Sarah Graham is nervous about high school. An eighth grader at Brookland Middle School, she’s been involved in the arts for the past three years, and wants to find a way to pursue her interests her freshman year.
“I’ve visited Duke Ellington, Banneker,” Graham said. “I’m still seeing what’s there.”
On Dec. 3, Graham went to an after-school high school application fair at Brookland Middle School with her aunt, Janette Byrd, where she got to hear from eight different high schools about what they have to offer. Byrd said she was happy that high schools were coming to Brookland Middle School and recruiting students just a short walk from her home.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids and the parents to be a part of,” Byrd, manager of the nearby Woodridge Library, said.
Brookland Middle School hasn’t always been this engaged with the community. When the school opened in 2015, it drew parents and their children from across the city as the only standalone middle school in Ward 5. The resulting crush of new students in the school stretched the faculty to their limits, giving the school a bad rap in its own neighborhood.
Five years later, Brookland Middle School now has the second highest enrollment increase in all of D.C. Public Schools, and the highest of standalone middle schools. How it got there is a testament to the power of changing the narrative around a school and its students.
Wendy Hamilton began working at Brookland Middle School as a long-term substitute teacher in its first year. When the middle school opened, DCPS was expecting about 250 students, but by the time the year began 350 had enrolled.
“The first year was rough as any school would be,” Hamilton said. “By the end of that year they had nicknamed us ‘the Brookland Zoo.’”
From its first year to its second, Brookland Middle School lost about 100 students. Hamilton, a part-time pastor at Open Door Metropolitan Community Church in Montgomery County, was hired full-time as an enrollment counselor to help bring back students. She said initially she had a tough time convincing parents to re-enroll their kids at Brookland Middle School.
“This is just as much ministry as going into church.” Hamilton said. “It took us a year or two to regain the confidence, to shift the narrative around Brookland.”
“They had nicknamed us ‘the Brookland Zoo.’ That was discouraging because it felt like something that we could not control.” – Wendy Hamilton
The school’s improvement began in earnest in 2017, when Principal Kerry Richardson came to Brookland from Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7. Richardson said he immediately set to work getting to know his new neighborhood, even changing his dry cleaners to one not far from the middle school. When he began reaching out to the community, Richardson was troubled by the school’s poor reputation.
“I kept saying, ‘My students aren’t like that at all.’ So one of the first things I did was a changing of the narrative,’” Richardson said.
Richardson scaled back on some of the elective courses at Brookland, first billed as an arts-centered middle school, and decided to focus on the fundamentals.
“I really wanted to strengthen the core classes and have honor classes and pre-AP classes,” Richardson said.
At the same time, Richardson has also made himself accessible to parents. He describes himself as a “very visible” principal, keeping his door open to parents visiting the school and even taking them to tour a classroom during the school day, allowing parents a rare glimpse into what a middle school classroom is actually like.
Hamilton, the enrollment counselor normally in charge of recruiting new students from elementary schools, said Richardson has attended as many outreach events at D.C. elementary schools as he could.
“All I can say is, last year Mr. Richardson was like, ‘Give me the calendar of what events are going on and I will go with you,’” Hamilton said. “He’s very active and hands on in a way that I think also reassures parents.”
“That’s really what is was: telling our story.” – Kerry Richardson
Enrollment numbers rose after Richardson’s first year, and he continued to hire more staff to support students, including social/emotional support staff members for each grade level. Richardson said he wanted to bury the “Brookland Zoo” narrative that had plagued the school’s first early years.
“That’s really what it was: telling our story and our staff telling our story,” Richardson said. “We had to rebound from that and really rebrand ourselves.”
Last summer, everything changed. The middle school enrolled a record 365 students, far surpassing its projection of 311 students. With that increase came challenges, but it’s also brought its own form of success.
“I think for the students it’s exciting. It’s an opportunity to meet new people,” said Dakari Taylor-Watson, a counselor at the middle school. “For them, it’s excitement, it’s a method for them to expand and see who else is in the school.”
At the same time as the enrollment increase, Brookland Middle School has also implemented a new Structured Enrichment Model, or SEM, where teachers start clubs like woodworking and yoga that students participate in every other morning. The program is meant to give students an incentive to show up to school on time and also stretch their creativity and explore new interests.
“Because we’ve had an influx of students it’s caused the staff to be creative, structured but creative,” Taylor-Watson said. “We’re thinking more outside the box.”
Hamilton’s job has changed as the school once again reaches its upper limits of attendance. She now anticipates that the middle school will have to turn some kids from non-feeder schools away as the parents of elementary school students in Brookland increasingly choose their local middle school. But Hamilton said she’s happy to have that problem.
“I went from cold-calling to turning people away,” Hamilton said. “I have been shooting for that for three years.”
Richardson said the success has had a notable effect on the student body too. From last school year to now, Brookland Middle School saw a re-enrollment number of 92%, its highest since the school opened. These days, the principal is confident that the school is on track for a successful future.
“It’s been just a lot of phenomenal gains,” Richardson said. “I walk around and see the students, and it’s as they say, ‘We’re crushing it, Mr. Richardson.’”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Kerry Richardson.