Dreams are what drive us. Every dream that is woven into our spirits is carefully stitched with the threads of pride, poise and perseverance. As we glance into the window of opportunity offered at Bell Multicultural High School, we value and respect our education. Ambassadors of the future, receiving a solid education is our responsibility and a right we must firmly uphold as we enter a world brimming with challenges. If it is to be, it is up to me!
- Kenrry Alvarado, Gates Millennium Scholar, Class of 2011 -
The Washington Post 2015 School Challenge Index of America’s Best High Schools listed CHEC as the top performing non-selective school (no entrance exam requirement) in DC. When measured against selective schools, CHEC ranks #4 overall in the District and #42 in the DC metropolitan area. CHEC is ranked 400 out of over 2,300 of the top high schools nationally, which is in the top 17% of this exclusive grouping of schools. What is even more significant, 100% of CHEC’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a level of challenge shared by only 3 other top-400 schools.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the improbable journey of CHEC began from very humble beginnings with a burning desire to right a social injustice.
This story began 36 years ago with the founding of the Multicultural Career Intern Program (MCIP) in 1979 by a team of educators led by CHEC’s founding and current principal, Maria Tukeva, an inductee of the DC Education Hall of Fame and the longest serving principal in the modern era of DC public school system. The founders boldly envisioned an innovative alternative school that would transform the challenging educational experiences of many poor minority and limited English speaking students in DC Public Schools into a more rigorous and comprehensive instructional program that would produce scholars and skilled workers for the future workforce. At the time, the disenfranchising practice of mislabeling limited English speaking students as Special Education students was prevalent. Recognizing this, Maria Tukeva found a remedy through a U.S. Department of Labor Career Intern Program grant in 1981. With funding support she quickly recruited forty students who had either dropped out or were on the verge of dropping out of school. Success and acclaim came quickly for MCIP’s novel approach of holding nontraditional students to even higher academic standards than their US born peers. For the next ten years Tukeva would simultaneously serve MCIP as executive director, principal, teacher, curriculum developer and fundraiser, while the school grew through three relocations and an enrollment increase from 40 to 680 students.
In 1989 MCIP’s instructional component consolidated with Bell Career Development Center to become Bell Multicultural High School (BMHS), a fully accredited DC public school. The new school community inherited a hazardous and severely under equipped facility that was deemed by the Army Corps of Engineers to be the worst in the DCPS facilities inventory. After years of broken promises by a succession of Mayors and School Board members regarding the unmet need to improve the facilities, Tukeva and the MCIP Board did the unthinkable - they initiated a public/private partnership to build the first new school in DC in over a quarter century!
In March 2001 Lois and Dick England launched the campaign for CHEC by issuing a $1 million challenge grant that required the MCIP Board to raise $3 million. In time, other distinguished D.C. residents and foundations including Calvin Cafritz of the Gwendolyn and Morris Cafritz Foundation and Anne Loeb Bronfman would step forward with their own generous $1 million donations. Over the next five years, other individuals and organizations would lend their support to the CHEC capital campaign. Not to be outdone, DC Public Schools committed $63 million to make CHEC a reality. These tremendous efforts are permanently memorialized through the named gifts bricks that adorn the entrance of the campus that opened in February, 2006.
In 2008 BMHS merged with its main feeder school, Lincoln Multicultural Middle School, and is now known as the upper division of the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC). Since 2008, Bell High School and Lincoln Middle School have operated under the guidance of Tukeva as Campus Principal.
In thirty-six years the MCIP and CHEC partnership has successfully served 28,000 youths and their families, consistently graduated 90% of its senior class and developed strong relationships with the public and private sectors to millions for underserved youth. Tukeva has also responded to the broader responsibility of improving the public school system by serving in the capacity of Assistant Superintendent in two separate school administrations. Whether measuring our achievements in the changed futures of so many promising young lives, or in the lasting emotional return to our generous program donors and sponsors, the success of MCIP and CHEC has surpassed all expectations. But we cannot afford to stop here. In such a competitive world, it is inexcusable for urban schools not to prepare their students for college and beyond. In spite of our successes we understand that more should, can and must be done.
Our real work has just begun.