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…She might be heading to Webster Girls’ School, at 10th and H Streets downtown. Yes, long before Zaytinya was serving up Mediterranean tapas to lobbyists and lawyers a block away, or “Verizon” even existed as a company let alone a sports center, Penn Quarter was home to a little public school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers. Last time I wandered by the intersection, the nondescript brick building was still there, though it was partially obscured by construction barriers.
I first heard about the school working on a story with DCPS historian and former D.C. public schools student Nancye Suggs. Recalling her own middle school years, Suggs said: “Girls would disappear all of a sudden, and then the whispering would start: WEBSTER.”
I was incredulous. That dumpy downtown building was a black hole of suppressed scandals, tucked-away teenagers, and unmentioned infants?
Then, lo and behold, I found a pamphlet in the sizable “Webster School” file at the Sumner School Museum and Archives. It laid out all my basic questions, then responded to them with stunning clarity.
Why should you attend Webster?
- You will be safer during and after your pregnancy.
- Special health services are planned for you.
- Home study materials and assistance will be provided while you are convalescing after the birth of your baby.
- You will receive the same credits that you would receive in regular school.
(This is a selection of responses.)
Do you have to pay to attend Webster?
- Webster is a public school operated by the D.C. Board of Education.
Who may enroll?
- Girls who attend any junior or senior high school in the District of Columbia may apply.
- All pregnant students should try to get into Webster Girls’ School.
How do you apply?
- Referrals may be made by you, your friends or relatives, your school or clinic.
- Call Webster Girls’ School.
The first two infants entered the Webster School Nursery on October 1, 1972, reports a document titled “Fact Sheet, Continuing Education for School Age Mothers, Webster School Nursery.” A total of 12 infants “enrolled” in the 1972-1973 school year. The ages of mothers ranged from 14 to 18, and grades 8 through 12. According to an article published by the Washington Star-News in October 1974, “Webster served as a model nationwide when it was opened 11 years ago at a time when pregnant girls were forced to leave school.”
The Board of Education voted in March 1973 to close down the school by autumn of 1974, the same story states. The decision “was the result of a belief that it was wrong to isolate the girls.” That Fall, “approximately 90 girls who contacted the school were referred to their neighborhood school and the Webster faculty of 11, after sitting in empty classrooms for weeks, was reassigned last week to regular schools.” The article goes on to report that the board voted unanimously to reopen Webster, but not without some huffing and puffing from the schools superintendent Barbara A. Sizemore, who later protested:
“There is nothing wrong with being pregnant, just because men can’t do it. Girls should be treated as normal human beings.”