Eleanor Roosevelt High Principal Reginald McNeill is set to retire from his position. (Photo by Eleanor Roosevelt High)

By Tinashe Chingarande,
Special to the AFRO

When reflecting on his days as a journalism undergraduate student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in the 1970s, Reginald McNeill’s gruff baritone voice lightens to a silky tenor with wistful affection for this period of his life.

His alma mater, a historically Black university established in the 1890s in Greensboro, N. C., harbored Black culture and was dedicated to preserving the history of the schools and “Blacks in the South.” 

“We had a house dedicated to keeping the culture of the school,” he recalled softly in a phone interview.

McNeil remembers attending seminars where giants of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson, spoke about their causes with a hypnotic charisma. Or the days he’d travel across town to listen to Black store owners narrate anecdotes of their lives.

These experiences cultivated in McNeill a steadfast appreciation for Black intellect. Now, as he nears the end of his principalship at Eleanor Roosevelt High School —a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) magnet high school in Prince George’s County— he reflects on his own experiences shaped his efforts to funnel more children of color into the sciences, dousing a famine of their presence in the industry. 

As early as 2004, the number of U.S. Black college students graduating with science degrees has been unable to keep pace with the growth in STEM graduates overall. 

Despite an overall increase in the number of Black graduates, only 6.2 percent of overall STEM graduates in 2016 were Black —a 16 percent drop from 2004—, according to a study done by the National Science Foundation.

Researchers from D.C.-based American Association for the Advancement of Science attribute this collapse to income inequality and a scarcity of research internships and summer programs that prepare high school students for college-level coursework.

McNeill believes that these conclusions are true. However, he also thinks that Black students are also intimidated by a lack of representation in the field and a general hesitation to manage the rigor of STEM coursework.

“Algebra One is the gatekeeper,” he said. “Students need confidence in math to get past that. [They] are too quick to dismiss engineering because it is difficult.” 

He added that children need to be encouraged from an early age to develop an affinity for science by seeing their peers and more adults in the field. 

“Surrounding students with students who think like them [allows] them to support each other,” he said.

This support underscores McNeill’s ethos behind science education programming at Eleanor Roosevelt.

At Eleanor Roosevelt, students can select from a plethora of academic programs such as Advanced Placement capstone classes that teach how to conduct collegiate-level research, college career and research development, and science and technology. They can also participate in student organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers and Women in STEM. 

McNeill has also overseen internship programs that pair students with mentors from the National Institutes of Health and NASA, and he plans to partner with Howard University and Bowie State University, among others, to write grants and create a pipeline that directs Black talent into academia. 

In addition to science coursework, Eleanor Roosevelt offers tutelage in the performing arts. 

While this may be unusual for a STEM magnet school, McNeill believes that it is important for students to be encouraged to express themselves creatively. 

“Music education is important, and we allow students to do scientific research in music and drama,” he said. “The goal is to get students ready for the opportunities that lie ahead of them.”

In 2014, McNeill was named administrator of the year by the Maryland Music Educators Association for his support of the arts, according to the high school’s newspaper, the Raider Review.

“We’ve been blessed to have leadership that understands the great need to have the arts as a functioning program within the curriculum,” said Michele Fowlin, a music teacher at the school, in an email.

Eleanor Roosevelt also offers a summer program called Quality Education in Science and Technology (QUEST) that McNeill began supporting when he joined the school’s faculty in the fall of 1997 as an assistant principal. Prior to this, he was a fifth grade teacher at James McHenry Elementary School in Lanham, Md. after a brief stint in public relations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Public Affairs office. 

QUEST, which has been operating for 32 years, invites seventh and eighth grade students to take science courses at Eleanor Roosevelt for exposure and to build confidence in the curricula. Upon completion, students can then apply to attend the high school to receive more in-depth instruction. 

Hitherto, McNeill’s tenure has been successful. Sixty percent of students in the school’s science and technology programs are Black, most of whom are girls. However, parents and educators in the county are dissatisfied with how narrow the path into McNeill’s coveted school program is. 

McNeill says that the programs’ competitive nature is “unfair,” but admissions decisions are “not a school decision.” Prince George’s County Public Schools selects students based on PSAT scores and GPA averages in mathematics, science, social studies and English.

As McNeill takes his last strides in the hallways of Eleanor Roosevelt and concludes his career as the fifth principal in the school’s history, he wants to be remembered for his fervent investment in students’ success and giving them the opportunities to grow.

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