Who Knew? Parents Like Us Know What Kids Need in a New Ward 8 School

There is almost no chance that our children will have the opportunity to attend the new LEARN DC charter school that will open at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, if it is approved by the DC Public Charter School Board later this month ( Nov. 19). One of us has relocated to Germany; the other has a daughter and a nephew who will both be too old for the grade levels offered by the school once it opens. But we—one of us a military parent, one of us a Ward 8 parent—wholeheartedly support the school’s charter application.

This should not be a surprise, because we are part of the parent team that selected the school operator.

Contrary to the usual process for opening schools, eight parents—four from the base and four from Ward 8—were asked to evaluate and recommend a school to operate on JBAB. We felt a profound sense of responsibility to make a recommendation that would fit the needs of hundreds, and eventually thousands, of children from both communities. Called the Ward 8 Parent Operator Selection Team (POST), we met 11 times over five months, read hundreds of pages of documents, did homework, and visited four schools, including one in California and one in Illinois.

We were supported by two DC organizations, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) and Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), in learning about how to issue a request for proposals, and identifying what was important to us in a school. They brought in experts to help us understand school finance and achievement results and many other aspects of school operations to ensure that we would choose a school that would not go belly-up for financial reasons or fail to meet our children’s academic needs. But we were looking for other things, too. Emotional support was just as important to us as academics and a sound financial plan. As Ward 8 and military base parents, we brought an expertise that the education and school experts didn’t have: We know our kids and our communities.

During this process we discovered that military and local families wanted essentially the same things: a good school that is focused on academics, of course, but also one that pays attention to the emotional well-being of our children. And while the needs of neighborhood students and military students might appear to be rather different, it turns out they are quite similar. Children growing up in low-income families and transient military families have different experiences, but they have similar stresses needing similar interventions.

Reading proposals from school operators wasn’t enough, so we went to visit campuses run by the organizations with the top five proposals. (One of the two of us was not able to travel for medical reasons but received a detailed report.)

When we walked inside LEARN 6, we could picture our own kids in each classroom that we visited. The students we spoke with were proud of their school. They spoke about fun family events at the school and said discipline was fair. The administration and staff seemed incredibly committed to their schools and the children inside them.

Our entire parent team agreed: LEARN didn’t just want to add another school to their portfolio; they want to serve Ward 8 and military families. They were prepared and did research before talking to us. We saw it in the way they treated us, their guests, and we saw that the way they treated us was the same way they treat their students. There was a genuineness to their approach, and we saw compassion for their students.

We saw LEARN 6 in North Chicago as a working model of what we hoped to re-create in Southeast Washington. Their approach to learning and their grasp of the emotional needs of children from both demographics was significant.

The entire process we participated in was designed to put parents in charge. So we were especially pleased to find that not only did LEARN present well, they listened to us and asked us some great questions. We wanted a school operator that would listen to the needs of the parents and children and our two communities—not just while we are evaluating them, but during the planning and after they open. We feel that LEARN will do that.

LEARN didn’t just show up here in DC — we asked them to come. Unlike so many school openings, this was the result of a community-driven process, one in which parents did not just have a voice but were the only ones with a voice. We believe the process that led to selecting LEARN is one that should be honored, and we hope that the Public Charter School Board will give very strong weight to our selection.

Tara Brown is a resident of Ward 8 and has a daughter and a nephew attending Leckie Elementary School in her neighborhood. She served on the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee, which advised Mayor Muriel Bowser during the process to select a new chancellor.

Catie Perkins is a military spouse and mother of two children who were 3 and 4 years when the POST convened. Her family has since been redeployed to a military base in Germany.

A case study chronicling the Ward 8 POST process is at www.Ward8POST.org

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