The Columns

A Day in the Life: Emma Swabb Johnson Opportunity Grant Recipient Emma Swabb Explores Alternative Education Models in Washington, D.C.

— by on September 4th, 2015

“If we are to begin identifying and changing the numerous systems that herd young African-American men from low-income communities to prisons and jails, one very helpful place to start is in our nation’s schools.”

Emma SwabbEmma Swabb (sedond from left) with fellow teachers

Emma Swabb ’16
Teaching Assistant at Washington Jesuit Academy
Washington, D.C.

It was the first Wednesday of the mandatory summer program at Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA), and I was sitting at a desk grading diagnostic tests. These pre-tests had been given on Monday, the first day of class, to Mrs. Brower’s seventh grade language arts class and would help us determine where each individual stood academically and who needed review on specific topics. One of the questions asked students to come up with a list of ten nouns that could be considered living quarters, and the example given was “home.” Students scrawled words including house, apartment, condo, cabin, flat, etc. I was surprised when I came across one student’s answers; the first noun Reggie listed on the lines provided was “prison.” Despite my study of developmental psychology and research on the pervasive and multifaceted issue of mass incarceration in our country, I was taken aback. Never had I experienced the two topics in such close and potent proximity. Upon further consideration of this moment, however, I realized that my initial reaction was naïve. After all, I was going to be teaching and interacting with middle school boys from low-income communities in Washington, D.C., 96 percent of whom were African-American. Statistically speaking, it is an unfortunate reality that the men who fill our nation’s prisons, or who are under some form of correctional control, match the age and racial demographics of my students’ older brothers, cousins, uncles and fathers.

WJA is a unique school for a number of reasons. It is a privately funded middle school for boys in fifth through eighth grades from low-income communities. Its small class sizes allow teachers and counselors to get to know each student and his family. In order to attend the school, students must, among other things, qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. This means that a student’s family income is at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. Every young man who attends the school does so on a full scholarship. WJA operates on an extended year model, meaning they have an 11-month school year that includes the mandatory summer program. This program consists of three academic periods in the morning followed by recreational activities in the afternoon. Depending on the day of the week, students attend field trips, go to their chosen clubs or do recreational sports outside. The summer program is meant to prevent the ‘summer slide’ that often occurs for students living in low-income communities. By holding academic classes and free reading periods in the summer, it is the hope that students will continue to achieve or maintain the educational gains that have been made during the school year. During the regular school year, WJA operates on an extended-day model. Students are required to attend a study hall after the school day ends and complete most or all of their homework assignments. Students also eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the school.

Before entering the classroom each period, students shake the teacher’s hand, look him or her in the eye and say, “Good morning.” At first this seemed like an odd routine to me, certainly nothing I’d ever done in school before. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized what an important exercise this routine truly is; this simple gesture is vital in fostering students’ soft skills. To look someone in the eye and to greet a person, even if you may not really be in the mood, is an extremely important lesson in communication as well as social and interpersonal skills that make a person both employable and more pleasant to be around. Students are also held accountable for their absences. I got in the habit of asking students, even those I didn’t have in class, “I didn’t see you around yesterday; why weren’t you here?” This sort of individual attention and soft skill training may be absent in the home lives of students, especially if they are coming from difficult family situations.

Another interesting fact about WJA is that a number of alumni, whether they just graduated in May or they are now entering college, come back — they come to work out at the gym, help the summer program staff or just hang out and play basketball with the students at recess. If they’re bored at home, they know the doors are open at WJA. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I sure wouldn’t voluntarily go back to my middle school to hang out. This is a really subtle, positive way to show the current students just how special WJA is and that their role models actually like going to school, because they continue coming back even after they’ve graduated. WJA truly seems to be students’ home away from home.

Positive reinforcement is the rule rather than the exception at WJA. Each student is often reminded that he has the potential to be a great leader, role model and contributing member of society. The headmaster at WJA, Marcus Washington, delivered an articulate, inspiring, yet informal speech to the new and returning fifth and sixth graders in July. He told them about how he attained his present position and what it takes to succeed in life even if you start out at a perceived, uncontrollable disadvantage. As a fellow D.C. native, Mr. Washington told the students about the fate of some of his friends who took a different path. Unfortunately, he had to separate himself from these bad influences and now some of his closest childhood friends are in prison or have been victims of gun violence. He also took quite a bit of time to explain the expectations that he and the teachers have for the students. It is clear that each student would be held to a higher standard than they would have been at their old school. The bar is high at WJA — very high, but it is not unreasonable, and the benefits of staying the course are plentiful.

The young men are expected to work hard academically and athletically, stay on a good path and learn and live what it means to be “Men for Others.” Men for Others have grit and the wherewithal to do what is right at all times, even when no one is watching. They are “willing to be courageous, just in their actions and active in their acceptance of God, their gifts, and others.” The school’s goal is to help form respectful, confident young men who will be caring, contributing members of their communities. Doing well at WJA helps students form good study habits and get into better private high schools in the D.C. area, then hopefully go on to college. WJA boasts a 98 percent high school graduation rate for its alumni, which is nearly two times the graduation rate for young men of color in the D.C. area. WJA also helps its students in ways they may be too young to realize. Middle school is a time when students are beginning to determine not only their academic habits, but also their social habits. WJA reminds the young men to be themselves, resist negative peer pressure and always set a good example for the younger students. Those who work hard and commit themselves to excellence end up forming positive, lasting relationships with teachers, coaches, staff members and peers.

I chose an internship as a teaching assistant at this progressive school with a few specific goals in mind. As a psychology major and poverty minor, I wanted to glean more about how our education system, from an early age, can either positively or negatively affect young men of color, who too often are the subject of conversation when we talk about crime and poverty in our nation. Second, I wanted to see how it would feel to be a teacher — to middle school boys, nonetheless. Having been accepted into the Teach For America Corps as a junior, I was wondering if I could see myself doing this job. Would I be comfortable in front of a classroom? My father spent his entire 35-year career teaching English to students at an inner city high school, and I truly wanted to catch a glimpse into the career of being an educator. As the daughter and niece of teachers, I have always had the utmost respect for those who make it their life’s work to spread knowledge, sow seeds of passion and impart wisdom to our nation’s students. After my experience, I can now say that I have even more respect and appreciation for the work that educators do. By working with individuals and small groups in class, assisting with the art club and racecar club, as well as chaperoning numerous field trips, I believe that I achieved my goals and learned that I have the patience to effectively handle a classroom of middle school boys. But, most importantly, I learned that kids are fun. I truly had a great time and really got to know an amazing group of young men, whom I hope will go on to become the leaders and role models I know they can be.

Before beginning this internship, I knew that young men like Reggie are too often surrounded by negative influences. This summer has afforded me the opportunity to work at an institution that is actively seeking to ensure that its students choose a different path and do not emulate those negative influences. Though my reaction to Reggie’s answer on his diagnostic test admittedly seemed naïve, it was still a proper reaction, in my opinion. I believe that we should all be equally surprised, and even more disturbed, to realize that young men of color in the U.S. consider “prison” to be just another place to live — to be a synonym for “home.” There is no doubt that there has been a recent and evident change in terms of citizens and politicians reexamining some of our nation’s most deeply held beliefs about the intersection of crime, punishment, educational opportunity, mental health and race. When we draw a critical eye to some of our nation’s most frequently touted ideals, such as equality before the law and access to education, are we at all living up to our promises? If we are to begin identifying and changing the numerous systems that herd young African-American men from low-income communities to prisons and jails, one very helpful place to start is in our nation’s schools. The “school-to-prison pipeline,” the existence of which is irrefutable, can and must be permanently redirected. Thanks to the Johnson Opportunity Grant, I was extremely fortunate to have been able to intern at Washington Jesuit Academy, a school whose model is at the forefront of changing the face of urban education and its outcomes.

Hometown: Erie, PA

Major: Psychology

Minor: Poverty & Human Capability Studies

Extracurricular Involvement:

Off-Campus Experiences:

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant? Because I had already completed my required Shepherd Internship for the minor in 2014, I was not able to secure funding through SHECP for another internship. However, I am now the first poverty student at W&L to have completed two domestic Shepherd internships, thanks to the Johnson Opportunity Grant.

I had such an impactful experience as a Shepherd intern in 2014 at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP); I really wanted to complete another Shepherd internship in 2015. Though I was most interested in learning about the legal aspect of GJP’s work, my duties as a social work intern included tutoring a client for the GED. I found that I enjoyed and excelled at this task, so I started to consider exploring teaching as a post-grad option. This summer, I wanted to work directly with children in the classroom to gain a sense of whether or not I was confortable in the role of a teacher. My work at the Washington Jesuit Academy in D.C. helped me to realize that if I can handle a class of middle school boys, I can do anything.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L? My work at Washington Jesuit Academy as a teaching assistant gave me a glimpse into the real world applications of both psychology and poverty studies in the classroom and beyond. Specifically, I was able to apply my study of developmental psychopathology, urban neighborhoods and poverty, contemporary social problems, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience? My dad has been educator for 35 years and I have a number of aunts and uncles who also teach; prior to this internship, I believed that I had the utmost understanding and appreciation for educators. I didn’t think I could have any more respect for teachers, but this summer showed me just how difficult it is to command the attention of a classroom and gain the respect necessary to be a successful teacher. It was not until I actually had the experience of standing in front of a classroom that I realized just what my dad has gone through for his entire career.

Post-Graduation Plans: I was accepted to the 2016 Teach For America Corps as a junior and will be choosing whether or not to accept the position this fall after exploring some other post-grad options. In a few years, I hope to attend law school and pursue a career in public defense or with a nonprofit organization aimed at reforming our criminal justice system.

Favorite Class: Freshman Seminar Brain & Behavior, because I loved how challenging it was. It also pushed me in the direction to take more psychology classes and explore some neuroscience courses as well.

Favorite Campus Landmark: Leyburn Library and the Colonnade, especially at night.

Advice for prospective or first-year students? Like James Dick always says, “college goes fast.” Try something new. Do anything and everything you think you want to do. But by the same token, choose what is important to you and don’t just try to pad your resume. Have fun, look around you, and explore the Lexington that exists beyond our small campus. Be yourself and be grateful, always.

Why did you choose W&L? I was first introduced to W&L when I was contacted as a recruit for swimming. My dad then implored me to check out the website and consider a visit to the school. As corny as it may sound, I had this “love at first sight” feeling as soon as I drove through campus for the first time. It was so green and beautiful, and everyone I met was helpful and friendly. I felt as though W&L bred the type of academic environment and intellectual I was seeking. Lexington seemed like a place I could make my home, and I’m so glad I have done just that.