Aleisha James is a member of the Thurgood Marshall Academy Board of Directors and the parent of two TMA students.
Since my daughter Cierra was in sixth grade, she told us she wanted to be a lawyer. She is a sports fanatic–especially basketball, so she wants to negotiate contracts for athletes and represent them to ensure they’re not taken advantage of. Cierra is all about being able to debate and defend people. When she was in eighth grade we learned about Thurgood Marshall Academy and that it was a public policy school based on law. Then we went to the open house and found out so much more.
When we toured TMA, I immediately fell in love on the first floor. We went into a classroom with tiered seating and it reminded me of college. I appreciated how students have a variety of opportunities related to learning the law. They participate in a summer bridge program before high school and take a mini college tour. They have law days where they visit law schools and law firms.
Even if students aren’t pursuing a career in law, they learn to be self-sufficient young people who give back to the community. One way to do that is to be able to speak in a way that will make people listen. Make eye contact. Assert yourself. TMA helps students develop those skills. I remember in ninth grade when Cierra had to present her portfolio of what she was learning. It was beautiful to see her presentation skills. And now as a senior, she’s representing her school in a speech competition.
Cierra’s journey has not always been easy though–her ninth-grade year definitely stretched her and she had to mature a lot. Cierra has a teacher who was very strict and she was sent to detention. I had to advocate for her but she had to learn to advocate for herself too. By the end of the year, she had worked things out with that teacher. That year was the first time she received a C as a final grade on her report card. She decided that summer that she was going to earn all As the following year, and she did it. She went to office hours and when she needed academic support, she asked for it. She learned how to take notes and study and it paid off. In 10th grade, she was a different Cierra.
When the pandemic started in March 2020, and everyone had to pivot to virtual school, it was frustrating. But TMA worked hard to make sure students were ok. They issued a Chromebook to every student. They assigned an advisor to small groups of three or four students who they checked in with every week or two. They checked in with parents. They asked if we needed additional support. They offered mental health services and delivered school meals. TMA did their best to support families in the community. I love the teachers and administration because they really work to support the children in any capacity they can. They’ve gotten creative in ways they can serve the kids during the pandemic. I’ve never seen a leader who is as open or accessible as Mr. Weeden. He looks at these kids as an extension of his family.
When we visited TMA when Cierra was in eighth grade, her younger sister Ayrrika was so excited about it too. She said, “This is going to be my school,” and now she’s a sophomore here. But starting as a freshman during the pandemic was tough. She didn’t have the same experience as Cierra or the opportunity to make those immediate connections. Now as a 10th grader it’s like being a freshman in terms of learning the culture, but she’s adapting and she’s doing well.
Both my daughters have enjoyed the opportunity to take college classes while at TMA. Cierra participated in the Bard Sequence program in 11th grade and took dual enrollment classes through Marymount University. Ayrrika took Blacks in Politics at the University of the District of Columbia and a Bard College class after school. That turned out to be a lot for her to handle, and she was struggling in the UDC class. So the UDC professor contacted Mr. Mitchell, who is TMA’s coordinator for dual enrollment. He talked with Arryka and me to see how he could support Arryka in succeeding in the class.
Outside the classroom, the girls have already been contributing to their community. They have been virtual reading buddies with younger students in the neighborhood and made real connections with their mentees. They are both community service ambassadors and help out with monthly food pantry days. Cierra created a program called TMA Young Scientists where she does science experiments for younger kids via Zoom, doing demonstrations that help kids understand things like how important it is to keep their hands clean to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other germs. We got both girls vaccinated as soon as they were eligible so they could see their friends again, which is really important for their mental health.
I appreciate TMA allows students to know their voices matter, and that they will impact this world regardless of where they live. The challenges in their community do not mean they cannot be productive members of society. We feel at home at TMA, and like that the school is located in Southeast. We live in Ward 7 and used to live in Ward 8. There’s a negative stereotype about schools East of the Anacostia River, but there are great gems here. I want people to know that you can come from a school in Ward 8 and be successful.