Gillian Pratt ’94 Transforms a School
By Judy Tart ’78
The Immaculate Conception School in northwest Washington has a new face these days. Beautiful new steps and iron railing lead up to pristine green-trimmed windows that are tall enough to welcome every bit of sunshine. Enter the front door and you will sense that the business of education is humming along quite nicely, thank you. Immaculate Conception is busy building futures one child at a time.
Certainly one factor in the success of ICS is the dedication and energy of its faculty and staff. Leading the way is Trinity School of Education alumna Gillian Pratt ’94, a dynamic woman with talent and drive who keeps this institution growing and achieving.
Pratt graduated from Howard University in 1991 and spent her first two years at Burgundy Farms Country Day School in Alexandria, VA. She was assigned to a combination 4/5 grade class, working in tandem with an experienced classroom teacher. For Pratt, it was “the perfect entry position” – an opportunity to sharpen her skills and learn classroom poise from a pro. The school’s philosophy dovetailed with her view of education: open doors for students by teaching them how to think.
She then moved to St. Augustine School in Washington, D.C., and spent seven years teaching before deciding to pursue her master’s degree. Pratt chose Trinity for her master’s at a time when Trinity was launching a new cohort for education administration. Through her years in the classroom Pratt had realized that “much of what happens in a school starts in the office.” Although she jokes that her mother would say she “has always been bossy,” she viewed leadership as a positive challenge that she would enjoy. She chose to enroll in the administration cohort at Trinity, and says, “It was a terrific experience – a nurturing environment” in which the fledgling administrators bonded and have remained close to this day. Most became private school administrators and they continue to share experiences and ideas.
Trinity provided an excellent education, says Pratt, but she concedes that no institution includes in its curriculum “mice, snaking drains and construction” in their curriculum, all challenges that she has faced while at the helm at ICS. Her construction knowledge has come with the renovation of ICS, which has grown from a pre-K to 4th grade institution to a school that now serves students through the eighth grade. In fact, part of that renovation involved a return to Trinity for Pratt, accompanied by her entire school.
In 2003, ICS received a grant from the Center City Consortium (a group of 14 Catholic elementary schools in financially challenged neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.) that allowed the school to plan and execute renovations and improvements. The project expanded to include many donors, including Clark Construction, and had a final price tag totaling $5 million, which allowed for an elevator and four new classrooms where the old and poorly-equipped gym had existed. The opportunity was a godsend, but where to conduct school while the year-long transformation took place? In that magical way that Trinity connections are like “small world” musings, Pratt found herself talking with Mary Ann Stanton ’90, then-executive director for the Center City Consortium and Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, former Trinity vice president for Academic Affairs and current Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, about how to solve the dilemma. The Trinity connections led to discussions with President Patricia McGuire, who was enthusiastic about the idea that Trinity could help ensure success for this venture. The summer of 2003 was filled with preparation and logistics as Pratt and her teachers structured their lesson plans and classroom configurations to fit in the spaces Trinity was able to provide. Cuvilly’s old rathskeller became a kindergarten, the lounge was transformed into classrooms, and Alumnae Hall’s old smoker and second floor suites housed more students and administrators. It was a year of challenge and excitement that offered the school its first opportunity to enjoy lunch all together in a cafeteria in Alumnae Hall, and outdoor recess space in the grass surrounding the Trinity Center sports field. Pratt speaks admiringly of her faculty and staff, who remained flexible and enthusiastic through the year of change.
The renovation at ICS gave Pratt and her team the space to expand their school year after year, growing from the pre-K through 4th grade program up to 8th grade, enabling students to remain in this nurturing community until high school. Enrollment is a continuing challenge. While many private schools have benefited from the voucher program for DC families, Immaculate Conception is not equipped to serve special needs, and therefore cannot admit many of the students with vouchers. As a tuition-dependent school, ICS must build its enrollment to meet the Archdiocese’s new pay scale for teachers, an increase that Pratt knows is needed and much deserved.
With all the good news and improvements, what remains as the biggest challenge? Time. There is never enough time to fill the classrooms with stimulating displays and bulletin boards that keep children learning no matter where they look. Time with parents, talking about their students, their progress and pathways is also precious. Lesson plans and paperwork put demands on an already very full schedule. Think teachers are off all summer? Pratt says think again – they are often studying new techniques and programs for the classroom, preparing for the year ahead that comes so quickly.
Ask Pratt about her wish list for ICS, and she says, “a gym. Another building or just some grass and a playground.” She is a tad wistful as she recalls the campus of Trinity and its space for running and jumping.
With all that she has accomplished, what lies ahead for this educator? “Lottery winner,” she jokes. She knows the tremendous needs that continue to press and it would be wonderful to help fund new initiatives. But she loves her job and she continues to take time from her principal duties to teach 8th grade religion classes. For a born teacher there is no substitute for the classroom experience. Pratt loves children – she says it is a must for all educators – and she knows that her time with them is so fleeting. She is committed to helping every student to achieve. Perhaps down the line she would consider consulting work, advising parents and students on the best high school choices for their particular strengths and interests. Certainly Pratt would excel at something so personal and pivotal for students.