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Opportunity to Succeed: A Jesuit Approach to Education

When the Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA) was founded in 2002, its leaders sought to answer an important question: “What more can we do for our students, our families, and our community to change the face of urban education?” During a recent visit, staff from the Office of Non-Public Education sought to identify lessons that could be shared with other educational leaders who are trying to answer this same question. WJA, a Catholic middle school for boys from low-income neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., has established a model that seeks to defy the city’s opportunity gap and prepare its students for long-term success. The school provides tuition assistance as well as social, nutritional, and health services to nearly 100 students, an enrollment intentionally kept low to ensure students receive focused, individualized attention.

Extended school days and longer academic year

Students at the Washington Jesuit Academy receives focused, one-on-one instruction as part of more than 2,000 hours of instruction annually. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Jesuit Academy)

Students at the Washington Jesuit Academy receive focused, one-on-one instruction as part of more than 2,000 hours of instruction annually. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Jesuit Academy)

WJA uses extended school days and a longer academic year to provide additional instruction time, scholastic reinforcement, and social supports that enable students to overcome many of the challenges associated with poverty. With an 11-month school year and eight hours of classes each day, followed by enrichment activities and study hall with tutoring five days a week, WJA students receive more than 2,000 instructional hours each year. When compared to what the average public school student receives in a school year, this translates to nearly 100 additional days of learning for WJA students. “The extended-day, extended-year model is made possible by committed faculty and student support staff,” stated WJA Founding President William B. Whitaker.

College-to-career commitment begins early

While faculty and staff at WJA focus on what it will take to help students succeed in middle school, they are equally committed to seeing their students graduate from high school, attend and graduate from college, and successfully enter the workforce. “It’s a hallmark of the Academy,” says Howard Blue, director of the Graduate Support Program at WJA. “We do not simply say that [we want students to succeed], but we put that commitment into action through the work of our graduate support team.” Comprised of teachers, academic support staff, licensed school social workers, and administrators, the team meets frequently to discuss and address students’ individual academic and personal needs. The school also provides counseling to help students transition from middle school to high school and from high school to college. Students receive guidance on college- and career-preparatory course selections as well as college admission and financial aid applications. Recognizing that college graduation, not simply acceptance, is critical, WJA provides ongoing support to its graduates throughout their high school and college educations and into their early career years.

The well-being of students and families matters

Students partake of nutritious meals cooked daily by the DC Central Kitchen. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Jesuit Academy)

Students partake of nutritious meals cooked daily by the DC Central Kitchen. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Jesuit Academy)

The school invests in the social, emotional, and physical well-being of its students and their families, by forging strong relationships with local nonprofit organizations to deliver essential social, nutritional, and health services. In place of conventional guidance counselors, licensed school social workers regularly assess the needs of students and their families and recommend individualized assistance involving community organizations. DC Central Kitchen prepares three cooked meals on-site daily. Marcus Washington, WJA’s headmaster, sees this service as integral to WJA’s academic program. “Our partnership with DC Central Kitchen provides our students with three balanced and healthy meals each day, allowing them the energy to get through the Academy’s rigorous schedule.” To educate and empower students to understand the importance of academic preparation and determination, students can participate with a WJA subsidiary, Link2:DC, to attend education seminars, service-learning opportunities and participate in summer work programs.

Development for lifelong success

Underpinning the rigorous college-preparatory program is a holistic approach to character development. WJA seeks to instill in students the values of charity, integrity, and compassion. These traits are reinforced daily during morning assembly and in every aspect of their education, as students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and those of others. Inspired by the Jesuit motto, “Men for Others,” WJA leaders strive to nurture a generation of reflective, action-oriented citizens dedicated to improving the lives of others in need. It was evident during our visit that the rigorous and caring community is developing students not only for others, but for their own success in high school, college, and beyond.

Isadora Binder is a management and program analyst in the Office of Non-Public Education (ONPE) division of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, and Lisa-Marie O’Malley was a 2014 ONPE summer intern through the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership.

Footnote: In the 2011-2012 school year, the average public school student received 1,203 hours of learning over 179 school days, according the Digest of Education Statistics.