The Washington Post

D.C. charter school leader wins national recognition

Linda Moore has built Elsie Whitlow Stokes into one of the city’s most sought-after charters. (Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography)

Linda Moore was grieving the death of her mother, recovering from knee surgery and wondering what to do with the rest of her life.

It was the summer of 1996, and Congress had recently passed a law paving the way for public charter schools in the nation’s capital. Moore, who had spent years working in and around education, was intrigued.

She dedicated herself to opening the kind of school she thought could changes kids’ lives — and she named it after her mother, Elsie Whitlow Stokes, who had been a first-grade teacher in Arkansas.

“I grew up in awe of my mother,” Moore said. “She was the best teacher I’d ever seen.”

Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School opened in 1998 with 35 students in a D.C. church basement. Fifteen years later, it has become one of the city’s most sought-after and diverse charter schools, offering French- and Spanish-language immersion programs to 350 students in preschool through sixth grade.

“It’s this little school on this little hill where magic is happening,” said Beverlie Lord, the mother of two Stokes students. “It’s an awesome place.”

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is scheduled to induct Moore into its national hall of fame Monday, a recognition reserved for three people each year who have made outstanding contributions to the charter movement and its students.

Moore said she was surprised to be selected. In the District and across the country, there is a push to improve urban education by replicating successful schools, and there is a corresponding affinity — among many policy types and philanthropists — for large and growing charter school networks, such as KIPP and Rocketship Education.

Stokes, in contrast, is one stand-alone school. And its leader has no intention of replicating her work elsewhere, partly because it’s difficult to do successfully and partly because Moore believes in the power of the individual school, crafted by people who want something unique for their communities.

“I do not believe that the founders of the initial charter schools wanted to do more of the same, again and again and again,” Moore said. “In creating charter schools, they saw it as an opportunity to try out individual approaches to education.”

In addition to offering ­language immersion programs, Stokes is one of a few schools that prepares three meals a day in an on-site kitchen. There’s a garden out back, outdoor play space, and artists and musicians teaching drawing and steel guitar.

Parents have for years clamored for the school to grow upward into the middle grades, Moore said, and now it will. Stokes is one of five language
immersion charter schools that have banded together to form D.C. International, a sixth-through-12th-grade school where students will be able to continue their foreign language training.

D.C. International, which won final approval from the D.C. Public Charter School Board last month, is slated to open in fall 2014.

“Our parents are thrilled,” Moore said.

For Stokes’s first 10 years at the charter, she worked six days a week and at least 10 hours each day. Now she’s down to a regular 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. schedule, five days a week, and she’s looking forward to cutting back gradually.

But Moore plans to stay involved with the school for as long as she’s able.

“I cannot imagine not being engaged in this school in some way,” she said. “It’s become my family.”

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

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