Exclusive interview with Hilary Darilek, CEO E.L. Haynes PCS

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently with Hilary Darilek, the new chief executive officer of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. She has the challenging job of succeeding Jennie Niles in this position. Of course, Ms. Niles is the current District of Columbia Deputy Mayor for Education under Mayor Muriel Bowser and the founder of E.L. Haynes.

In several ways, Ms. Darilek is the perfect fit for the task ahead. She is a native Washingtonian.  She was also a math and science teacher for two years through Teach for America during the organization’s first decade, educating seventh and eighth graders in a Baltimore City middle school. Ms. Darilek is obviously extremely smart. She received her undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary as a mathematics and economics double major and then went on to earn three masters’ degrees. She obtained a master’s of arts in teaching from the Johns Hopkins University, a master’s of science in operational research from the London School of Economics, and an executive master’s in leadership from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

Following her work as a teacher, Ms. Darilek joined the RAND Corporation for three years as a quantitative analyst. She then left research to work for New Leaders for New Schools, ultimately becoming the managing director of the D.C. program that focused on training aspiring principals for local district and charter schools. Ms. Darilek was with this organization for four years, and it was here that she developed her strong appreciation for how crucially important the role of the principal is to the success of children in a school. New Leaders was a start-up at the time and her work there introduced her to leaders across Washington;  in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS); D.C. charter schools; and the many local foundations and non-profits working to support students in the city. It was at New Leaders that she first became acquainted with the efforts of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. Ms. Darilek was inspired by the changes she saw happening in DCPS, and was so impressed that she took an opportunity to join their team.

For six and a half years she served as DCPS’ deputy chief for principal effectiveness focused on principal recruitment, selection, development, compensation, and evaluation. While there, she led the creation and development of the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship for aspiring principals. DCPS launched this internal program by leveraging internal resources combined with support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant program, the CityBridge Foundation, and others.

This was a time when it appears everything was crystallizing for Ms. Darilek around what it really takes to change the culture and practice in our nation’s public schools. She was also working with Chancellor Kaya Henderson to help Georgetown University launch a version of its executive master’s in leadership degree program for an annual cohort of 25 DCPS principals. Together with Georgetown professors, she helped make this learning opportunity even more relevant to public school principals. When there was an extra space in the inaugural cohort of students, she asked and received permission from Chancellor Henderson to enroll.

I asked Ms. Darilek what she had learned. “Great people change schools,” the E.L Haynes CEO answered without hesitation. “True positive change comes from having excellent teachers and principals and then giving them the tools they need to perform their jobs.” But she had much more to say on this subject.

“There are six elements to creating really good schools,” she opined. “First, it starts with really solid instructional knowledge. Then there has to be an understanding by the principal as to how to lead people in the building. Closely associated with the idea of leadership is the ability to form a strong culture of learning for both adults and students. I have also found that family and community engagement plays a vital role in creating great schools.”

The fifth element to forming excellent schools, according to Ms. Darilek, revolves around operations management. School leaders must know how to efficiently allocate scarce resources. Lastly, she pointed out that a principal must have strong personal leadership. “The individual should be skillful in communication and understanding students’ unique cultural needs. She or he must be able to admit failure and know how to keep going. It takes a true knowledge of oneself.”

Ms. Darilek summarized all of her points by simply stating that “what makes a great principal is what makes a great leader.”

The new CEO then revealed to me that for years before joining the school she was aware of the fine work going on at E.L. Haynes. When she was still with New Leaders she visited its classrooms. Ms. Darilek said that she could feel a powerful sense of community when she entered the building. She had in fact become a supporter from the very beginning of the school’s existence when it was located above a CVS drugstore. So when the position for CEO opened she decided to throw her hat in the ring. Ms. Darilek mentioned that she already has several goals in mind for the future of E.L. Haynes.

“Our mission is to serve every student,” she detailed. “We have a true commitment to understanding how race and equity impact our school community. When we are making a decision we strive to have multiple perspectives at the table. We are deliberate in our goal of inclusion and listening to different points of view.  We will also continue to be collaborative in nature. E.L. Haynes will strive to raise the level of academic achievement for all students in the city. Toward this end when we discover a best practice we will share this with other stakeholders whether they be from DCPS schools, charter schools, or independent schools.”

According to Ms. Darilek, another aim of E.L. Haynes, and something that has been identified in the school’s VISION 2020 strategic plan, is to continue to build student leaders before they graduate from high school. Moreover, she indicated to me that in the school’s drive to have them accepted by the college of their choice, the staff also wants to figure out how best to support them at that institution.

In my short time with her I completely understood why Ms. Darilek was selected to lead E.L. Haynes. She has a gentle and kind personality. When talking with her you immediately get the sense that she would do anything just to help. Ms. Darilek concluded our conversation by stating how fortunate she feels she is to be in her position at this moment in E.L. Haynes’ history. “This is only the second year that we are not growing and adding a new grade,” she stated. “We have the incredible luxury of having our permanent facilities in place. In fact, we just completed the addition of a new turf field and track at the Kansas Avenue N.W. location.  We can now focus on what happens in classrooms and continually improve to make our mission a reality. Our drive is to serve a diverse student body and continue to achieve academic success with every student in the school community.”

Clearly, E.L. Haynes PCS is in exceedingly competent hands.



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