Although I have witnessed firsthand some truly amazing sights over my seven years covering the D.C. charter movement, I can honestly say that I was overjoyed during my recent visit with Maquita Alexander, the head of Washington Yu Ying PCS. This Chinese language immersion school currently has 552 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three to fifth. The charter, which opened in the fall of 2008, was started by a dozen parents who were fascinated by the Asian culture and language together with a strong desire for their kids to have an international education. Ms. Alexander came into her position a year after Yu Ying became a reality.
Immediately after meeting this head of school you get the feeling that she never really stops working. Information I requested was available immediately at her fingertips. Ms. Alexander seems so intertwined in the details of what is taking place at the school that I’m hoping at the end of the day she is able to sit back and enjoy all that she and her team have created.
It may be that Ms. Alexander’s drive evolved from her years of experience in the field of education. She has played a multitude of roles in her 19-year career, from being a first and second grade teacher, a reading recovery specialist, a school-based technology specialist, and an assistant principal. Fifteen of those years were spent in Fairfax County Public Schools.
Washington Yu Ying is housed on a sprawling three-acre campus complete with a playground, turf field, and nature center located near the Old Soldiers Home in Northeast D.C. The redbrick building, which looks straight out of an Ivy League college, originally was a Marist seminary that was used by the troubled Joz-Arz Public Charter School before it relinquished its Board of Education charter in 2006. Washington Yu Ying’s previous executive director Mary Shaffner, now the executive director of the D.C. International Public Charter School, played a major role in securing the building which now measures approximately 50,000 square feet after the current occupant augmented the space with two 10,000 square foot additions. Before moving into this permanent facility in the fall 2011, Yu Ying shared a Building Hope charter school incubator space with Potomac Preparatory PCS on Eighth Street, N.E.
The aesthetics of the site is in perfect alignment with the high level of academics going on inside. For example, pre-kindergarten three and four year olds spend their entire day speaking Mandarin. Ms. Alexander wanted me to know that the kids almost universally love learning this language, something I can attest to seeing the broad smiles on their faces as I visited the brightly colored classrooms. Once the children reach Kindergarten then English language classes are paired with those across the hall taught in Chinese. The same pattern repeats though the fifth grade, with pupils learning in English one day and Mandarin the next. Ms. Alexander explained that the rotation between classes does not involve a repeat of the same material in two languages. “The teachers coordinate their lesson plans,” the Yu Ying head of school related, “so that each session adds content to those the students just experienced.”
Besides language immersion, a crucial component of the Yu Ying curriculum is the International Baccalaureate program. Ms. Alexander stated that this course of study begins in pre-Kindergarten three in Mandarin. The pre-Kindergarten four and younger students take four trans-disciplinary units and the older students take six. The combination of the Chinese language with I.B. has led to Yu Ying being quantified as a Tier 1 charter on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework for each of the three years that schools have been ranked. The school is doing so well that there are over 1,000 children on their waiting list.
But I wanted to know from Ms. Alexander what other factors have led to her institution’s outstanding success. It appeared from her immediate response that she has thought about this question before. “We have a tremendous leadership team that has been in place for the last couple of years,” the Yu Ying head of school responded. “We have a fantastic teaching staff. They are completely passionate about what they do. To support them we have half day Friday for professional development and team planning. This is in addition to two weeks of professional development before the start of the school year and additional days throughout the term. We have created an exceptionally interesting curriculum together with the central idea of the Common Core, but simultaneously we provide latitude around how the teachers present the material to their pupils.”
Ms. Alexander informed me that the school’s staff spends considerable time analyzing student data. They utilize a test that is a predictor of how students will perform on the PARCC, and data specialists create dashboards documenting each child’s progress. Several layers of intervention are available for kids who are falling behind.
The Yu Ying head of school talked to me about the challenges inherent in her program to support a pipeline of qualified teacher applicants. “All of the Mandarin instructors come from mainland China or Taiwan and they must speak English,” Ms. Alexander remarked. “We sponsor them on visas and green cards, and have a partnership with two universities. There is, however, a lottery for visas and as a result we don’t get to keep as many instructors as we would like. The school also has had some interesting experiences with miscommunication. We try and mitigate these situations by assigning our foreign teachers English mentors, and we provide the Chinese teachers with cross-cultural training.”
Another fascinating aspect of the program that needed to be tackled is the whole nature of the dual immersion pedagogy. Ms. Alexander detailed, “Research shows that by the fifth grade students begin to catch up with their traditionally taught peers, but until that year it is important to keep in mind that they are getting half of the instruction in English that pupils in other schools receive. Therefore, our English teachers need to work twice as hard.”
Yu Ying has defied some of the recent fads in education by providing their student body with virtually no test preparation and not a lot of “skill and drill.” Ms. Alexander said that they substitute these activities with an emphasis on writing and having them think about, question, and analyze the material being presented.
Yu Ying has a 95 percent student retention rate, but the staff is still not completely satisfied. They want to better serve those who are behind grade level; in fact, they want to do the best for every child who attends the charter. The teachers and administrators continue to reflect on how to improve their practice, how they can better connect with parents in a transparent manner, and how everyone involved with the school can spend more time in the classroom.
Ms. Alexander stressed that she has a real sense of urgency regarding providing the best education to her students that she can. She commented, “No parent wants to waste a year of his or her child’s educational experience while their school learns how to improve. My kids didn’t have a year to waste. We have to do whatever we need to do now to help our student body learn to the best of their ability.”