Are We Giving Children What They Need in Early Learning to Ensure Higher Learning?

By: Betty Williams, M.A. Counseling Psychology, C.A.G. Educational Psychology
Alumnae Program Director

My first job at Eagle Academy was the Assistant to Executive Director and Founder, Mrs. Cassandra S. Pinkney. I observed, on a daily basis, how passionate she was about children.  Although she had a Masters Degree in Special Education, education for all children was special to her. I observed the many people she helped, whether it was help with employee family issues, children with disabilities, communities in crisis, neighborhood politicians, or her maternal love for the child who was acting out in the classroom that day or the child who was a high achiever. I don't think there was ever a day when I did not leave work in awe at how large her heart was for people of various circumstances. In fact, one of the reasons why I jumped at the chance to be her Assistant is to attempt to give her back a little of the selflessness she gave to others. Mrs. Pinkney and I attended meetings and ran errands together. I even attended to the spa after work hours to ensure she maintained her own health.

Needless to say, we spent a lot of time together – during and after work hours.  During our time together we enjoyed discussing early learning, solutions in teaching and learning, how to ensure that the brilliance of underserved children had an outlet to express that brilliance and how to provide that outlet. She would discuss her experience with early learners and her former role as a child advocate for DC public schools and I would discuss my experience with middle and high school and my former role as a school teacher, school counselor, and DC Detention Center teacher of children ages 8 thru 18.  In general, one of our most talked about topics was the academic need of children of southeast DC.   More specifically, we talked about the excessive drop-out rate of children of southeast.

We labored at what Eagle Academy could do to impact the drop-out rate and to increase the attendance and graduation rate. As a former counselor at Ballou Senior High for over six years I witnessed the excessive drop-out rate first hand. I served as a school counselor to all high school grades there, however, as the ninth grade counselor, the September enrollment for ninth graders would as large as six to seven hundred. I had the pleasure of remaining their counselor per each grade up until graduation. Students began to dwindle in the tenth grade. By the time they reached eleventh grade over half had dropped out.  Subsequently, among that class that started with six or seven hundred only approximately 130 to 150 students would graduate. What happened to all of those students along the way? It was heartbreaking. I would actually see many of the students roaming the nearby streets surrounding the school.  Some had moved away or their families were transient – moving from one side of DC to another. Some of the students had started families of their own at an early age and decided to drop out of school to work instead of finishing school. So the absentee rate would be the first sign of student drop-out. “Education-reform activists cautioned that graduation rates represent just one measurement of school success. At Ballou, the graduation rate rose from 50 per cent in 2012 to 64 percent last year. Wilson said at the DC Council hearing in December that, despite persistent absenteeism, he believes students are still learning” (Perry Stein. “D.C. Schools Increasingly Graduating Chronically Absent Students, Report Finds.” Jan. 16, 2013).

Stein goes on to say that in 2017 almost all 164 graduates at Ballou were accepted into college. According to further research done by Mr. Stein, he found that most of the students who graduated from Ballou missed 30 days or more from school.  So once in college will they have to take remedial classes to catch up or will they have to go back to Ballou and finish the courses they legally failed. We, at Eagle, emplore parents to stay on top their child’s absences from school, not only on the early childhood level but all through school and especially high school.

Mrs. Pinkney was a visionary. She believed in loving all students toward academic success.  She also believed that they first had to really enjoy their very first learning experience, so they dance, have computers, swim, play, plant flowers, learn to become engineers and more. Mrs. Pinkney believed that If they started early, they would soar high academically later.”  Thus, Eagle brings out amazing skills and talents in students. In addition, they are amazing because we love them or either we love them because they are amazing. Eagle students have so much fun learning that Eagle staff and parents become not just partners in learning – but family. When Ms. Parker, a parent, was asked to join the Alumnae Program she did not hesitate saying, “Sign me up! We are die hard Eagles!” Ms. Parker’s son is now in the 6th grade at Imagine Lincoln Charter School. The Lathern family attributes their daughters’ great reading and homework skills to her teachers at Eagle Academy. She attends Achievement Prep maintaining her membership in the Scholar Baller Club. Ms. Hudson says that her son is doing very well at Kipp Academy. Ms. Hudson volunteered to work with our Alumnae Program and says that she loves Eagle and will recommend it to anyone.

Before Mrs. Pinkney passed, she actually gave some of us duties to carry out. It was almost as if she knew it was time to delegate parts of her vision to those she trusted. She delegated the Eagle Academy Alumnae Program to me. We began discussing this concept two years before she passed. Our hope was to provide answers to the questions “Are we giving our children what they need in early learning to ensure higher learning success?” and “Can we make an impact on student absenteeism among southeast DC students?” We decided to do more than rely on the data of outsiders.  Mrs. Pinkney wants every Eagle student to know that they are still a part of the Eagle family even after graduation. We still care their successes as well as their failures. She used to say “once family always family.”

Many of our teachers maintained contact with former students long before the Alumnae Program began, however, we wanted to simply make it a part of the Eagle culture.  The Alumnae Program is reaching out to parents and former students to join and volunteer to make sure our children go all the way. Help us fundraise, put on programs, do community service, etiquette and social training, and support the Cassandra S. Pinkney Foundation. Join us in keeping Mrs. Pinkney’s vision alive.

John Campbell