St. John’s College High School, Upper Northwest D.C.
IN THE MINORITY VOICES in American Literature class that he designed, Karl Danso
likes to get his students to think about their passions. Would they rather have security
and practicality, like a character of Booker T. Washington’s, or be like a character created
by W.E.B. Du Bois who is excited about life and gravitates toward the arts and higher
The 32-year-old English teacher and co-dean of students at St. John’s College High
School says he enjoys helping students discern their vocational calling so that they don’t
end up in a career they don’t like. “This is such an important time in students’ lives, when
they are making big decisions and trying to ;gure out who they are,” Danso says. “I love
being a part of that and getting them to re;ect.”
Grounded in the private co-ed Catholic school’s motto, “Enter to learn, leave to serve,”
there are three essential questions that Danso and others at the school often ask students:
What are you good at? What brings you joy? What does the world need you to be?
To have these conversations, Danso makes an effort to get to know his students. This
means connecting with them in class, in the hallway, on an annual service trip that he helps
chaperone, or in the gym (he was head wrestling coach at the school for six years and now
is assistant coach).
In class, Danso dismisses the teaching adage “Don’t smile until December,” which holds
that teachers need to be stern in the early months of the school year to set the tone. “That
doesn’t mesh with my personality,” he says.
There were no openings at St. John’s College High School when then-Principal Jeffrey
Mancabelli ;rst met Danso, but he offered him a job anyway. “Truly, I was in awe of
this personality, this presence and his authenticity,” says Mancabelli, now the school’s
president. “We had one of the greatest conversations about being with students and what it
takes to touch hearts and minds.”
Robert Frost Middle School,
SUNILA VARGHESE HAS DISCOVERED
that science comes alive for her students
when they sit on a pier watching a sunset
or lie on the grass gazing at the stars.
For the past 20 years, the sixth-grade
science teacher at Robert Frost Middle
School has taken one or two trips a
year with 28 students to study ecology
and conservation on tiny Smith Island
in the Chesapeake Bay. They leave their
cellphones and watches behind, operating
on “island” time while getting an up-close
view of life on the bay during the three-day
“I remember one of my students saying
to me, ‘This just rocked my world,’ after
seeing the Milky Way and shooting stars,”
recalls Varghese, 53.
Student Maya Halpern says she enjoyed
wading through the mud and keeping a
log of the turtles and birds on the trip last
year. “I learned about science while also
having a lot of fun,” she says.
Varghese says she has learned in 29
years of teaching that connecting with
nature and providing hands-on experiences
keep kids engaged. She emphasizes
the power of each student to make a
difference—by recycling, limiting their
energy use at home or raising money for
an environmental cause.
She encourages her students not to
shy away from challenges or fear failure.
This lesson evolved from Varghese’s own
experience in 2010, when she didn’t pass
the exam to be a National Board certi;ed
teacher, a voluntary designation for
teachers who meet certain high standards.
She passed the following year (one of 60
teachers in Montgomery County in 2011)
and was honored at the White House
for the achievement. As a result of that
process, Varghese changed the mindset in
her classroom to emphasize attitude and
effort over perfection.
“Kids this age want to do everything
right, especially in our community,”
Varghese says. “It doesn’t have to be that
way. You can still learn so much, and it
might be OK that you get a B.”