 students from throughout the Washington area, most of them black, attend the school. Many of the students come from families headed by schoolteachers and upper-management-level government employes, school officials say. Annual tuition is about $1,300.
In addition to the regular elementary school curriculum, the school offers classes in computer science, space technology, multi-lingual studies and typing.
The late Dr. Nannie Helen Burroughs, who died at age 78 in 1961, was nationally known as the female counterpart to Booker T. Washington, according to Dr. Aurelia Downey, school president. Endowed with a charismatic personality, she stood for high Christian morals and believed in work and discipline.
Burroughs founded the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls Inc. in order to inspire and teach black females marketable skills, cultivate their characters and fortify their religious backgrounds, headmistress Robinson said.
Though the school has since been renamed in Burroughs' honor and is now a coeducational elementary school, its purpose has not changed. "We're trying to reach people through Christianity and education," Robinson said. "We're in the midst of crime and in the midst of a lot of social problems -- unemployemnt and all the things that go with people trying to escape the misery of unemployment -- yet we continue to reach out and inspire our children (students at the school) to reach higher goals."
The parade is one of several events held each year to raise money to operate the school. The event featured a contest to pick a queen from teen-agers from the sponsoring churches; Angela Gibbs of Mount Carmel Baptist Church won the crown. That event, a quarterly magazine, tuition and other fund-raisers generate the $350,000 needed to run the school. The parade alone raised $2,500.
About 200 people participated in the parade, including Mayor Marion Barry and city council members H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), Betty Ann Kane (D-at-large) and William Spaulding (D-Ward 5). A wind ensemble from McKinley High School, local police officers and firefighters and queen candidates from several Baptist churches around the District also attended.
On the powerfully hot but dry Saturday afternoon, the procession of marchers, musicians, dancers and cars left Glendale Baptist Church and went down an almost empty Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue without much fanfare.Several neighborhood residents sat by their windows waving and smiling, while enjoying the coolness of their fans or air conditioners.
"I wondered where all the people were, but when I saw many of them at their windows, I knew our efforts had not gone all for nought," said Downey. After the parade wound its way up 50th Street and onto the school grounds, she and others wee relieved to see several people waiting under the shade of trees and bushes, waiting for the post-parade program to begin.
Crawford stepped to the podium with a frown on his face. He praised the school for its hard work and success but reminded the crowd that, "Just over this hill, people are in misery. Right next to this marvelous school and campus. That's our fault; let's do something about it." He referred to the low-income neighborhood along South Capitol Street SE that borders the school's campus on one side.
Council member Betty Ann Kane said that the peaceful, community-oriented event proved that even though Washington is known for its beautiful buildings, "the strength and beauty of our city is our neighborhoods."