Briya student wins essay contest for Adult Education and Family Literacy Week

Briya student Maria Elena Van Maren came in first place in the ESL category of the DC Adult Education and Family Literacy Week essay contest. Another Briya student, Mayra Chavez, came in second in the category.

In their essays, the students responded to a prompt about barriers they face and overcome as adult learners.

As Van Maren wrote, barriers to getting her education started early: at age 11, she left school in her native Colombia to help her single mother provide for their family by cleaning houses. In her essay, she explained that she still faces many obstacles today, including balancing working, caring for her children and studying at Briya.

Briya teachers with award winning student and her daughter

“We are so proud of Maria Elena and Mayra for their participation and success in the AEFL essay contest,” said Elise Gorman and Judy Kittleson, the students’ instructors.

“Their positivity in the face of challenges is inspirational for all our adult learners, and it highlights the need for more funding for high-quality adult education programs like Briya across the city.”

Van Maren was recognized for her winning essay at an event organized by the DC Adult Education and Family Literacy Coalition, where she received a prize. Van Maren and adult learners from other DC programs also participated in a panel about the issues they face.

As part of the panel, Van Maren shared her dreams for the future.

“I have many, many goals,” she said. “I want my kids to be proud of me. I want to become a leader in my community. I want to work in international relations so I can help my country, Colombia.”

“I love to help people, and how to be able to help people is with my education,” she said.

Fourth class of students enters Medical Assistant Program

Gina Pistulka, Briya instructor, welcomed everyone and spoke to the incoming students Twenty-four new students were inducted into Briya’s Medical Assistant Program during a ceremony this fall.

Gina Pistulka, Briya instructor, welcomed everyone and spoke to the incoming students about the vital work they will do as medical assistants.

“You are the face of the healthcare team,” Pistulka said. “You are the one the patient will meet first. You are the one who will start to create the environment in which a person begins to heal.”

“You and the students who have come before you are some of the most inspirational people I have met,” she added. “You have already shown your strength and your persistence in moving your life forward and accepting challenges that will bring you and your families to a brighter place.”

A 2016 MA Program graduate, Lahana Bernard, then spoke to the class about her time in the 15-month program, which prepares students to work alongside doctors and nurses.

“I feel very prepared and confident,” she said. “I have gained a lot of knowledge and skills from this program, which will enable me to have a career–not just a job.”

Bernard also spoke about her positive experience with her teachers and classmates at Briya.

An incoming student receives a medical assistant pin from a program graduateThe instructors here are the best,” she said. “They really care and will work with you to make sure you understand the content. As students … we were all one big family. Students bonded and supported each other through tough personal and family issues and losses.”

After hearing from Pistulka and Bernard, each incoming student received a medical assistant pin from a program graduate. The new students then recited the medical assistant creed, officially becoming Briya’s MA class of 2017.

The new class left the ceremony with words of inspiration offered by Bernard.

“The program gave me a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “My advice to you all is when times are hard and you feel like you’ve hit a wall, don’t give up. Think about why you’re doing the program … and let that be your motivation.”

Video from Digital Promise highlights Briya’s strengths

Briya’s Two-Generation Program is showcased in a video created by Digital Promise in partnership with the Barbara Bush Foundation.

The video highlights Briya’s unique model, which enables parents to gain knowledge and skills (from basic literacy to earning a high school diploma) at the same time that their young children prepare for future success through a high-quality early education.

In the video, Briya’s Executive Director, Christie McKay, names keys to Briya’s successful outcomes:

  1. Having a steady funding stream for adult education.
  2. Simultaneously viewing adult learners as parents, workers, and community members, and then creating systems that support their needs holistically

“Adult students face a lot of challenges that young people don’t face,” Erica Schuetz, an adult education instructor at Briya, states in the video. These needs include supporting their families financially, caring for their children, and navigating the transportation system.

“As educators and as a school, we try to address those challenges by … letting students know they’re wanted here, that we miss them when they don’t show up, and also by networking them with a lot of support services within Mary’s Center and within the school and within the community.”

Briya’s adult and early childhood students achieve some of the highest outcomes in the country thanks to the education and the network of support they receive at Briya.

“[Briya is] a very rewarding place to work, and I feel a really strong relationship with the students,” Schuetz says. “I feel really lucky to be able to work in a program like this.”

Watch the video below.

Briya student earns high school diploma and looks to future

Awa Traore, 2016 graduate, with her son“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” said Awa Traore, 2016 graduate of Briya’s National External Diploma Program, on earning her high school diploma.

“There was a time when I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do it.’ But you just have to keep it in your mind that you can. Everything is possible.”

Traore grew up in the Ivory Coast and Mali. She came to the U.S. with her husband in 2009 knowing only a little English, and first enrolled in Briya’s Two-Generation Program in 2011 along with her infant son.

“My speaking, writing and reading have improved a lot,” she said. “I like Briya teachers because they are patient and they understand everybody.” Traore also learned parenting techniques at Briya that she has seen benefit her son, now four, and her daughter, who is almost two.

Before coming to the U.S., Traore had begun studying accounting in high school but wasn’t able to finish. She realized that earning a high school diploma was a vital first step toward achieving her goals of further education and getting a better job.

“Everything I want to do in my life requires a high school diploma,” she said. “It was great when I learned that I can get a chance here at the age I am now because back home we don’t have easy opportunities.”

Now that she has her diploma, Traore hopes to enter a program to get her Child Development Associate certification.

Briya CDA graduate wins 2016 STARS award

Maxine Gorham, a 2016 Briya Child Development Associate graduate, was awarded Most Outstanding Adult Student at the 2016 STARS Tribute. The tribute honors leaders in DC public charter schools.

“Gorham has been an exceptional student, role model and human being, constantly showing us that determination and commitment can guide us towards our professional goals in spite of obstacles,” said Mau Castro-Trujillo, who taught Gorham’s CDA class and nominated her for the award.

As a CDA student, Gorham not only worked hard to improve her own work and performed well academically, but she also welcomed opportunities to assist her classmates one-on-one. According to Castro-Trujillo, Gorham’s determination and caring spirit were inspirational.

“Gorham is an amazing person and teacher, and should be taken as an example for future generations of teachers and CDA candidates,” she said.

While taking class at Briya in the evenings, Gorham spent her days teaching three-year-old students at KIPP DC Grow Academy, as well as caring for her six-year-old son and her grandmother. Additionally, she participated in a professional learning community for charter teachers organized by the Flamboyan Foundation.

“Maxine Gorham is an inspiration to her students, a distinguished leader among her peers, and a beloved team member for her superiors,” said Susan Schaeffler, Executive Director and CEO of KIPP DC. “She is a wife, mother, teacher and student, and she balances all four beautifully.”

Gorham’s next step is attending the University of the District of Columbia to work toward a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. After getting her degree, she aims to become a reading teacher and eventually open her own childcare center.

“It means a lot to me, winning this award,” Gorham said. “It meant the most for me to share that special moment with my son. I want him to see that being a leader and working hard brings great reward.”

Briya to expand to Fort Totten neighborhood

Briya is excited to be opening a new school in the Fort Totten neighborhood in time for the 2016-17 school year! The Fort Totten campus will enable Briya to serve more students in the communities where they live, expanding the school’s services from Adams Morgan, Mt. Pleasant and Petworth to Fort Totten.

Beginning in the fall of 2016, Briya will offer classes at Fort Totten that are part of its family literacy program, which includes adult education (English, digital literacy and hands-on parenting) and early childhood education. In the future, high school diploma and workforce development classes will also be offered at the site.

Fort Totten students will benefit from many amenities—including a computer lab; a comfortable parent waiting area; rooms for tutoring and other small group activities; separate playgrounds for pre-K, infant and elementary-aged children; a large multipurpose room for events and indoor recess; and much more.

Briya will be joined at the Fort Totten campus by two partner organizations – Mary’s Center and Bridges Public Charter School – to offer even more comprehensive services for families under one roof.

Mary’s Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center, will offer a variety of medical care, dental care, social supports and social services for children and adults at Fort Totten. Mary’s Center and Briya’s joint presence builds on their 25-year commitment to providing holistic support to the families they serve together.

Bridges is an inclusion elementary school, specializing in educating children with special needs. Bridges will enroll children in pre-K through fourth grade for the 2016-17 school year, and will expand to fifth grade in future years.

The Fort Totten campus, located a five-minute walk from the Fort Totten metro station, previously housed a DC public school, Mamie D. Lee. Briya, along with Bridges Public Charter School, was awarded the building by Mayor Vincent Gray in December 2014. Part of the former building remains intact and new construction will expand and modernize the space for the three organizations.

Briya looks forward to welcoming families to its Fort Totten site!

For more information about Briya’s Fort Totten site, please contact Lauren Stoltzfus, Communications Specialist, at To enroll in Briya classes at Fort Totten, Petworth, Adams Morgan, or Mt. Pleasant, please call 202-232-7777.

Nineteen medical assistant students graduate from Briya

Christie McKay, Executive Director of Briya, with graduates“Reach for the sky and while you are doing so, help as many people as you can,” said Wendy Evora, valedictorian of Briya’s second medical assistant class.

Evora was addressing her eighteen fellow MA graduates, who celebrated their accomplishments during a ceremony this winter.

Christie McKay, Executive Director of Briya, welcomed the group and offered congratulations and encouragement.

“You have chosen an important field because health is really the foundation for everyone to be happy and to have successful lives,” McKay said. “And you are going to contribute to that. You have chosen a field not just to learn but to help others, to help society and to help the world.”

Dara Koppelman, Chief Nursing Officer at Mary’s Center speaking to graduatesDara Koppelman, Chief Nursing Officer at Mary’s Center, also spoke to the graduates.

“Since the inception of the Briya MA program, we at Mary’s Center have hired eight MA graduates,” Koppelman said. “Overseeing the department, I’ve seen that these MAs are some of the most amazing employees in all of Mary’s Center. They’re hard working, they’re intelligent—they’re really amazing.”

During the ceremony, students were recognized for their outstanding achievements. The fourteen graduates who took the national Registered Medical Assistant exam—210 challenging questions in 2 hours—all passed on their first attempt, making them nationally certified medical assistants. The remaining graduates are scheduled to take the exam in the upcoming months.

In addition, five students were honored for perfect attendance—they didn’t miss a single class period all year. Six students graduated with honors, finishing the course with a cumulative GPA of over 90%. Six of the students have already been offered jobs as MAs.

During her valedictorian speech, Evora stressed the importance of the supportive environment that she experienced as a Briya student.

“At Briya, I found not just the highest quality of education … but also a community of people who really care,” Evora said. “That is what has kept me working harder and harder because you cannot find that anywhere else.”

“Thank you, Briya, for caring,” she concluded. “Thank you.”


Read Evora’s full speech here.

MA Valedictorian Speech 2016

Graduation Speech – Wendy Evora

Wendy Evora giving her graduation speechHello, my name is Wendy Evora. I am glad to be here tonight representing the hard work we have all done in class and in our internships. I would like to say thank you to all of our family and friends for their support. Without you, this day could not be possible.

My father once told me, “No one can take knowledge away from you.”  I feel so lucky to be one of many people in our multicultural community that Briya, in partnership with Mary’s Center, has given the opportunity to reach the next step in education and job options regardless of our ability to pay. At Briya, I found not just the highest quality of education in ESL, parenting, computers, high school diploma program, and Medical Assistant program, but also a community of people who really care. That is what has kept me working harder and harder because you cannot find that anywhere else.

While in the Medical Assistant Program, I learned that as an MA, we are bridges of communication between the providers and the patients. I saw in the internship and practice how the clients really need not just people who can speak their language but also people who can read their expressions and body language to know how to communicate with them and help them. It’s not just explaining the medical terminology—it is about helping patients with their needs. If they don’t have money to pay for their rent, they might not be able to pay for their medicine.

Sometimes we get so busy helping patient after patient, it’s hard to remember to be there for each individual person. We need to understand the different needs of each person and have empathy for them in a busy health care environment.

We can make the person feel good by taking care of them, smiling at them, giving them quality time and attention for even five to 10 minutes while we are taking their blood pressure. We can ask them, “How are you doing?  Are you able to get groceries?”

Christie McKay, Executive Director of Briya, with Wendy Evora.We need to get the most out of that communication by finding out a little bit about that person. The provider doesn’t have the time to do that. We are the ones to first meet them and we can get that quality information and show we care.

In closing, I am so glad that at school and in the workplace, I have found not just classmates or coworkers but friends who have helped me to serve those who are seeking help. My parents always told me, “Wendy, you must help others without expecting rewards.” This saying so closely matches Briya’s and Mary’s Center’s missions.

Before I came to Briya, I was closed in the four walls of my apartment. My manager told me, “The only limit you have is the sky. You can reach and accomplish whatever you want.”  I am here to tell you the same thing. Reach for the sky and while you are doing so, help as many people as you can.

I would like to say thank you to the MA staff and teachers.  Also, a special thank you to Jennifer. You have given us those five minutes of quality time. You have heard us and helped us.  Thank you for all you have done. And most importantly, thank you, Briya, for caring.


Briya CDA Student Paulette

Briya CDA student changes lives at childcare home

Paulette Sansbury, a student in Briya’s Child Development Associate program and a participant in Mary’s Center, is a shining example of how dedication and care can make a difference in people’s lives.

Sansbury cares for infants and toddlers at God Is So Good Child Development Home, which she opened five years ago.

“Showing children love is very important,” Sansbury said. “If children feel secure and loved, then they won’t have a problem with learning.”

Eager to increase her child care knowledge, Sansbury applied to be part of DC’s Early Learning Quality Improvement Network (QIN). Her home was selected and she began working with Mary’s Center, which serves as a training and support center for providers in the QIN. As part of the QIN, Sansbury participates in one-on-one mentoring and monthly trainings, and is enrolled in Briya’s Child Development Associate program.

“Paulette has truly opened herself up to learning new information,” said Yael Kiken, Child Care Licensing Program Coordinator at Mary’s Center. “She approaches the learning process with eagerness and joy that translates to high-quality care in her child development home.”

“It’s rewarding, the things I’m learning,” Sansbury said. “You have to let the child show you what they’re interested in. Doing that, you peek into who they are. Once they guide you, you follow their lead.”

Sansbury’s care and generosity have a big impact on the families she serves. Two of the children who recently began attending Sansbury’s home are 22-month-old twins. Their mother, Kidste Mekonnen, had lost her restaurant business because she didn’t have childcare.

Sansbury worked with Mary’s Center staff to help Mekonnen apply for the childcare subsidy that enabled her children to go to Sansbury’s home.

Because she now has childcare, Mekonnen is able to attend Briya’s Family Literacy program, where she learns English, digital literacy skills and parenting in the Advanced II class. She hopes to get her high school diploma and get a job again.

“I’m so happy,” Mekonnen said. “I see my life’s changed already. I was two years in the house, alone with my kids, no going out. I was very depressed. And I came here and I have a lot of friends and I love class so much.”

Mekonnen feels confident and secure leaving her children in Sansbury’s care while she studies.

“I feel like they are at home,” she said. “She’s like a mom.”

Pre-K Tree Study 2016

PreK students become tree experts

The 20 PreK students at our Ontario Road site just finished up 10 weeks of studying trees.

To begin, the children observed the parts of trees—roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit—and learned the purpose of each part. They planted seeds and guessed if they would grow better in the sun or out of the sun. This experiment helped them realize that trees start as seeds and need sun and water to grow.

The students also learned about the variety of resources trees provide—fruit like apples, oranges, and bananas; wood that can be used for items like furniture and instruments; and more. Students explored some of these resources by making homemade paper, baking apple pies, and doing other hands-on activities.

In addition, children learned how to care for trees and about tree “doctors” called arborists. The classes even took a field trip to the National Arboretum to explore trees and plants there.
“We began studying trees in the fall because it’s such a beautiful time to observe how trees change,” said Emily Gordon, a PreK instructor. “We like to connect our studies to the students’ lives. We talked about trees they see out of their apartment windows, trees they see on the way to school, trees they see in our school neighborhood, etc.”

Student learning about treesStudying one topic for an extended period of time allows children to dig deep into the topic rather than just touch the surface of many topics. Throughout the study, teachers reviewed what students were taught in previous weeks to reinforce their learning.

At the end of the 10 weeks, parents were invited into the classroom for a celebration. Students happily shared what they had learned and created, and everyone enjoyed a delicious fruit salad made from the students’ favorite fruits—that grew on trees, of course!