D.C. schools hire expert to help improve outcomes for African American boys

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has hired Robert Simmons, a professor of urban education whose work focuses on the experiences of African American boys, for a new senior-level position as the school system’s chief of innovation and research.

Simmons said he decided to take an indefinite sabbatical from his current job, as director of the Center for Innovation in Urban Education at Loyola University Maryland, after Henderson approached him about coming to work for D.C. Public Schools.

“I believe in the vision the chancellor has laid out,” Simmons said. “I just saw great alignment with my own passion for urban education.”

Simmons said he has been tasked with co-leading the school system’s nascent initiative to improve outcomes for African American males, whose graduation rate — 38 percent — lags far behind the city average. He will also examine research from around the country to identify effective programs that could work in the District.

He declined to speak in specifics about the kinds of ideas he will pursue, saying the details are still being worked out. But he said he would also be a “facilitator of conversations and program development” who helps forge collaborative efforts among principals, teachers, students and representatives from higher education.

“The work that I’ll do will be a lot of bridge-building,” he said.

Simmons’s salary is $160,000 per year. Schools officials did not respond to requests for a written job description for his new position, one of 10 chief-level positions that report directly to Henderson.

“Robert comes from a similar background of many of our students and what he has achieved is what we want for our students,” Henderson said in a statement. “He overcame the odds in Detroit and throughout his career, his accomplishments and bodies of work, both academic and practical, focus on ensuring success for poor and minority students. He brings great insight and experience to our DCPS family.”

A Detroit native who grew up with a father who was in and out of prison, Simmons began his career 17 years ago as a middle school science teacher in his hometown, according to his résumé. In 2007, he earned a doctorate degree in education from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and was an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University before transferring to Loyola in 2009.

He serves on the board of the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School and writes and speaks frequently — at universities, Teach For America conferences and public school inservice trainings — about issues at the intersection of race and education.

He said the District’s challenges — particularly its concentrated poverty and tensions between charter and traditional schools — mirror the challenges facing many other U.S. cities.

“I do think that the significant level of poverty in urban America is a challenge for all urban school systems,” he said. “But I also think there’s a sense of hope in these communities. There’s a sense of hope and dignity.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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