The first day of school is in two weeks, and the staff at Excel Academy in Southeast Washington needs to make sure everything is just right. Teachers crammed preschool classrooms with colorful books, plush seating and games. Maintenance workers tidied the school garden, pruning the sunflowers and picking the ripe vegetables.
Teachers and administrators are also ensuring that the city’s families are aware the school even exists, recruiting them through community events, churches and phone calls.
Until this spring, Excel had been a charter school. But then it failed. Now, the traditional public school system, having brought Excel into its domain, is gearing up to reopen the school — the only public all-girls school in the District.
Excel Academy opened as a charter school in 2008, but the D.C. Public Charter School Board voted to close it earlier this year because of poor performance. About 700 students attended Excel last year, and enrollment is poised to plunge to roughly 300 this coming academic year. The school system said it expects enrollment to increase by late August, with more families signing up each day.
The school system tapped Tenia Pritchard, the city’s 2018 Principal of the Year to lead the efforts. Pritchard, a native Washingtonian who graduated from Eastern High, headed Whittier Education Campus in Northwest Washington for the past six years.
“One person does not have the ability to turn around a school,” D.C. schools spokesman Shayne Wells said. “But Tenia Pritchard represents what a strong school leader looks like.”
Excel, which runs from preschool through eighth grade, has served mostly black girls from low-income families, and the demographics are expected to remain the same. The school has a science-focused curriculum, and students can take courses that include architecture, computer science, robotics and photography.
While the principal and two assistant principals are new to the school, officials estimate the campus retained more than half of the staff who taught at Excel when it was a charter school.
“We will expose young women of color to careers where they are historically underrepresented, especially science, technology, engineering, and math,” Pritchard wrote in an email, adding that the school will also emphasize students’ social and emotional growth. “At Excel Academy, we will sweat the small stuff from how students transition in the hallway, to the level of empathy we share through sisterhood and leadership when interacting with one another daily.”
School officials said it is unclear why enrollment dipped this year. But one explanation could be that the school system announced it would assume control of the all-girls campus about the time of the school lottery deadline in March. Excel is open to girls across the city, and families have to apply through the school lottery to secure a slot.
Erika Blackburn, a preschool teacher at Excel helping with recruitment, said she has reached out to families who were on the wait list at their top schools, or who did not match with a school through the lottery. She wants families to know Excel is an option, and she said most have been receptive to her message.
She said some families who attended the school when it was a charter are skeptical of its switch to the traditional public school system, while others saw the old Excel in decline and are more optimistic about its future.
“We have a lot of feminists coming in. They want their daughters to know they are superheroes,” Blackburn said.
Lekeisha Hunter decided to send her two daughters to Excel after she learned that Pritchard would be leading the school. Hunter’s younger daughter attended Whittier when Pritchard was principal, and her older daughter also went there for elementary school.
She hadn’t considered an all-girls school before she learned of Excel but figured with Pritchard at the helm she would give it a shot.
“You can’t tell her no, she’s that great,” said Hunter, who was hired to be a behavioral technician at Excel.
This is only the second time the District has taken over a failing charter school. D.C. Public Schools assumed leadership of Petworth’s Community Academy Public Charter School — and renamed it Dorothy I. Height Elementary School — in 2015 after the charter board voted to close the school amid financial mismanagement.
Since the takeover, the school has increased enrollment and improved standardized test scores.
D.C. Public Schools opened its first all-male school, Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, in 2016. The American Civil Liberties Union has slammed that school and Excel, arguing the government should not run single-sex schools.
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU’s D.C. chapter, told The Washington Post earlier this year that she hopes families will consider legal action if the school system rejects their daughter from Ron Brown or their son from Excel.
“The issue still remains that segregated schools reinforce single-sex stereotypes and promote sexism,” Hopkins-Maxwell said.
Demoni Hunter, a rising seventh-grader at Excel and Lekeisha Hunter’s daughter, said she is excited to be in a class with all female peers.
“I can learn more at this school,” said the 12-year-old, an aspiring math teacher. “Because the kids will be like a sisterhood.”