Principal Zoe Duskin unlocked the front door just after 6 a.m. Monday. The seven classrooms at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, a new public charter school in Northeast Washington, were in perfect order. But she lingered over the last details, policing bits of dust from the floors with tissue paper and making sure each room had a doorstop.
“I am so excited,” said Duskin, 28, opening her first school as a principal. It was also a big moment for the city’s 53 publicly funded, independently operated schools — which educate nearly 40 percent of its 75,000 public school students — making it the most robust charter sector of any big city outside New Orleans. And it was a moment that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) went out of his way to recognize.
In his first round of school openings as the city’s chief executive, Gray said during a visit to Inspired Teaching that it would not bother him if charter schools surpass traditional public schools in enrollment.
“I’m comfortable with our kids getting an education in the best possible place,” Gray said after visiting a prekindergarten class where he read a book called (what else?) “Hurray for Pre-K!”
This is no small thing for a mayor who was elected with heavy support from unionized teachers — the kind who don’t work in the District’s charter schools. But Gray said he was looking for charters to have “a catalyzing effect” on the city’s 123 traditional public schools, whose 45,000 students returned to class Monday.
“I think the competitive juices are starting to flow. [Traditional schools have] got to be able to get better to raise their market share,” said the mayor, who also visited Eastern High School on Capitol Hill and Hart Middle School in Congress Heights.
Although traditional schools show more overall growth in test scores over the past five years, charters made slightly larger gains this year on city tests. At Achievement Prep charter school in Ward 8, 87 percent of students scored proficient or better in math and 60 percent in reading. The passing rates topped those of any traditional elementary school in Ward 8.
Gray’s administration has asked a Chicago firm with close ties to the charter movement to study the distribution of schools — both charter and traditional — across the city to assess which communities are underserved. Officials say the study, by the Illinois Facilities Fund, could provide the basis for decisions to close underenrolled traditional schools and open more charters.
“We very clearly have a spot and a voice at the table,” said Brian W. Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. He said he could not recall Gray’s predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), visiting a charter school on opening day.
At Inspired Teaching’s site in Brookland, shared with the Potomac Lighthouse charter school, Gray was joined by D.C. State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley, Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright and other members of the public charter and state school boards.
If Gray intended to highlight the ascendance of charter schools, he picked an unusual setting. Inspired Teaching’s founders reject the notion held by some reformers that charters will be the salvation of a dysfunctional, hidebound public education system.
The school, serving 150 students through third grade, is a spinoff of a nonprofit group — the Center for Inspired Teaching — that has spent the past 15 years training educators not as providers of instructional content but as “instigators of thought.” Founder Aleta Margolis said the goal is to instill in children a love of learning by challenging them to seek their own answers in a nurturing, nonauthoritarian environment.
Margolis also wants to nurture teachers. She said she was appalled several years ago during a meeting with then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who said that most teachers in D.C schools needed to be replaced if there was any hope of a turnaround. The evaluation system that Rhee devised has led to the firings of hundreds of teachers for poor performance.
Margolis said the idea of the super-teacher who will single-handedly lift underperforming children is harmful and unrealistic. Most good teachers are made, she said, not born.
“We want to get away from the human capital argument, that if we got better teachers then things will be different,” she said. “You can only have so many super-teachers.”
As a demonstration school, Inspired Teaching will function as an educational equivalent of a teaching hospital, with first-year residents leading classes alongside seasoned “master teachers.” After a year, the residents will leave to teach at regular or charter schools.
“We don’t want to save the system. We want to save teaching,” Margolis said.
For Duskin, a former assistant principal at a San Francisco high school, Inspired Teaching is a “dream job.” On Sunday, she asked her teachers in an e-mail to spend part of the day in reflection, “readying themselves to be in the presence of children.”
She was asked what that meant for her on the first day of school.
“I think about what I want kids to remember in 20 years,” she said. “They won’t remember what book they read, or what toy they liked best. I want them to remember what it felt like to make a friend for the first time.”