Exclusive interview with Mary Shaffner, DCI Executive Director

I recently caught up with Mary Shaffner, the executive director of the District of Columbia International School which is now in its second year of operation.  Ms. Shaffner explained to me that 404 students now attend the charter, with 176 children in sixth grade, 126 pupils in seventh grade, and 102 kids in eighth.  During the 2015 to 2016 term there was a student body of about 200.  Next year it is anticipated that there will be about 500 kids attending DCI.

Anyone who has met Ms. Shaffner knows that she is the definition of a go-getter.  Her story about landing at DCI is one of the best examples of this character trait.  After having her first child, the DCI executive director looked around for possible schools in which to send her offspring.  Although she visited some of the best public schools available at the time, little excited her about the environment.  She thought that there must be a way to make educating kids dynamic, more relevant to the outside world, and less about preparing for a test.  So she got together with about 11 other like-minded parents who had an interest in international education and the Chinese language.  “In the group was a lawyer, Andrea Lachenmayr; a writer, Lisa Chiu; an elementary school educator, Amy Quinn; and a special education specialist, Carmen Rioux-Bailey,” related Ms. Shaffner.  “It took us two years to create the charter.  We received fantastic assistance from FOCUS in forming the application.  Washington Yu Ying PCS opened its doors in 2008.  Amy Quinn is still the International Baccalaureate program coordinator at the school.”  Ms. Shaffner served as Washington Yu Ying’s executive director from the beginning until the end of the 2011 to 2012 school year.

Ms. Shaffner explained that the same problem that existed when she was trying to find a school for her child played itself out for the parents of students at the city’s bilingual charters.  There were simply no satisfactory public or private middle schools once the elementary years were completed.

In an unprecedented charter collaboration, five elementary school leaders joined to start DCI: DC Bilinqual PCS’s  Myrna Peralta; Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS’s Linda Moore; Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS’s Diane Cottman; Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS’ Kristin Scotchmer; and Mary Shaffner from Washington Yu Ying PCS.  They all received permission from the PCSB to extend their charters so that DCI would exist, with Ms. Shaffner and Yu Ying the first of the group to ask permission to expand.

One of the major driving forces for creating another new facility that would go through the twelfth grade was the desire for kids to be able to obtain the IB diploma, which is the gold standard in international education.  It was the combination of IB with language immersion that was behind the motivation to create DCI.  Carmen Rioux-Bailey, the special education teacher referred to earlier who was one of those behind the start of Yu Ying, reprised her role again for the new middle and high school.  Andrea Lachenmayr, the attorney who was also part of the Yu Ying founding group, worked pro-bono on DCI.  The team spent a year ironing out the final proposal.

But not all went exactly as planned.

The original concept of DCI was that each graduating senior would get their diploma from their member school.  But Ms. Shaffner related that after the school was formed the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer informed her in May of 2014 that the city could not pay for educating their enrolled pupils.  The issue was that the school was not its own Local Education Agency.  Ms. Shaffner cringed at the thought of telling the parents that that they had to find another middle school for their sons and daughters at such a late date.  But then Councilmember Phil Mendelson and Deputy Mayor of Education Abigail Smith pushed through emergency legislation that corrected the problem.  Now all students at DCI attend one institution and will receive their commencement from DCI high school.

Now that the charter has had the experience of a year of instruction, Ms. Shaffner described the school as heading in the right direction.  “We have built a great culture,” the DCI executive director attested.  “Students have a lot of freedom here.  There are speaker presentations they can take advantage of participating in.  There are numerous clubs and after-school sports.  When a student comes here they will find a lot of choice, a sincerely caring environment, great intellectual thinkers, and an opportunity to join the IB program.  As part of the IB program students complete a community project in the eighth grade and a personal project in tenth.

The population of the school,” Ms. Shaffner added, “is exceptionally diverse, which is something the students greatly appreciate.”

Looking at sample student schedules, it appears that the kids are taught approximately 40 percent of the day in the language they are studying other than English.  Of course, they take classes dedicated to the second language as well as a class entitled Approaches to Learning, art, and history, as examples.

Ms. Shaffner is especially proud of the grant provided by the CityBridge Foundation as part of its Breakthrough Schools DC competition.  The award has contributed toward DCI developing student-led inquiry in which each scholar can create their own curriculum and course of study.

The DC International executive director stated that she and her staff consistently strive to find a balance between personal interests of the students and academic standards.  Everything the school does, according to its executive director, is geared toward advancing its mission to foster “inquiring, engaged, knowledgeable and caring secondary students who are multi-lingual, culturally competent, and committed to proactively creating a socially just and sustainable world.”  This includes, according to Ms. Shaffner, benchmarks that students must meet that are consistent with the mission.

The DCI community is excited that this summer ground will be broken on the school’s permanent facility on the site of the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  The building will be 170,000 square feet with a 25,000 square foot wing dedicated to an expansion of LAMB.  The new space will permit the charter to grow eventually to the 1,450 students included in its charter.  As Ms. Shaffner would say, the future of DCI looks exceedingly bright.






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