Niciera Armor was starting to take her classes more seriously. That was her “rose.” But she was also letting little things get to her, making her angry and forcing her to fight to control her anger. That was her “thorn.”
The ninth-grader shared her week’s highlights and struggles with a group of 12 other girls at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast Washington during a recent meeting.
The group, known as H.E.R. Story, is an after-school club where girls meet once a week to discuss how they are feeling, how they are doing in school and how things are going at home. They sometimes study together, plan community service events, and share snacks and juice.
Shayla Stafford, the school’s instructional coach, started H.E.R. Story, which stands for Helping Empower Regalness, about four years ago. She saw the need for a space for girls to come together, talk freely and support one another.
“When I was in ninth grade, I was shy and rarely opened up,” said Jasmine Gibson, a senior who has been in the group for four years. “Now I am more open. I started to love myself, and I am able to talk to people without being scared.”
Beginning this summer, D.C. Public Schools plans to create similar support groups in schools across the city as part of an initiative to boost academic achievement for girls of color.
Like many urban school systems, DCPS has struggled to raise graduation rates and test scores for students of color. School systems across the country have devoted significant funding for initiatives, particularly for black males, that aim to provide unique programs to keep students in school and boost academics.
But boys aren’t the only ones who are struggling.
About 75 percent of black and Latina female students graduate on time in the D.C. school system, officials say, compared with 97 percent of white female students. Black female students also have the lowest level of student satisfaction with D.C. schools, according to data provided by the school system.
At Phelps, in the Langston neighborhood, girls talk about being more engaged in school, seeking support from their peers and wanting to give back to their community.
The school is an application high school, meaning it enrolls students from across the city. It focuses on engineering, construction and architecture. About 96 percent of its 300 students are black, and virtually all come from low-income families.
At a meeting, the girls discussed a conference they want to hold to raise awareness about teenage girls who run away from home and are sometimes victims of sex trafficking.
Some of the ninth-graders said they were proud that they were doing better in class.
“First and second quarter, I was just sleeping,” Armor said. “Fourth quarter, I opened my eyes a lot, and I am taking it seriously.”
Her peers snapped their fingers in approval.
Her thorn was that she was letting her “attitude” get the best of her. She treats her friends like family, people she has to care for. She let something “little” get the best of her recently, to the point that she wanted to fight another classmate.
“I have to stop that because I know my attitude isn’t going to get me anywhere,” Armor said.
One of her peers chimed in.
“It’s always about self-discipline,” she said. “People can constantly tell you to fix yourself, but you are not going to fix yourself until you want to be fixed.”
Voyttina Savoy, a senior, suggested that Armor walk away from those types of situations before things escalate.
“If I know my attitude is bad, I am not going to put myself in a situation where, the moment I see something I don’t like, I am going to go south,” Savoy said.
After the meeting, the group’s five seniors and Stafford discussed how they were going to celebrate graduation. The girls wanted to take a day trip to Ocean City. Stafford was reluctant but said she wanted to go all-out for these girls.
“I need to pray, and I need to raise some money,” Stafford joked.
Most of the seniors had been in H.E.R. Story since ninth grade. All had applied and been accepted to college, a first in their families.
But Stafford offered a caution: “You know what we need to focus on: the summer before college,” she said. There is this thing called “summer melt,” Stafford told the girls. It happens when students who get into college start working during the summer and then don’t end up going to school.
“You guys are going to have to send to me when you sent in your deposit, and when you move into your dorm,” Stafford told the girls.
No one said a word.
“Hello,” Stafford said, looking around. “Why did it go quiet?”
Stafford said they must go to college, even if she has to drive the girls to campus and help them move in.
“It’s not enough to get in, now you have to go,” she said.