Exclusive interview with Shavonne Gibson, Director of Instruction Center City Public Charter Schools

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Shavonne Gibson, the director of instruction for the six campuses of Center City Public Charter Schools. I had met Ms. Gibson a year ago at an Ahead of the Curve conference sponsored by Fight for Children and the DC Public Charter School Board. At the time she was the principal of the Center City PCS Brightwood Campus, and upon hearing her lead a session I was immediately impressed with both her knowledge and intensity. Now that she has transitioned to her new position her energy level has not subsided a bit. In fact, it was a challenge to keep up with my note taking as she spoke.

“There are three parts to my job,” Ms. Gibson eagerly explained. “First, in my capacity I support school leaders with the goal of improving instruction going on in our facilities. Part two involves planning professional development for our instructors which encompasses designing and leading sessions. These first two components take up much of my day. The final segment of my responsibility is supporting the development of teacher leaders within our schools.”

Ms. Gibson appears to be the ideal candidate for the role she is currently playing with Center City. She spent four years as the Brightwood principal. When she began the student reading proficiency rate was at 39 percent and the math proficiency rate of the pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school was at 24 percent. By the time she left her position the reading proficiency rate had jumped to 64 percent, with math proficiency climbing all the way to 67 percent. She reached this attainment with an enrollment that is about 40 percent English Language Learners, 50 percent Latino, and 50 percent African American, with almost 90 percent of kids qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. Additionally, in her second year at Brightwood, she had the second highest composite growth for all ELL’s in the city. After one year as the principal of Brightwood, the school moved from Tier II to Tier I as measured by the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework tool.

Naturally, I wanted to know from the director of instruction what led to this strong academic success with her students. Ms. Gibson modestly pointed to four factors; stabilizing talent management, teacher observation and feedback, use of data, and increased family engagement through initiative sponsored by the Flamboyan Foundation.

Upon coming to Brightwood she found not a lot of teachers who had worked there when it was a Catholic school prior to the conversion to a charter. She immediately noticed a disconnect between the standards in the classroom and the rigor of instruction. “There were a lot of worksheets being utilized and not a great many opportunities for pupils to apply what they had been taught,” Ms. Gibson related. “I had to emphasize that you cannot lead a classroom from an office. We instituted side-by-side coaching of our teachers. We did a lot of work in small groups. There were difficult decisions around talent after the first year. Initially a stigma existed because we drilled down data to petite points and tried to get the teachers to respond. During this time, about twice a week, I would have teaching staff in my office crying that they could not do this difficult work. But we desperately wanted to establish a growth mentality, we wanted everyone to be better, and that applied to the employees as well as the students.”

Ms. Gibson also addressed her emphasis on the use of data. She remarked, “Of course, we looked at test scores. But I also focused on absences and tardiness. It was vital that we built structures and set expectations. If a child was sick and I didn’t receive a call then I would contact the parents. Some would say, ‘You mean you want me to let you know, and I would say you bet I do.'”

We then moved on to talk about the value of the help provided by the Flamboyan Foundation. Ms. Gibson was only too eager to speak about her experience working with this group. “The organization showed us how to approach parents as individuals. This was the key to presenting quantitative information to them and to explain where their kids could benefit from additional instruction and practice. During our first year of engagement with them we implemented the Academic Parent Teacher Team approach which replaces the traditional parent teacher conference. During the second year we utilized APTT’s and put home visits in place. During the third year we started having middle school kids facilitate their own student led conferences.”

All of these efforts were assisted, Ms. Gibson stated, by the introduction of the Common Core Standards.   “We started laying the foundational pieces of the standards in every lesson. At the end of the class teachers have an exit ticket which allows instructors to know if the students have mastered the day’s material.”

She also utilized short-cycle assessments in between interims to gain an understanding of student mastery of subject matter. “If the scholar is not meeting the level of mastery then we created strategies around bringing them up to where they needed to be.”

I then wanted to know Ms. Gibson’s opinion of the Common Core. “I think it has received a bad rap,” the Center City director of instruction expounded. “I appreciate that we now have tests to assess high levels of comprehension for every student. I want my son to have a deep understanding of subjects. I want him to understand how numbers work. I was not particularly good in math growing up. In class my fellow students moved on to other material and I was left wondering why I was not grasping the details. I want our kids to be ready for the 21st century workforce, and I contend that this is what the Common Core Standards will allow our schools to do.”

As I believe you can see from the above statement, Ms. Gibson has a passion about her work that infuses every part of her being. It is the drive that began when she first joined the New York City New Teachers Fellows. It was there when she started practicing her profession at a highly sought after middle school in Brooklyn. The student population at this school closely mirrored Ms. Gibson’s own community where she grew up in Brooklyn. It traveled with her next to the private St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School where she became the associate director of admissions. Ms. Gibson’s enthusiasm for her career then led her to gain entry to a residency program through New Leaders for New Schools, which brought her to Arts and Technology PCS first as an assistant principal.

Ms. Gibson left Arts and Technology before it was shuttered by the DC Public Charter School Board to join Center City where she recorded the student gains detailed earlier. About her move to becoming the director of instruction she would only say, “Approximate 30 point gains in four years is nice but I didn’t think I was the one to move the dial even higher. Besides, what we accomplished should be replicated throughout our system, not to pat myself on the back, but it’s because what all children deserve.”

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