Destinie Jones, bearing good news, ran to meet the director of Dunbar High School's pre-engineering program at the elevator. "I got it! I got it!," she said waving a letter she received from Astronaut Colonel Frederick Gregory. "It came in today!"
Jones had asked Col. Gregory for a letter of recommendation to the U.S. Air Force Academy when she introduced herself to him during a conference for minorities in engineering. She later sent him a copy of her resume, transcript, and PSAT scores.
Col. Gregory, in his letter, said he was impressed with Jones' agressiveness and decided to fly from Houston to interview her. "Destinie succeeds because of talent, drive and motivation," Greogory said in his letter of recommendation to Del. Walter Fauntroy (D -- D.C.) who will make his decision later this school year. "She is a person who worked for everything that she has so far achieved."
For Jones, preparation for entry into the academy began her freshman year in high school. Now a senior, she participates in the Civil Air Patrol, the Youth Leadership Development Club, the Negro Airmen International Association, the Washington Junior Academy of Sciences, the Metropolitan Consortium of Minorities in Engineering, as well as the Dunbar track team.
And to get hands-on experience, she worked as an avionics maintenance trainee at Prince Georges Airpark during the summers.
Jones' education in aviation took off when she enrolled in the Pre-Engineering High School at Dunbar High School in Northwest. "I love airplanes," said Jones, who has a private pilot's license. "It's not just the money. I love to fly."
Judith Richardson, director of the Pre-Engineering High School, said a job outlook study showed that professions in engineering, as well as service-oriented industries (including foods, hotel management and banking) would be in demand by the time high school graduates of the 80's enter the job market. So D.C. public school officials decided to prepare students to enter those fields.
Six programs are offered in the D.C. public schools geared at providing students with marketable job skills. Burdick offers a curriculum in culinary arts; H.D. Woodson has a business and finance program; McKinley and the Penn Center provide training in communications; Roosevelt has a hospitality program; Wilson has an International Studies program; and Dunbar offers the pre-engineering program. Other programs are being developed.
The pre-engineering school's curriculum is designed to prepare "high potential" students for entry into technical fields including aviation, electrical engineering, and medicine.
"We wanted to provide a program which would make students marketable and well-rounded," said Richardson. "Students may get to their senior year and decide they don't like engineering, after all," she said. "But they will have a solid education, and discipline they can apply in any career field they do choose."
In the pre-engineering school, students are required to take five years of math -- beginning algebra through calculus -- five years of english, advanced science courses -- chemistry and physics -- computer courses, and advanced social studies classes in addition to the usual courses required by the comprehensive high school. And they must maintain a "C" average each year to stay in the program.
"Students have to work their butts off even to get a 'C'," Richardson said.
Such an intensive course load might overwhelm the average high school student, but students selected for the program have already proven they are up to the task. Students are selected based on their junior high school academic records and a personal interview with the director and teachers of the program.
The teacher-student communication doesn't stop there, however. Teachers meet regularly during the year to discuss students' performance in each class.
During these meetings, teachers often find that a student who is performing well in one class may not be performing up to par in another. For instance, it is very common, according to Richardson, to find that the engineering students perform well in math and science courses, but barely get by in English classes.
"We discuss each student's performance and decide on ways to motivate them to their full potential," Richardson said.
When students don't maintain their grades in all classes, they are given a warning. If they fail to improve by the end of the next quarter, they are terminated from the program, Richardson said.
However, few students have been terminated from the program. Most students who enter the program do so because they have a keen interest in engineering.
Sixteen-year-old senior Ronald Worthy, said he is pursuing a career in electrical engineering. "I have to work hard," said Worthy, who attended the prestigous Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire last summer. "But I like the challenge."
Worthy said the pre-engineering curriculum is so rigorous that students often need additional instruction after class.
Most teachers in the program don't mind sacrificing a lunch break to help students, said calculus teacher Tina Bowen.
When the lunch bell rang one recent morning, the noise of students rushing to their lockers filled the halls. But the students in Bowen's calculus class were in no hurry to leave. Five students remained in class for a tutoring session. They were joined by a few other pre-engineering students arriving with brown bags and books.
Upstairs, the other teachers in the program used their lunch break to discuss students' performances.
Joyce Coffey, a social studies teacher who also tutors during lunch breaks and after school, said pre-engineering students are different from students who attend the regular comprehensive program at Dunbar.
"They're like night and day. Pre-engineering students tend to be self-motivated and perseverant," said Coffey, who believed the difference may be attributed to the parent-involvement. "Their parents cooperate with us to make sure they come to school and do their homework."
Richardson also "pounds the pavement" to enlist cooperation from engineering-related organizations that offer services to high school students. Several professional organizations, U.S. government agencies, corporations and universities participate in the program. These include Metropolitan Consortium for Minorities in Engineering (MET-CON), General Motors, Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Navy Yard, Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.
"We expose them to a lot," she said.