WASHINGTON — Long known as “The Pride of Capitol Hill,” Eastern Senior High School was in dire need of a makeover. Principals came and went, students had grown unruly at times, and test scores were dismal.
In an effort to overhaul the school, D.C. officials decided to relaunch it grade by grade, starting in 2011, and they tapped a highly respected thirty-something administrator from Boston, Rachel Skerritt, to develop and implement the plan.
Skerritt, who became the school’s principal, immersed herself in the turnaround work, buying a condo just three blocks away. She hired new teachers, expanded college-level courses, and held living room coffee chats to recruit students. The work paid off: Enrollment, test scores, and graduation rates rose, and so did public confidence in the school.
Now, Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang is stealing Skerritt back to take on one of the highest profile posts in the system: headmaster of Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest school, which was rocked last year by student allegations of racial harassment.
In Skerritt, he will gain a respected, methodical leader with deep roots in Boston and strong ties to Latin, where she graduated in 1995 and, after college, began her career there as an English teacher.
Skerritt, who will become the first person of color to lead the school in its 382-year history, said she has no preconceived plan on how to foster greater racial harmony at the school, noting she wants to keep an open mind as she talks with students and teachers about next steps.
“It’s hard. I’m learning a lot about what happened at Latin through the media and that’s not the whole or completely accurate story,” Skerritt, 39, said in an interview one recent afternoon at a cafe near Eastern High. “I’m not close enough to it yet to say this is what needs to be done or this is what the problem is. I want to see what folks are up to.”
It was at Eastern that Skerritt’s work caught the attention of former education secretary Arne Duncan, who appointed her as a part-time adviser. Last year, D.C. schools promoted her to the central office, as deputy chief of leadership development.
Skerritt’s passion for education blossomed early on while growing up in the Grove Hall area of Dorchester with her mother and grandmother, both of whom came from Antigua. Skerritt started at a Montessori program on Geneva Avenue and then attended a Seventh-Day Adventist school.
By the second grade, she was taking a bus with her grandmother to the Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury, where her grandmother worked as a special education aide.
“They very much emphasized the value of education,” said Skerritt, whose mother graduated from Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester and did data entry for a supermarket chain.
“I have always been a bit of a nerd,” she said. “I just loved school.”
Skerritt excelled in the classroom. After the third grade, she left the Ohrenberger to attend the Advanced Work Classes at Hennigan Elementary School and King Middle School, before receiving what many students in Boston consider to be a golden ticket: an offer to attend Boston Latin School, the city’s premiere exam school.
Skerritt immersed herself in her classes and extra-curricular activities, such as playing the violin in the string ensemble. She also took part in a summer program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she ultimately enrolled after graduation and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
Rashaun Martin, who graduated from Latin two years after Skerritt and later taught with her there as a teacher, said Skerritt was known to be studious but light-hearted.
“She was real friendly, wicked smart, and a real joy to be around,” Martin said.
Skerritt graduated from Latin two months before another racial controversy erupted at the school. A white father filed a federal lawsuit after his daughter failed to gain admission under a racial quota that allowed more than 100 black and Hispanic students who scored the same as or lower than her on the entrance exam to gain admission.
The case eventually caused the school system to scrap the admission policy.
Skerritt said she occasionally encountered racial bias as a BLS student.
“There were situations where sometimes things would happen with a classmate or things were said that were disrespectful and biased in nature,” said Skerritt, who noted they would often occur after school hours, presenting a challenge for school administration to address the issues.
Her most vivid memory, she said, came during a humanities class her senior year. The teacher showed a television news segment in which two men — one white and the other black — had nearly identical credentials, but the black man faced much more scrutiny in buying a car, renting an apartment, and conducting other basic tasks.
“I had a classmate argue that it had no connection to race, that it was coincidental,” Skerritt said. “I didn’t have the emotional tool kit or the words yet to effectively debate him. I was so shocked that was his position that I actually ran out of the classroom crying.”
What surprised her the most, Skerritt said, was the student arguing against racial bias was black. The two, she said, have not discussed the situation since.
Skerritt takes over at Boston Latin School as it works to move past current racial tensions. Former headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta stepped down last year after several black students accused her and other administrators of not being responsive to complaints of racial harassment. The dispute thrust the crown jewel of the city’s school system into an unflattering national spotlight and sparked an investigation by the US Justice Department.
The inquiry found that Boston Latin violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by mishandling a case involving a student who threatened to lynch a black student with an electrical cord. It also raised concerns about the school’s response to two other racially charged incidents and its overall ability to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students.
Under a resolution agreement, the school system must implement a comprehensive plan to address and prevent racial harassment at Boston Latin School.
Skerritt said it is important for schools to create an environment where students feel it is safe to talk about race, and to provide opportunities for offenders to learn from their missteps.
“It can’t be just discipline,” she said.
One of Skerritt’s strengths is her ability to relate to all types of students, according to Jerry Howland, a retired Boston school administrator who is helping to run Latin School this year. Howland got to know her a decade ago when she worked under him as an intern at Another Course to College, a pilot high school in Boston.
“She can work with the most challenging students with emotional issues and also with students who perform at the highest levels,” Howland said. “Not a lot of people have those skill sets.’’
Skerritt, who has a 3-month-old son, not only relates to students in the classroom but also through her short-lived career as a novelist, Howland said. Her three books, which Skerritt describes as “chick lit,” explored romantic relationships of young women.
Her first novel, “Truth Be Told,” published in 2001, was based on her experiences at UPenn.
It centered on the clashing love lives of several characters at the fictional Franklin University, including Kahlila, a freshman “trying to change the world and gets swept off her feet at the same time.”
Howland said as soon as students heard about the books they devoured them.
After a year as a principal intern, Skerritt took over as headmaster of ACC, and Howland went back to the classroom as a teacher.
“I thought I had the perfect school, and she came in one year and made it much better and continues to ruin my self-esteem,” Howland quipped.
Two years later, Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson coaxed Skerritt into being her chief of staff, playing an instrumental role in developing Johnson’s school-district improvement plan.
“She is very persistent and determined and deeply believes in the capacity of all students to achieve at very high levels,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she tried talking Skerritt out of going to D.C., but added, “I lost that argument.”
Like Boston Latin, Eastern High in D.C., where Skerritt spent five years as principal, is steeped in tradition. A sign warns visitors not to use an elegant marble staircase in the lobby; it can only be used by alumni. Its famed marching band has participated in several presidential inauguration parades.
When Skerritt arrived in the middle of the 2010-11 school year, the D.C. district, which had been phasing out grade levels over the course of four years, was preparing to bid adieu to its final senior class before the overhaul.
This allowed Skerritt to relaunch the school in fall 2011 with 300 freshmen, new staff, new uniforms, and eventually an International Baccalaureate program.
She also placed a premium on building strong relationships with students, holding informal office hours in the library during lunch time. Yasmin Branscomb, 18, credits a recommendation that Skerritt wrote with helping her get into Spelman College.
“She put her heart into the school and made sure everyone had what they needed,” said Branscomb, a freshman biology major at the Atlanta college. “She’s not a mean lady clicking around in heels; she is someone you can trust and confide in.”
“If you are looking for a school leader who is not afraid to tackle some of the issues BLS has been dealing with, Rachel Skerritt is your person,” said Ricardo Neal, D.C.’s director of strategy and logistics. “She won’t shy away from it.”