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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Principal Atasha James cherishes her second DC SCORES program

Atasha James, Leckie Elementary School principal.
On a late September afternoon, Atasha James sat in her office at Leckie Elementary School finishing the day's work when she was suddenly interrupted.

A parent of a child came into the principal's office, asking if James had tag board.

"I said, 'I thought this was something really important,'" James said. "She said, 'It is. We need posterboard!'"

A few weeks later, sitting behind her desk, James laughs at the memory. The parent wanted the material because she was going to Leckie's first DC SCORES soccer game that afternoon. She was one of many parents, school administrators and teachers excited that the Lions have a soccer team.

For the first time in the school's history.

"The parents are fired up and they're going to the games and they're representing for Leckie," James said. "Just that, in and of itself, is worth the time and effort that everyone is putting in to make sure the students have the opportunity."

Leckie's school motto is "Proud Pride." When they're on the soccer field in their yellow DC SCORES shirts, that pride is at its highest level.

In fact, the shirts create such a positive atmosphere around the school tucked off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Ward 8 that James -- a huge sports fan who wears her Buffalo Bills jersey before games -- makes an exception to the dress code rule:

On DC SCORES Game Day, the students in the program can wear their shirts during the school day.


The M.C. Terrell girls team last season.
A year ago, James was the principal at another DC public school that had DC SCORES -- M.C. Terrell Elementary, 1.8 miles north of Leckie.

It was James' second year as the school's principal, but her first with DC SCORES as an after-school option for students. The difference in the behavior of program participants was mind-boggling.

Her first year at the school, James was disturbed by the lack of athletic opportunities for girls. Cheerleading was their only option. There was a "loosely run" basketball program for the boys, but nothing that consistently offered physical activity for girls.

"M.C. Terrell did not have a sports program that was co-ed," James said. "We didn't have an opportunity or outlet for the girls to engage.

"That first year, we were caught up in a lot of age-appropriate and melodramatic girl stuff and we couldn't put our finger on it."

At a cluster meeting, James was talking to principals from Thomson and C.W. Harris when they began piping up about DC SCORES and told James, "Our kids are doing it up big playing soccer!" James immediately knew she needed the program at M.C. Terrell.

From the first soccer practice to the first poetry session in the classroom, the changes were clear to James her second year at the school.

"We saw a huge shift in how the girls exchanged with each other," James said. "And when they put on their jerseys and their folks were on the sideline, they were teammates.

"That same sort of collegiality and camaraderie translated to each other in the classroom and it created the sort of bonds that we were indirectly hoping for. It definitely made the kids a stronger unit and it made them a team, and that's what we wanted. We were able to see that loud and clear."


M.C. Terrell performs at last year's Poetry Slam!.
A boy James introduced as "Mr. Wood" exemplified the difference DC SCORES made at M.C. Terrell. 

"He gave us all a run for our money," James said.

The principal, other administrators and teachers asked themselves, "How can we hook this kid and just get him to come to school and give us a shot?"

Using DC SCORES as the reward, they introduced a "Work hard, Play hard" theme throughout the school's classrooms and made a pact with Mr. Wood: If he came to school and worked diligently and attentively, he would get his "play time" on the soccer field.

"He was an angel during soccer season," James said laughing. "We didn't know what to do with him after soccer let out."

What stands out most to James in remembering that year at M.C. Terrell is how the after-school program became a staple not just for the youth but for the greater community. After James missed a handful of soccer games because of other obligations, parents approached her and said, only somewhat tongue in cheek, "If you miss this game, we're done with you."

James had a cluster meeting that afternoon and ripped her pants on a chair leg, but "came to that (game) hole-legged, and when they saw me they gave me a big round of applause and said, 'Well, she came!'"


Unfortunately and very sadly, M.C. Terrell was one of the 15 schools that had its doors shut at the end of last school year -- effectively ending the DC SCORES program there. The news was devastating to James not just because of the obvious difficulties that come with change for youth but because of the tight-knit community that had developed during her second year there.

In late July, James learned of her new placement at Leckie. Sitting behind her desk a few months later, she pulled out a survey taken by Leckie students after the previous school year. The activity most missing from school? An athletic team.  

It was late in the game to be considered for DC SCORES. Because of her experience at M.C. Terrell and teachers' support, however, James was able to work with the organization to bring the program to her new school. 

"We had teachers who were so willing to make it happen for the kids," James said. "We were able to pull it off."

The program is young and there are the usual kinks. Many students join because of the soccer. It can take awhile to get them to buy into poetry. But James -- who believes it really takes two years to build a strong presence as a school principal -- is already seeing daily signs of DC SCORES' impact.

For example, the posterboard-craving parent.

"The parents are so pleased, the kids are so pleased," James said. "It creates a different dynamic for us in the community just to boast about how proud of a Lion share we are."


James is building a sense of community at Leckie
similar to the one DC SCORES catalyzed at M.C. Terrell.
Leckie is a school that gives off great energy. Even on a recent rainy afternoon, it's easy to feel it. Upon entering the school, you're greeted by a large painting of a lion on the main wall. The hallways are painted bright yellow and green. When walking within the school's confines, it's always spring.

That's especially the case with the presence of DC SCORES. James uses the program to boost school spirit at every chance she gets. From letting the students wear their T-shirts on Game Day to posting soccer photos on Facebook and Tweeting about the Lions, James and the team's coaches, Caroline and Josh, make DC SCORES a catalyst for creating a larger, more cohesive Leckie team.

"I think one of my favorite experiences as a school principal is seeing the kids' pride on Game Day when they can wear their jerseys all day like, 'Look at me!'" James said. 

"I think the only thing that's missing is, I need a jersey to wear on Game Day."

We're working on it, Coach James, we're working on it!

To see photos of the Leckie Lions, visit their Facebook page. Stay updated on Leckie's DC SCORES team by following @LeckieDC on Twitter.

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