Top Notch Academics and Cell Phone Sandwiches
Anita Berger has a stack of stickers. They say “Principal’s Commendation” in pretty blue script. While her staff has suggested she switch to a quicker and easier rubber stamp, Principal Berger won’t budge. It’s the personal touch that matters, she says. She knows that the students appreciate seeing the sticker on their report cards. She won’t stop now.
Principal Berger has been at Banneker for 22 years— the last nine as a principal. When she first got here, students came from four feeder schools. Now they come from 52. In that time, Banneker has been named one of America’s best high schools by Newsweek/The Daily Beast. President Obama has visited and given a speech. Just a few days ago, a group of students went to the France state visit at the White House. As the neighborhood —and DC—continues to change, Banneker remains a desirable destination for any student who wants to go to college. 100 percent of seniors got in last year.
Here are some excerpts from a conversation with Principal Berger.
What amazes me is the hard work and determination of the students and how they grow the culture and do it on their own. It does your heart well because it’s almost contagious. They get it. Of course we push them, but it is so much more their peers’ influence.
We don’t test for admissions. And we do have sports. We’re more than academics. There’s a lot of cultural events, drama, and athletics—we’re very diverse in talent.
The Custodian who Coaches Basketball
I think about my support staff and the work they do. We don’t talk a lot about them. My head custodian mentors and works with the boys. He coaches basketball. Our business manager coaches volleyball. They’re not just the people behind the counter. I’ve tried to engage everyone, because it takes all of us to make the school successful. The things to which they commit are not your normal staff commitments. The staff is not just here to make sure the building is operating; they’re here to help mold the children. They’re truly dedicated. The teachers make it work inside the classroom. The staff makes it work outside. They exceed expectations.
A Special Class
We have advisory, which is like a homeroom twice a week. I decided five years ago that I would take on an all-boys advisory because they needed me in different ways; either their grades didn’t look that great or they had extenuating circumstances.
Banneker is only about 30 % male; we try to recruit more. I realized that we needed to look at young men a little differently. Just because a boy can’t sit still doesn’t mean it’s a behavior issue. Maybe we just need to challenge their energy in a different way. And I told them, “I can’t teach you to be a man but I can teach you to be a productive citizen.”
I put a lot of responsibility with them. During graduation, I could barely make it through when they came to get their diplomas. I felt like I really did something for them. I helped them believe in themselves and beat the odds, and to just talk about decision-making and deal with peer pressure. They went on to Morehouse, VCU, and Oklahoma State, to name a few. They always come back during break from college. It’s always like, “Look at you now, you’re a man.” And the conversation always starts, “I know you’re a 3 point what GPA?” We’ve set up those standards.
The Path to Banneker
We obviously look at things like grades, scores, and recommendations. Then we interview the student alone, and the student and the parent together. The students and parents have to be partners to succeed.
It’s a pretty intense process. You have to come here understanding what’s required of the parent, not just the student. It’s a process and not always a good fit for everyone. Some people don’t work well in a more confined environment. We have a lot of old school rules: dress code, no gum, no hats, and no cell phones.
Once admitted, we have a summer institute for five weeks. We give them a variety of things to do, and they bond with other students. Etiquette training, ballroom dancing, math, study skills, organization skills, and more. We do two college tours.
If your dream isn’t college, then this place is not for you.
The kids here are unbelievable. When you look at where they came from, and where they are now, it’s just unbelievable. They understand the standard and they live up to the expectation. Some of them are really beating the odds. This is a Title I school, and there are some extenuating circumstances. I believe all children can be successful and they are proof. They validate our purpose. We want more students in here. If I can get you in here, I can guarantee you can get to college. If you stop a senior in the hall, they’ll tell you where they’ve been accepted into college.
A Cell Phone Sandwich
We have a no-cell phone policy. Some students get real creative. They’ll walk with a limp, and it’s like, “Hey, what’s going on there?” And the phone is in their shoe! Or they’ll put them in between two pieces of bread. One girl kept throwing it into the bushes and I was like, “Girl, it’s going to rain!” We do have courtesy phones all over the place, including each classroom, so parents feel safe.
From DC Student to DC Principal
Since I was in the 5th grade I knew this is what I wanted to do—be a teacher. I was born and raised in DC. I grew up in the Trinidad area. It gives me a real good backdrop to meet the needs of the students. I had great teachers—Mrs. McNeil, Mrs. Jones. If you think about who you are now, you can always point to some teacher.
Did I anticipate being a principal? Not in my wildest dreams. But I love what I do. I want to ensure that I can put everything in place so students can never say, “Ms. Berger, I couldn’t.”
It could be something as simple as coats in winter. We keep a rack of coats for kids to take because I know some of them don’t have warm ones. There’s this room, we call it the Obama Lounge. That was his holding area. But before that, it was the Banneker Boutique. There are gowns and tuxedos for the prom, nice clothes for interviews, shoes. We know who needs them but we try to persuade them without letting them know.
Advanced Placement at Banneker
About three years ago, after looking at the scores, I decided that I needed to expose the students earlier to AP. Now, the entire 10th grade takes AP World History to give them a little taste of the rigor.
Most students take two to four APs. We offer nine. We also have an IB program.
We’ve had a lot of success but we also know our scores need to go up. We’re doing training and retraining of the teachers, picking up best practices from other schools. Our advisories are targeted, too. Twice a week, the 12th graders work on scholarships and college applications; the 11th graders work on AP and SAT; the 10th graders work on DC CAS and AP World History; and the 9th graders work on reading and biology.
Editor's Note: This is an updated version from the article that was posted earlier today, 2/15/14.