This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The celebration at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering & Science was underway and the microphone was on, but suddenly Aziz McDaniels couldn’t continue.
Carver senior Aziz McDaniels speaks to his peers. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)
He had been describing what the North Philadelphia magnet school had meant to him. “Many of you know me as a basketball player,” the slender senior had said. “But I’ve grown so much. I’ve been put in many positions to thrive, thanks to the staff around me.”
At first he spoke with quiet confidence, but as he described the impact of a favorite teacher, McDaniels paused and his voice grew uncertain. “He gives me tons of advice, even if I don’t need it. Wait, I mean – I do need it,” McDaniels corrected himself. “He gives me tons of advice even when I don’t want it.”
McDaniels paused again. He sniffed, as if on the verge of tears. “I always need it,” he said.
For just a moment, those four words hung in the air.
Then a roar of applause rose from his fellow students – the loudest, by far, on a loud day. McDaniels finished his speech to raucous cheers. Later he described what was running through his mind as he spoke. “I’m not going to have another five-year stretch like this one,” McDaniels said of his time at the grade 7-12 school. “From day one, I had support.”
Carver, along with Joseph J. Greenberg Elementary, were honored Thursday with Blue Ribbon recognition, handed out annually by the U.S. Department of Education. A total of 362 schools were named nationwide, including 10 other schools in the region.
Carver is being recognized as an Exemplary High Performing School, meaning it is among Pennsylvania’s highest-performing schools as measured by state assessments or national tests. Greenberg is being honored as an Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing School because it is among the state’s highest-performing schools in closing achievement gaps among students. District and union officials visited both schools today to celebrate the honor.
At Carver, Board of Education Chair Joyce Wilkerson praised the school’s achievements. The 920-student school is 68 percent African American, and about 94 percent nonwhite. More than half of the students are from households below the poverty line, and 67 percent will be the first in their families to attend college. But Wilkerson noted that the school boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and its students landed more than $17 million in scholarships last year – the highest amount ever for a graduating class at the school.
“I want to salute Carver’s commitment to diversity and equity – it does it in a way no one else does. It’s unmatched in the city,” said Wilkerson.
Shawn Bird, the District’s chief of schools, told the students: “This would not have been possible if you had not all worked together.”
Principal Ted Domers likewise praised his students. “At the high school fair last weekend, I heard one student say, ‘We are a science and engineering school – but we’re more than that. We are a family,’” said Domers. “You all are involved and you are dedicated.”
Carver was founded in 1979 in partnership with Temple University and is located next to the campus. The school also won a Blue Ribbon award in 2008.
Philadelphia’s other winner, Greenberg, is a neighborhood elementary school with a diverse profile of its own – about half white, but with a growing population of English-language learners.
“It is difficult to contain the excitement I feel for my school, the students, and teachers,” said Greenberg principal Gina Hubbard in a statement. “My teachers are passionate teachers and sweat the details of learning every day, because they love their students and care strongly about their academic growth. Our community is humbled and honored to receive this prestigious award, which affirms the work they do every day.”
Greenberg, in Far Northeast Philadelphia, has historically been one of the few predominantly white schools in the city, but its student body of about 800 students has been growing increasingly diverse. It emphasizes the arts and inquiry learning, and last year, for the first time, nearly 90 percent of its students scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the state science test.
The Enginettes get ready to perform. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)
Back at Carver, the award ceremony included a school band playing funky covers of Kansas and Daft Punk songs, and a spirited dance routine by the “Enginettes,” decked out in glittering gold tops and black-and-white sneakers. Staff and principals praised the school’s array of academic and extracurricular options, including its AP courses and slam poetry club.
Afterward, a highly unscientific survey of students revealed only one problem: “The dress code!” said junior Alana Ramberton. “They gotta change that. It’s sexist. It affects girls more than boys. You can’t wear crop tops and all kind of stuff.”
But everyone kept returning to the theme of support. Senior Ajza Shields said she’d arrived at Carver shy and introverted, but that the caring staff and supportive students had helped her break out of her shell. “They taught me to speak up for what I believe in – and that it’s OK not to be OK,” she said.
Next year, she plans to be in college, Shields said, to focus on political science and criminal justice. After that, she hopes to go to law school, and then, “Supreme Court justice,” she laughed. “If you’re going to try, aim high, right?”