When Lisa Howard graduated from Ballou High School in Congress Heights last week, she had a nearly perfect average--3.94--and took top awards for science, physics, mathematics and humanities. At the senior athletic banquet, she needed a carton to carry home the eight trophies and two plaques she won for her performance on the school's championship basketball team and its softball and volleyball teams.
Next fall, Howard, the first member of her family to attend college, will take those accomplishments to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, becoming the first student from Ballou's special math and science program to do so.
Relaxing yesterday in canvas sneakers and blue jeans on the wood-framed porch of her home in the Naylor-Dupont section of Southeast, the shy, 17-year-old Howard casually downplayed her achievements.
"My philosophy is you have to get the most that you can. . . Some people give up because they can't be Number One in class. But that doesn't mean you can't be an exceptional student," she said.
Howard comes from a school which has had its share of problems. Its 11th graders score at a 9th-grade level or below on standardized reading and math tests. Principal Dennis Johnson complains there was no heat all winter in one wing of the building, and bleachers in the outdoor stadium have been broken for more than a year. Johnson says he has had to take knives and even a baseball bat away from outsiders who have wandered into his building. Last year, he said, a student tried to strangle him in a hallway.
But Ballou's math and science program has been a drawing card over the past seven years, attracting a core of the best and brightest students from around the city to the school perched atop a grassy hill overlooking Mississippi Avenue.
In the past, the program--begun because school officials feared that not enough minority students were entering technical fields--has sent its graduates off to such schools as Harvard, Yale, Duke and the Virginia Polytecnic Institute. Howard will be the first to attend MIT.
Howard, five feet seven inches tall, is as comfortable talking about jump shots and fast breaks on the basketball court as she is writing a computer program to predict the orbits of satellites--which she did for an advanced physics class this year.
Rosalie Dance, Howard's math teacher, said Howard once told her she could not understand why some students considered her "super-smart" even though she received nothing but A's in the last semester of her senior year, when she was taking physics, engineering concepts, German, calculus and humanities.
"She told me, 'I just remember what people taught me and I use it,'" Dance said.
"Just a lot of fun" is the way Howard describes almost anything having to do with learning--the two-week engineering course she took at MIT last summer in an Air Force-sponsored program, the spelling bee she won while at Kimball Elementary in Southeast, the plays she participated in at the Fort Dupont Activities Center.
It was last summer's trip to MIT, she said, that made her choose the school over the seven others that accepted her, including Harvard University. Said William Fitzsimmons, director of admissions at Harvard, "We're sorry we didn't get her."
"I thought I'd better choose the school I am more familiar with," Howard said. MIT, she said, offered her a $10,650 financial aid package, including scholarship funds, loans and work-study.
"I'll still have to pay $3,000 or $4,000, which is quite a lot for my family," Howard said.
The family includes her mother, Alma, a dentist's receptionist; a sister, Patricia, 19, who is in the National Guard; and a brother, Otis, 15, who graduated at the top of his class at Sousa Junior High School and will be attending the Ballou math and science program next fall. Her father, who worked as a press operator with the Government Printing Office, died 2 1/2 years ago.
Howard's mother attributes the success of her children to the values she said she tried to instill in them.
"I always told them to study hard and try to make something of themselves, mainly because I didn't get a proper education," she said. "I graduated from high school, but I wanted to go to college and couldn't afford it."
Alma Howard says she doesn't know how she will pay for the portion of her daughter's tuition not covered in the financial aid package, "but I'm going to do everything possible." At MIT, Lisa Howard hopes to study aeronautical engineering to prepare herself for a career in the space program.
Howard, whose bedroom walls are decorated with her plaques, trophies and certificates of honor, says it's been her dream ever since fourth grade, when she watched the Apollo landing on the moon, to become an astronaut.
"I just thought that would be the funnest thing in the world."