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Posted at 05:56 PM ET, 08/16/2011

Starting with the heart at Luke C. Moore

One hopeful story embedded in the 2011 DC CAS scores is Luke C. Moore Academy HS in Brookland. It’s home to about 300 students usually described as “disengaged,” polite edu-jargon for kids who have dropped out, been expelled or incarcerated, or simply fallen off the grid entirely. They range in age from 17 to 20. It means that Luke C. Moore is not just the last chance, it’s one step beyond last chance.

The 70 sophomores who took the CAS moved the school into AYP “safe harbor” in reading and math for the first time. (Safe Harbor means the school didn’t meet proficiency targets, but reduced the number below proficient by at least 10 percent). Reading pass rates more than doubled, from 18.1 to 41.8 percent. Math pass rates grew from 11.3 to 21.8 percent.

“I truly believe in this population,” said Azalia Hunt-Speight, the 31-year-old principal hired by former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in 2009 to replace the popular Reginald Elliott.

Hunt-Speight said she and assistant principal Carlos Perkins spent much of the first year (2009-10) trying to build emotional bridges to their students — memorizing their names, doubling down on the fun stuff many of them have missed out on in their school careers, such as field trips and ice cream socials. The school formed its first basketball team. Hunt-Speight called it a “nurturing, compassionate and validating” approach.

“The students would ask, ‘This is for us?’” she said.

She tore up the daily schedule, replacing it with two two-hour classes per each nine-week advisory period, allowing students who typically arrive way behind to earn credits at a faster clip. There were staff changes. Five Luke C. Moore teachers were rated “highly effective” this year on their IMPACT evaluation.

She also led an aggressive home visitation effort, to learn more about the students’ lives and engage parents. She and her support staff conducted more than 300 visits last year to families scattered across the city, some in neighborhoods that Hunt-Speight’s husband, Friendship Southeast Elementary Academy PCS principal Joseph Speight, wouldn’t let her go to by herself.

The outreach was hit-and-miss. Some doors wouldn’t open, and some parents told her that they were “done” with their 17 or 18-year-old kids. Other visits infuriated the students, who felt the school was meddling. But attendance is up and turnout at parent meetings, which once numbered in the twos and threes, is now past thirty.

The daughter of Panamanian immigrants, Hunt-Speight is a young educational veteran. She has taught in Prince George’s County and at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS and worked at OSSE and DCPS as an administrator before Rhee caught serious heat for selecting her to replace Elliott. The change led to suspicions in the community that Rhee was preparing to move the challenging students out of the building — which had been handsomely renovated on Elliott’s watch — to make it a neighborhood school in gentrifying Brookland. The fears proved unfounded.

Emily Washington, a 40-year DCPS veteran and reading specialist at Luke C. Moore, said she’s never seen a school leader like Hunt-Speight.

“She is the most patient, the most accommodating, the most giving person in a principal’s job that I’ve ever worked with,” Washington said. I have seen her dress down boys 6’ 4” and girls 300 pounds. But she has figured out a way to win the kids’ affection through a supportive, authoritative pedagogy. You start with the heart and mind and then go to work on the cognitive side.”

Hunt-Speight credits Elliott with laying important groundwork. She also understands that the successes have been modest and that this is a long way from a feel-good story. Three of her students have been shot to death in her two years on the job. Those who manage to graduate face uncertain futures with sketchy job prospects. But she continues to work with employers who will accept kids with felonies on their records. And this week, she’ll drive a former student to Allegany College in Cumberland .

“They have so much hidden potential that no one has tapped,” she said.

By  |  05:56 PM ET, 08/16/2011

 
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