When Kathryn Procope showed up at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics & Science (MS)2 in August of 2015, she was faced with the ultimate challenge.
The first day of school was just two weeks away, she had 12 teacher vacancies to fill, the school was under-enrolled by an estimated 150 students, she had a school building that was recovering from a flood and parents were un-enrolling their kids due to a prior controversy regarding the termination of three teachers, Procope said.
When Procope went to assess the rundown middle school building, “She walked in unbothered and with the attitude of ‘no biggie, it’s fixable,’” Tiffany Edmonds, Procope’s executive assistant said. “There was no panic, no big gasp. She was just ready to do the work it required for the children and the school’s community.”
As executive director since then, Procope’s mission has been to solidify the only public middle school chartered by an HBCU as a pipeline for Black preteens to go into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. Her work speaks for itself.
After overcoming the growing pains of that first year, Procope said she dedicated her time to strengthening the reputation of the school and creating a positive environment for the middle school community.
“And I wanted to change the perception of what was going on here,” she said. “So I spent my time rebuilding the relationships on campus, getting the word out that we are a viable middle school, and it’s taken a few years but it worked.”
Procope focused on reshaping the academic program by implementing instructional platforms like Summit Learning, an online learning tool that strives to strengthen students’ knowledge in core subjects like math, science, english and history.
“It provides a wealth of resources starting with goal setting for the student, and a mentoring piece that when you put together it creates young people who are motivated to get stuff done,” she said.
Another main focus of Procope’s was to nurture the relationship between the middle school and the university. She frequently encourages graduate students to come to the middle school to conduct studies and research as well as to provide exposure for the students.
Jasmine Young, whose son currently attends the middle school, speaks to the opportunities the school has provided for her sixth-grade son Jackson. Jackson was the only student chosen to speak about the expansion of the school at the Myrtilla Miner Building opening in February.
“He was so happy and proud to be a Bison,” Young said. “He was so happy and proud to be a Bison legacy and to attend Howard University Middle School.”
Procope stressed how important the relationship the middle school has with the university is, because it creates exposure for the students and provides them with positive influences.
“I think people forget the amount of development that goes on between sixth and eighth grade, between eleven and thirteen,” Procope said. “And while as a teacher or an administrator, an older person, they’re not listening to me… but they absolutely are going to listen to you.”
Felicia Dangerfield-Persky, a math instructional coach at the middle school, commended Procope’s determination to maintain the school’s positive reputation.
“The middle school has improved as she cares about the well-being of the students and staff. She shows everyone that you can have high expectations while having compassion,” she said. “She strives for the school to live up to its name as it makes its mark on the city.”
According to Edmonds, Howard Middle School “has taken a complete 180-degree turn for the better,” because of Procope.
Dangerfield-Persky and the middle school’s assistant principal, Ebony Brown, said Procope has improved working conditions for teachers, provided more cultural exposure for students by facilitating partnerships with Howard University and given equal opportunity to students no matter their economic status through their programs like Black Men in White Coats.
President Wayne A.I. Frederick spoke to the middle school’s unique relationship with Howard University at the Myrtilla Miner Building opening in February.
“Most people don’t realize we have a middle school on campus that’s focused on math and science,” he said. “And those young people you see them at the bus stop…if you stop and ask them ‘Where do you go to school?’ They’ll tell you ‘I go to Howard University.’”
Frederick further made the point that the middle school actively participates in what the university does on the day-to-day. He said this environment gives students drive and that 96 percent of them end up attending college.
“I feel like we have re-established ourselves. We used to be a really well-kept secret and now it’s not secret anymore,” Procope said. “So we have gotten to a place where we have a waiting list for enrollment every year.”
Brown attests to the improvement of the school under Procope’s leadership.
“Dr. Procope is committed to removing barriers for all students,” she said. “Her work has allowed students from some of the most disenfranchised parts of Washington D.C. to have the same educational experiences as their peers.”
Outside of the school, Procope has a strong love for mathematics and likes to share her passion with students whenever possible by staying close to the math team and tutoring students in geometry when needed.
“Math is my subject so I stay close to the math team…the students know that math is my subject,” she said. “I was actually tutoring some students in the geometry class.”
A few months prior to Procope’s appointment in February of 2015, the middle school had gained national media attention after its students walked out of class in protest of the termination of three social studies teachers for allegedly teaching African-American history.
Procope said that the incident was a misunderstanding between the teachers and the current leadership at the time. The damage, however, had already been done.
“As a result of that, that school leader left, so did a bunch of teachers, and so did a lot of our parents, decided that this was not the place for their school,” she said. Procope later described that time period as “bumpy.”
She recalls spending a lot of time encouraging parents and teachers to stay while simultaneously trying to find a temporary space for them to host the first week of school.
Procope continued to face challenges after that, as the middle school continued to enroll students until the end of September, something it had never previously done, according to her. Procope shared that the school was also unable to conduct any benchmark testing to ensure that students were in the proper classes.
Despite the rocky start, Procope managed to make it through the school year and have a much better second year in 2016. With the help of the middle school staff and administration, the middle school went from being under-enrolled to having a waiting list for enrollment every year, according to Procope.
Edmonds commended Procope for positively transforming the school after previously challenging years.
“She took over HU(MS)2 after a very challenging time we had the years prior, and so the atmosphere and the dynamic of the school changed drastically for the better,” she said. “The parent complaint calls decreased tremendously. Staffing was evaluated and changed based on the needs of the students and the culture of the building.”
During her time as head of school and executive director at the middle school, Procope has garnered multiple awards for her leadership, including the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals (NASSP) 2020 Digital Principal of the Year and NASSP’s 2016 State Principal of the Year.
Procope remains humble about her accolades and attributes her success to the “tremendous village of support” she has at the school.
“It really happened because I had a vision and I had people who grabbed it and believed in me and trusted me and we ran with it,” she said.
Moving forward, Procope is looking to build upon the school’s math and science program and “push it to the next level.” Though she admits the school is on a slight pause as they prepare to move to Myrtilla Miner Building in the fall of 2024.
Until then, Procope occupies her time fulfilling her numerous duties, whether it’s managing grants or tutoring students in geometry.
“She is the friend you will always want, standing by you! She is the leader you will always admire,” Kathy Heatley, Procope’s best friend said. “She has the heart that you never forget.”
MS(2) serves students through grade levels six through eight and currently has an enrollment of about 300 students, according to the DC School Report Card.
The school was founded in 2005 and has made it its mission to nurture students’ knowledge in all academic areas, with a strong focus on mathematics and science ever since.
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee