Martin reflects on her time at Wilson

Ellida Parker and Maya Wilson

One Saturday this April, Principal Kimberly Martin was on the Wilson field, standing by as a remote-controlled camera burrowed further into pipes below the school. The atrium had flooded again, and she was trying to figure out why.

“See those rocks?” she asked us, showing us a picture of the tunnels later that month. “Those rocks are lying in the bottom of the tunnel. That’s supposed to be a storm drain. If those rocks are there, there are probably bigger rocks farther down the tunnel that are stopping the flow of water from the storm drains and pushing it back to the cafeteria.”

Perusing footage of rocks in tunnels isn’t the typical task you envision your principal tackling on her day off. But since coming to Wilson in 2015, Martin has nearly done it all.

“Here’s what I’ll say: I let the work come to me,” she said.

And come it has. Martin has been at the helm through student overdoses, violence and arrests, shocking and heartbreaking community deaths, five different chancellors, handfuls of student protests, championship victories and losses, and all the many tumults, joys, and challenges of day-to-day life at DC’s largest high school. Throughout these past four years, we’ve shown up at Martin’s office during STEP, stuck our heads in to ask her for her time, and sat down in the green and gray leather chairs across from her desk to hear her thoughts on the issues and events that, whether most Wilson students know it or not, shape our lives at Wilson.

For most seniors, this is a time marked by the distinct dichotomy of intense nostalgia and antsiness. We’re no exception, and as we’ve reminisced about our own past four years, Martin’s have also been brought to mind—after all, we started at Wilson at the same time.

When Martin signed on for a principalship with DCPS, she didn’t know she would end up at Wilson. In fact, when she flew to DC from Denver for a meeting with DCPS, she was ready to talk about HD Woodson. She’d been sure that that’s what they’d said on the phone: Woodson, not Wilson.

“I went and memorized everything you could memorize about Woodson and the Zulu warriors. I was like, ‘I’m going to be a Zulu warrior! I’m going to a school that has an African mascot, it’s a Zulu warrior. A Zulu warrior! I was so excited, I memorized their test scores, everything,” Martin said.

When Martin got to the meeting, she realized that her Zulu warrior excitement had been misplaced. “I was interviewing with then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and she was talking about how I’d had experience with wealth in schools and experience with generational poverty in schools, and how I’d be a great fit for Wilson. And I go, ‘Woodson?’ And she goes, ‘no, Wilson!’”

“I didn’t even know there was a Wilson,” Martin laughed. “I was on my phone, looking up data from Wilson’s school profile on the DCPS website, just trying not to screw up this interview.”

That evening, Martin got a call from DCPS offices—they wanted her to come back in front of a panel for another round of interviews to be Wilson’s principal. She got the job.

Martin calls her first year at Wilson a baptism by fire, and no small part of this was her first encounter with The Beacon. “I had a really tough start with The Beacon,” Martin said. The Beacon fought (and won) a short battle with Martin over prior review of the newspaper, which garnered local and national press coverage and a petition with over a thousand signatures.

“Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that that would be considered censorship, or anything other than me doing my actual job that I’m supposed to do, which is ensuring that the things that are sent from the school are of high quality.”

Martin’s year took on quite a different hue after her first misstep with The Beacon. In December, there was an incident where a student brought a gun into the school, and though no one was harmed, Martin was met with a torrent of community backlash and concern. “They were emailing me all the time [saying] ‘what are you going to do to stop this, this is ridiculous, ever since you’ve been here it’s been a disaster,’” she said. “I’m like, I’ve been here 82 days. Where was the disaster? Ok, a bad thing happened, but that marks my whole leadership?”

In the next month, a group of Wilson football players were arrested on the Metro on their way to school after a physical altercation with another passenger and a transit cop, and shortly thereafter, a Wilson student was stabbed in the Tenleytown area on their way to school. “There was this running theme that I was incompetent, the school was unsafe, and I didn’t know how to manage safety,” Martin said. In her first few months at Wilson, Martin went to several meetings where community stakeholders flat-out screamed at her.

Though these incidents might have yielded community upset in any situation, Martin believes the flames were fanned by racism. “My very first month or six weeks, I was really rolled over by racism. Parents in this community were horrible to me,” she explained, recalling one particularly hostile safety committee convened by the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANC). “They just yelled and yelled at me and finally a police officer stood up and was like, ‘This is ridiculous, I know you would not treat a white administrator like this.’”

Four years later, Martin rarely deals with this kind of treatment from parents. She’s come to form close relationships with some of the people who used to be her biggest critics. “They admit it now. I’m glad that they admit it now,” she said, describing an evening this summer when a group of Northwest parents invited her out for a drink. “One of them commented to me, she was like, ‘sometimes I can’t get over the way I treated you when you first arrived, and I think about some of the things I said to you and I feel really, really badly,’ and another parent said ‘it was just racism,’” Martin said. “Now, mind you, I’m the only person of color at this table of women, and the other parent goes ‘it was.’”

Besides buying her beverages, parents are also known to send Martin sweet texts, cards and birthday gifts, and to jump to her defense when the need arises: “There’s some parent who’s half-cocked, the other parents come and they’re like ‘you’re not doing that. This is our girl,’” Martin said with a laugh. Though she’s forgiven, she does not forget. “These are lovely, important people in my life now, but they were horrible when I first got here,” she said, pointing cheerfully at the hard drive under her desk where she has her last four years of emails carefully archived.

Nowadays, Martin is a warrior of college readiness, but when she was in the position we seniors find ourselves in now, she had no intention of going to college. “I had a job at the chamber of commerce making $3.20 an hour, and I thought I was hot s***,” she said. Martin grew up in the small, rural town of Fostoria, Ohio, and didn’t expect to go to college. “My parents didn’t go, none of my siblings went, no one that I knew had done that process,” she explained.

Martin’s English teacher was shocked to discover that Martin wasn’t even planning on applying to college given her prowess with a pen, and quickly made arrangements for her to apply to her own alma mater, Case Western Reserve University. Martin was admitted with a hefty scholarship. So, she visited the school, where the selection of sugar cereal sealed the deal. “[My family] always had to get the generic because we were on food stamps. Real, actual sugar cereal with marshmallows and candies in the cereal—Fruity Pebbles? I was going to college.”

Though her academic interests shifted, food remained important to Martin in college and beyond. We sat down with her at the end of Vice Principal Appreciation Week after she had treated her team to catered District Taco for lunch. Halfway through our interview, Assistant Principal Elkin Pineda popped his head into Martin’s office. “Did you enjoy your food?” she asked. “Yes, but we just want to hang out with you for a little bit,” Pineda responded, flashing Martin a puppy-dog pout.

Martin is deeply fond of her fellow administrators. “I’ve turned over a lot of the administration, so truly this is my team,” she said. “When you’re a principal, the only real allies you have are your assistant principals. They literally know where the bodies are buried.”

One thing we’ve often wondered over the years is what exactly fills Martin’s days. Initially, we imagined it was a lot of emailing and meetings, and some observing teachers. Now, we know it extends beyond that. As a principal, especially as principal of a school as complicated as Wilson, there are so many places to devote your energy that it quickly becomes chaotic. But Martin has loved the challenge.

I’ve never been the sort of person who takes the easy way with stuff, and I will say that this has been the most challenging job I’ve ever had,” Martin said. “There’s so much to know and so many moving pieces. This job gets me out of bed at night to send out an email or try and strategize around a problem, it gets me up at six in the morning to come think through something and it keeps me here until seven or eight at night,” Martin said.

Before she even arrived at the school, Martin knew what the focus of her tenure at Wilson would be: the ever-apparent achievement gap between white and minority students. “You don’t have to be an educational expert to notice the racial disparities at Wilson and in the city. So that was my first impression,” she said. In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, her first impression was reinforced. At a meet and greet on her first day in DC, a parent approached her and asked her a question she still remembers: “What are you going to do about the two Wilsons?”

“I asked her to tell me what she was talking about, what the two Wilsons were. And she was like, ‘the white school and the black school,’” Martin recalled. As she went around to classrooms on her first day to introduce herself, the reality of Wilson sunk in. “There were rooms without a single brown student and there are rooms that were only brown students. It was shocking that this segregation could exist within the same school. Not across the city but in the same school—it was shocking, and I continue to be shocked by it even today. I didn’t realize that it’d be so deeply ingrained in practice, so codified, so systemized that it happens without us even being aware of it,” Martin said.

In the past four years, Martin has tried to change that reality. Most notably, she’s done this through the implementation of Honors for All, an initiative launched in fall 2017 that made every freshman English and science class an Honors class. Honors for All aims to mitigate the prevalent gap between the number of white students and students of color in Honors and AP classes. Last year, teachers and students interviewed by The Beacon spoke highly of the initiative, crediting it with increasing the rigor of classes while also reducing self-segregation. At the end of the Honors for All’s inaugural year, teachers were overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the program.

Honors for All is one of the signature policies of Martin’s tenure so far, and it represents progress. But the program’s success hasn’t shifted Martin’s focus away from the opportunity gap.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever in my life recover from the way I felt those first few weeks at Wilson, hearing some students who had so much hope about the future, and then meeting with the student who were like, ‘I have to go to credit recovery because I still haven’t passed this one class, and they forgot to put this class on my schedule so I haven’t taken PE and I can’t graduate on time.’ What? How? I have spent the last four years trying to answer the ‘how.’ Just doing one thing at a time, trying to unpack that ‘how.’ How can these discrepancies exist? How can this experience be so different for different kids?”

For most of this year, Martin thought that she wouldn’t be returning to Wilson next fall. She was tired of the perpetual uncertainty of operating under a one-year contract. DCPS has thus far only offered their principals one-year contracts.

Instability has defined Martin’s years working with DCPS. In just four years, she’s worked under five chancellors and has readjusted to the ever-changing policies and guidelines that come along with each new leader.

“I am a person who, if you say, ‘I’m gonna need you to tear down this wall,’ I’m like ‘Yessir, let me get right to it.’ But I haven’t been able to be competent or to even understand what Central Offices want me to know and do, because what they want just keeps changing. They just don’t know what they want,” Martin said.

In December, Martin accepted an offer to be the principal of a school in Kuwait. The location wasn’t exactly enticing, but the job paid well, and it promised job security—something she is severely lacking in her position at DCPS.

Then, in March, Chancellor Ferebee was confirmed, and Martin did what she calls, “the most DC thing,” she’s ever done. She thought that if she could get some one-on-one time with the new Chancellor, she could make a last-ditch plea for a three-year contract. “I didn’t want to send him an email, I didn’t want to send him a text, I wanted to say to his face, I think I deserve this,” Martin said. She realized that Ferebee was going to be at a meeting with her before heading to a party that they were both invited to. So, at the end of the meeting, she deliberately shouted across the room: “Hey Chancellor, I know you’re getting ready to go to this parent’s house, um, can you give me a ride?”

“All I wanted was the 20-minute car ride, that time in the car, to say, ‘Hey, I know you don’t know me. I am working my butt off. I’m not perfect, but I want to stay,’” Martin said.

“He shook my hand and was like, ‘You know what, I’ve heard great things about you. We’re not there yet, where we’re giving multi-year contracts to people, but you are going to be one of the people that get it when it comes,’” Martin recalled.

With this half-promise secured, Martin turned down the Kuwait job. Then, two weeks later, she was offered a principalship in Cape Town, South Africa. In contrast to Kuwait, this job was compelling. She wanted to take it, so she did.

“It’s been a damn rollercoaster,” Martin said.This time, Martin was sure that she was leaving.

“I couldn’t sleep for a whole month. I was sleepless. I was unhappy. I was moody. I was not myself,” she said. When she announced her departure at a staff meeting in March, she started to cry. “I’m not really that much of an emotional person. And I literally started crying in the microphone in front of the staff,” Martin said. “I was like, I love these people. Why am I leaving? What is wrong with me?”

Nothing about Wilson itself made Martin want to leave. She realized that the driving force behind her itch to leave was the tumult brought to her job by her relationship with Central Office. “I’ve been living in fear,” Martin said. “They have so much power and control over my day-to-day, over how my job functions, and I’ve just been overwhelmed with it. The reason I wanted to leave had nothing to do with anything that happens in these walls. It’s Central Office,” Martin explained.

“I said to myself, you know, even if they give me a one year contract, whatever. I’ll just take the one year contract. I’m being a baby. I don’t want to leave.” She told Cape Town no.

Martin’s contract still has not been renewed by Central Offices. There’s still no guarantee that she’ll have a job next year. But to her, the possibility of another year at Wilson makes the uncertainty worth it.

What is it about Wilson that makes her want to stay so badly?

“It’s the students,” she responded immediately. Then she paused for a moment and looked around the room. “I mean, look at my door,” she said, gesturing towards the poster-adorned entrance to her office. There was the bright-orange sign from the walkout students planned last fall to support a Clean Dream Act. Next to it, a Black Lives Matter sign. Below that, a poster for ArtsFest, Wilson’s annual celebration of artistic talent in the school. Next to that, a cast photo from this year’s fall musical, “Rent.”

“Arts, activism… kids doing all kinds of stuff. They’re proud of DC, proud of their identity. There is just not another school like this in North America, maybe not the world,” she said.

“You can’t find this anywhere else. Honestly,” she said. “I’ve been in different states, I’ve been in different schools. It’s magical.”