The Washington Jesuit Academy is well into the fall semester of its eleventh year of what it calls a comprehensive and structured education for some of Washington’s most disadvantaged boys. This year, the enrollment at the school in Northeast is 85 students, all of whom are in fifth through eighth grades. Eighty percent are from DC, and the remaining 20 percent are from Maryland’s Prince George’s County. The curriculum is rigorous, and the school day is 12 hours long, beginning at 7:30 AM. The school’s president, and one of its founders, is William Whitaker, who says the WJA got its start due to the combined efforts of three of the area’s leading Catholic schools: Gonzaga College High School, Georgetown Preparatory School, and Georgetown University. When WJA opened in 2002, Whitaker says they “felt this was the right time to see how elite institutions could have an impact on children in poverty in the Washington area.”
Whitaker, other members of his administration, and members of the school’s board today brought in visitors to meet some of the students, tour the campus, and learn more about the WJA program. The principal purpose of the meet-and-greet was to recruit new sponsors. Each student is sponsored by an individual or institution, who pays the annual tuition of $18,000. The only financial obligation of parents or guardians is a single annual payment of $250. The prospective students have to apply and go through a screening process. Whitaker said it’s not necessarily academic excellence but “grit” that he is looking for in the boys who make the cut. He’s proud that graduates almost uniformly go on to well-regarded area private schools, which he said recently have included Gonzaga, St. John’s, Georgetown Prep, and the Barry School, as well as boarding schools such as the Blue Ridge School in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The school’s handbook says it is “respectful of all students’ religious traditions and beliefs,” but the school day begins with morning assembly with prayer, the curriculum includes religion studies, and all students are required to attend class retreats.
“What I like best about this morning is having these guys in the room, telling it like it is,” said Whitaker of the four students who joined faculty, board members, and their guests in a conference room. “They are not rehearsed.” He continued, “Our structure here at this school is incredibly different from any place else in this city. What’s the difference-maker here? These young men have grit—which is talked about a lot in the admissions process—and they have resilience. It’s not always easy for them. We demand an awful lot.”
The four students were identified by first name only, and included 14-year-old Harry; Jomah, who is 13 “but almost 14,” he said; Elijah, 12; and Knowledge, who is a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday. They were asked to talk candidly—as much as possible in a room full of grown-ups—about the school experience. Knowledge said he likes it at WJA “because I make good grades here, and I get a lot of respect here.” Elijah said, “They let you be who you want to be as long as it’s in a good way.” Both Elijah and Jomah called their classmates and teachers “a second family.” Harry said, “Before I came here, I didn’t have a lot of childhood friends, but here I have lifelong friends. Everybody’s equal. I like that.”
As much as there was an opportunity for the students to praise WJA, there was also time for them to talk about what they don’t like, or what they would change. Harry spoke right up. “I wish we had more time to blow off steam,” he said. “We have about three breaks a day, and one is lunch. After school is sports and study hall, and study hall is 90 minutes.” Jomah, who earlier talked about a one-day school retreat and how much he liked it, said he would like the school to add more and longer retreats because they were fun and gave him downtime with his classmates.
The school has an interesting tutoring program: The tutors are Washington professionals who come in after their day jobs to work with the students during study hall, which runs from 5:30 to 7. “Some of them are lawyers,” one of the boys noted. “I like them because they know more than we do.”
At the end of the session, the conversation turned to sports. The boys were asked which athlete they would like to have visit the school: Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, John Wall of the Wizards, Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals, or Bryce Harper of the Nationals. Harry said, “Ovechkin, because he has a missing tooth.” The other three chose RG3, though Elijah added Harper, too. Knowledge said, “RG3 because I would ask him for an autograph for my mom. She’s a really big Redskins fan, and on Sundays I always hear her screaming.”