Louisville’s newest public school, the Grace James Academy of Excellence, has a clear mission — to empower middle school girls through an Afrocentric and gender-specific STEAM curriculum.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the academy and other JCPS schools to start with remote learning instead of in-person classes this month, the inaugural class of 150 sixth graders and new staff are still excited for day one.
The media got a glimpse Friday of the interior of the Grace James Academy, housed primarily on the second floor of the DuValle Education Center, 3610 Bohne Ave., in the Park DuValle neighborhood.
The all-girls school, with its focus on educating the next generation of Black leaders and teaching them important skills in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, or STEAM, is opening at a history-defining time in Louisville and other U.S. cities.
Along with a pandemic, protests have continued for months in Louisville over the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman whom Louisville police officers fatally shot in March.
And this week, Joe Biden selected California Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate, making her the first Black woman and first Asian American on a major party’s presidential ticket.
“I thought this was a good time to open because of all the things that are going on,” said Cadence Diggs, an incoming Grace James Academy sixth grader. “Some people who were in the protests (or) who are watching the first Black woman become vice president … can come to the school to get educated about it.”
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Grace James Academy Principal Ronda Cosby said Harris is “yet another role model for these girls to aspire to be, and it should inspire them to know that, regardless of what society says about them, they can be anything they want in our world.”
Board members for Jefferson County Public Schools unanimously approved the creation of the Grace James Academy last August.
A year before that momentous vote, JCPS had opened an all-boys school, W.E.B. DuBois Academy, that also serves mostly Black and brown pupils with a curriculum grounded in African American history and culture.
Cosby said the school is focused on not only teaching girls about valuable STEAM skills but also about African American history that has been “glossed over” in many textbooks.
With the Grace James Academy, JCPS has said it is focused on helping Black girls who, like their male peers, face disproportionate inequities in schooling.
Compared with white students, Black girls are overrepresented in the district’s special education programs, alternative schools and suspension rates, data has shown.
Still, Cosby pointed out that all girls in Jefferson County can apply to attend the Grace James Academy, not just Black girls.
Similar to its plans with the DuBois Academy, JCPS hopes its newest school transitions into a full middle school that enrolls about 450 students in the next two academic years.
The district has said it expects to spend roughly $5.25 million on the new initiative devoted to girls of color over the school’s first three years.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said Friday that the Grace James Academy’s opening represents “such an exciting time.”
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The academy is named after Dr. Grace Marilynn James, a groundbreaking physician who was the first Black woman on the University of Louisville School of Medicine’s faculty and the first to obtain membership in the Jefferson County Medical Society.
The STEAM curriculum, along with the Afrocentric and all-girl focus, is why Cadence and fellow sixth grader Kyndall Collins said they were drawn to the academy.
Kyndall added that she is excited about “wearing lab coats” while learning about science-related topics.
Cadence, meanwhile, said she is thinking about becoming an actor or artist in the future.
On Friday, Cosby showed off the green and purple walls that had been freshly painted in the school’s colors as well as classrooms that feature not just traditional chairs and desks but also bean bags and couches for students to comfortably learn on.
Banners will also hang from the walls, with messages such as, “You are the designer of your destiny,” and “We are powerful. We are inspired. We are brilliant.”
Starting the inaugural year with nontraditional instruction, or NTI, during the pandemic was not ideal, Cosby said, but she and the staff are doing their “very, very best to make sure that our girls are engaged” during the weeks of virtual learning.
An entire school day will be set aside for extra support and enrichment opportunities for the girls, Cosby said, and teachers and administrators will always be available to talk with parents and students as they navigate NTI.
The academy is connected under a “CROWN” system that represents “one sisterhood,” and students will be spread between five “GEM” communities that foster inclusivity and social emotional support for each girl.
The GEM communities, which are rooted in West African Adinkra symbols, will break down further into groups of 10 girls working with one adult, which will help the girls “just decompress when they come to school,” Cosby explained.
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Whenever in-person learning can begin, the first class for each student will be a “sister circle” time to “not only learn about how to be a better human and a better citizen, but also just the challenges of being an 11-year-old girl,” Cosby said.
“We want every girl to have a very strong sense of belonging,” Cosby added. “As an 11-year-old … having that foundation as soon as you walk in the door every day no matter what has to happen before you have activities.”
Cadence’s mother, Andrea Diggs, said she is a former JCPS teacher who observed how important the DuBois Academy has been to the education of young Black boys.
But Diggs also noted she was once a middle school girl like her daughter, who went to Brandeis Elementary School.
“I know how impressionable they can be at that age and how important it is to be in an environment where they feel nurtured, they feel supported and they see themselves in a positive manner at all times,” Diggs said. “And so being in this environment where they get to create their own narrative is crucial to who they will become and it’s going to mold and shape them into who they want to be.”
Though COVID-19 has caused uncertainty over when they’ll get to enjoy learning inside their new school, Cadence and Kyndall eagerly anticipate whenever that day comes.
Their new principal said the students and teachers met earlier this summer to meet one another and “do what girls do, which is talk and hang out.”
“We look forward to eventually coming inside the building,” she said. “But until then, we are going to make learning as engaging and inspiring as we possibly can.”
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