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Opinion

A new school year at the new Anacostia

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Opinion,Op-Eds

I recently cut the ribbon on a $62 million renovation at the Academies at Anacostia, the school where I am privileged to serve as the principal. Perhaps the change that parents and students will notice first is the newly renovated and refurbished main building, which the city had let fall into a state of disrepair over seven decades.

The main building joins the three-story annex and gymnasium, also fully modernized last year. The old, neglected building that I first entered when I became principal sent exactly the wrong message to students. Now our gleaming, pristine, modern facility lets them know we mean it when we say we care about them and want them to succeed.

For too long, negative assumptions and low expectations held our students back. This is changing. In fact, the change in our school's culture is even bigger than these external changes.

The catalyst was a partnership, started three years ago, between District of Columbia Public Schools and Friendship Public Charter School, an African-American-led D.C. education provider. Born out of a community service nonprofit, Friendship educates nearly 8,000 students in the District and Baltimore.

One sign of the new Anacostia is a growing enthusiasm for school among our students. Before the partnership, barely half showed up on any given day, but attendance has shot up sharply now. A school that once was constantly visited by the city's emergency services has taken control of its hallways, classrooms and common areas.

Anacostia's high school graduation rate last year was 78 percent, up from only 56 percent only three years ago. Before our partnership began, no record was even kept of how many students were accepted to college -- a sign of where that aspiration fell in the scheme of priorities. Last year, half of our graduating students were accepted to college.

It's central to my job to make sure our students are prepared for college. But so is providing the scholarship opportunities that enable students to attend who otherwise would not be able to afford it. To date, some 75 Anacostia students have earned D.C. Achievers Scholarships, which pay a full-ride through college. Two students have been awarded Gates Millennium Scholarships, which pays all the tuition costs of an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree.

This year, our student reading and math test scores increased over last year's, and we hope to improve student proficiency still further. We now offer our students Advanced Placement courses, which are typically offered by the city's specialized schools and at suburban and private schools. Some 150 students are taking them this year.

School also is coming alive in other ways. After a lengthy absence, there is a school yearbook again. We have fielded a team on the long-running local television quiz show, "It's Academic." Our debate team is flourishing, and there are now many afterschool activities available. On our recently improved track and field, a number of athletic opportunities are available to our students. This fall, the school is investing more resources in Anacostia's football team. The Academies at Anacostia hired NFL pro-bowler and Super Bowl champion Cato June to lead the athletic department and football team.

Taken together, all of the new developments at the school are beginning to receive attention. Our students and our parents have more opportunities to connect with our teachers and our school community.

Stedman Graham, who founded a nonprofit educational foundation aimed at helping teens discover their full potential, attended our college signing day last year. He is now running a professional development workshop at the school. And first lady Michelle Obama recently gave the commencement address to our graduating class. The first lady has visited students at the school and continues to take an interest in their progress. I believe this interest is based on a sincere belief in our students and our community.

The last phase of the renovations we completed to the main building last month is just one example of our commitment to the students and community we serve. As principal, I can't think of a more encouraging way for our students to start off the new school year.

Dr. Ian Roberts is the principal at the Academies at Anacostia.

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