Niya White, the principal of Center City Public Charter School’s campus in Congress Heights, admits she is a “little obsessive” when it comes to her students’ data. In her office, she flipped through pages of completed math worksheets and “exit tickets.”
The pages revealed neatly printed math functions written by fifth-graders. She pointed out examples of mastery, but there were errors as well. “If I look through and see like, ‘Hey, there’s like eight kids who made the same, common mistake,’ let’s go back.” Sometimes, White will pore through dozens of assignments — from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade.
It’s a strategy that helped land the campus in Southeast Washington on EmpowerK12’s list of 2022 Bold Performance Schools. These schools, which educate high numbers of students considered by the city to be “at risk,” are outperforming their peers across the District, according to the D.C. education research group.
At-risk children include students from low-income families, as well as children who are homeless or in the city’s foster-care system. But the educators who teach them, grade their assignments and help them procure T-shirts for spirit week don’t think of them that way.
“We don’t have struggling students, we don’t have at-risk students,” said LeVar Jenkins, principal at John Burroughs Elementary School, another school on the list. “We just have students.”
This year’s Bold Performance Schools include 14 elementary, middle and high schools. Students at the schools scored proficiency rates on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test — widely known as PARCC — that were an average of 9.1 percentage points higher than other schools with similar demographics. They also outperformed the pre-pandemic average among similar schools on the standardized test.
At Burroughs, Jenkins said teachers doubled down on giving feedback to students during the pandemic. “You could really see what a student was or was not able to grasp in the moment,” Jenkins said. If a teacher noticed an issue, it was corrected “then and there.”
In other cases, these schools found ways to give children more classroom time. Center City started offering some in-person learning to students during the 2020-21 school year, when many schools remained closed. Families who struggled to keep their children online, whether due to obligations at work or shoddy internet access, could send their children to school.
The Bold Performance Schools include nine charter campuses: Center City at Congress Heights; Washington Global Public Charter School; Roots Public Charter School; KIPP DC Legacy College Prep High School; Friendship Southeast Elementary School; Digital Pioneers High School; Paul Public Charter School; Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy; and Bridges Public Charter School.
Burroughs, Burrville, Langdon, Garrison and Payne elementary schools, which are traditional public campuses, were also recognized.
EmpowerK12 uses a mathematical model to calculate how schools with large at-risk populations — at least 30 percent of the student body — perform on the standardized test relative to their peers. Across the city, about 14 percent of children at schools with high at-risk populations are reading and doing math on grade level, according to an EmpowerK12 analysis of 2022 PARCC data. Among Bold Performance Schools, however, an average of 23 percent of children meet that standard.
The schools are spread across sectors and wards, but share some commonalties. They prioritize family engagement, extended learning time for students, small-group instruction and weekly data monitoring, according to EmpowerK12. Teachers are regularly observed and coached to improve.
“A lot of it is about the quality of the staff and the leadership that are within those schools,” said Josh Boots, founder and executive director of EmpowerK12. He added that it’s also about an “overemphasis on relationships and fun.”
Tarsha Warren, assistant principal at Burroughs, knows every student in the building and, in many cases, their parents, aunts and cousins. So do most of her colleagues.
“We don’t go nowhere,” she said about the staff. Warren has been at Burroughs for more than 20 years, and most teachers have worked in the building for at least a decade. Warren compared the school’s staff to a family, where everyone is supported but also held accountable for missteps. It’s what keeps them around. “Our kids know that from year to year, they’re going to see the same faces.”
Jenkins said it’s crucial that teachers, as well as students, parents and staff, feel they have agency and ownership over the school. The hallways and classrooms are decorated with student artwork and hand-painted murals.
A hallmark of the campus is weekly “character education,” which centers student voices, Jenkins said. The lessons include a theme — a recent topic revolved around respecting the school’s culture and environment, Jenkins said.
“What you’re going to notice is students talking, you’re going to notice students stating their viewpoint, you’re going to have students challenging one another,” he said about the conversations, which are guided by the school’s mental health staff. About 30 percent of Burroughs’s students are on grade-level in reading and math, according to an EmpowerK12 analysis. Forty-one percent of the majority-Black school is considered at-risk, data from D.C. public schools show.
Twenty-eight percent of Center City’s mostly Black students are on grade-level in the subjects, Empowerk12 found. More than half of the students there are considered to be at-risk, a term that makes the principal laugh.
“I find humor in folks asking like, ‘Hey, how did you do it?’ How did we do what?” White asked. “How did we teach the kids like we were supposed to? How did we care for them like we’re supposed to? How did we keep them safe like we’re supposed to? We did what we were supposed to.”
White showed off a room of 4-year-olds who were practicing their penmanship by writing the date on dry erase boards. Their unsteady hands tightly gripped their markers, but when White entered the room, one dropped the utensil to bend her fingers into the shape of a heart.
Elsewhere in the building are small reminders of support. The vocabulary words or multiplication problems a student may encounter on a test are posted in the hallways. In the corridor where the middle-schoolers take their classes, college pennants line the walls.
Students meet regularly with counselors and participate in extracurricular activities, including drama and debate. For years before the pandemic, White led college trips to Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. “Places that they’ve never been, things that they’ve never seen,” she said, reminiscing about taking students on a tour of the Everglades. “I mean, just for them to see and take in all of that was so major and so huge.”
The school has a long-standing tradition of assembling in the gym before class for morning gathering, during which students give each other shout-outs, wish each other happy birthday or thank teachers for supporting them through a difficult lesson the day before. It’s a practice that makes every student feel welcome and respected, White said, which translates into academic success.
Zowie Boyd, an eighth-grader, called Center City a “second family,” which is something students missed during virtual learning.
“It was not a good time for me,” Keniya Brown, a seventh-grader, said about the time spent learning through a computer screen. “But coming back in school where you have people that understand you and have known you for a while … makes it easier.”
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