Cassandra Pinkney, founder and executive director Eagle Academy PCS, passes away

A week ago, Cassandra Pinkney, the founder and executive director of Eagle Academy Public Charter School, passed away.  The news was shocking in that I saw her less than a year ago present at an event held by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Ms. Pinkney created Eagle Academy which enrolls over 700 students on two campuses in Southeast, Washington, D.C.  The charter focuses on early childhood education.  In early 2014 I toured the Congress Heights Campus.  To say I was impressed may be the understatement of the decade.  In honor of Ms. Pinkney and Mr. Joe Smith, whom I’m confident will expertly guide the school going forward, here is what I wrote:

Last Friday I had the extremely fortunate opportunity to spend the morning over at Eagle Academy Public Charter School’s McGogney Campus in Ward 8.  My hosts for the day were principle Jeffery Cline and Joe Smith, the school’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer.  It turns out that I had met Mr. Smith almost a decade earlier as a founding board member of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts.  He had served as the consultant that worked with Julie Doar-Sinkfield and other volunteers to write the charter for the school in the living room of her basement apartment.

The two men could not have been more proud about the school they are serving.  With each new doorway we entered it was as if they were seeing the space for the first time, although it became clear during my visit that they spend almost all of their waking hours within these walls.  It is easy to be overtaken with the building.  Eagle Academy spent almost $20 million more than a year ago renovating the former DCPS McGogney Elementary, and it definitely shows.  The large rectangular panels composing the walls colored in shades of ocean blue and white make it appear that you are entering an aquarium.  The design provides a welcoming environment for the student body.  I arrived as kids came in for the before school program and I can attest that not one of these young scholars strolled into the sun filled gymnasium.  All ran with broad smiles on their faces as if today was the luckiest day of their lives.  The sight of these young people equipped with backpacks almost as big as their bodies immediately brought tears to my eyes.

But there was little time for emotion.  The rapid fire tour started with the gym and progressed to the facility’s lower level.  There I saw something I’m sure few charters are fortunate enough to posses; two swimming pools located side by side.  The pools were built, according to Mr. Smith, “to provide those who would never have the opportunity the chance to learn how to swim.”  On the same level were a soon to be equipped fitness center for the staff and an arts room for the students.  Outside of the space are two playgrounds, one build by 300 KABOOM volunteers including members of the Washington Wizard, Mystics, and Capitals.

Mr. Cline pointed out that Eagle has successfully taken an emphasis on a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and turned it into STEAM by integrating the arts.  Leading this effort is an arts education integration specialist the school hired from the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts.

As the before school program ended a teacher escorted children to their classrooms carrying an armful of IPads.  It turns out that Eagle Academy has invested over $500,000 to provide each of its 728 Pre-Kindergarten 3 to 3rd grade pupils with one of these devices.  The teachers also utilize this technology.  In a Pre-K 3 class I witness a teacher working with one student utilizing an IPAD application focused on learning the alphabet.  Each space has access to a Smartboard.  Flat panel monitors are located throughout the building.

It is far from a fad that these products are provided for the children.  Everything done at Eagle Academy is strictly intentional as a mean of raising the academic achievement of kids harmed by the effects of poverty.  75 percent of the student body quality for free or reduced lunch.

Classes are exceedingly small, ranging in size from 20 students to one teacher in grades Kindergarten to 3, with aids often augmenting the work of the instructors.  The lower levels are ratios are even tighter with three year olds at 16 students to one teacher and an aid, and four year olds experiencing classrooms of 18 kids to one teacher and one aid.

The focus on raising the quality of learning is present in every part of the school.  Cameras tape record every class, not as a way of spying on teachers but as a powerful tool professionals and the school’s four full-time coaches can take advantage of to improve the presentation of lesson plans.  Graphs and data dashboards surround me as I made my way through the brightly colored halls.  Some indicated a particular grades proficiency percentage in math and reading.  Others related to all visitors where the school is in reference to its overall goals such as rates for pupil re-enrolment and parent satisfaction.  Want to know what kids are supposed to have learned during a particular week?  The standards are posted at the entrance to classroom as objectives to be mastered. Formal assessments measure student progress throughout the school year.  Data specialists assist teachers daily in tracking pupil scholastic levels.

The school founded in 2003 has always accepted students with disabilities up to Level 4, the highest category.  Services are readily available for these children.  A sensory room complete with pulleys and other gymnastic equipment allow an occupational therapist to assist with motor skills.  Speech pathologists and mental health workers share a wing of the building where they care for the 120 kids with Individual Education Plans.  Mr. Kline related that Eagle follows the inclusionary model in regard to their special education students, placing them in regular classrooms as often as possible.

But there are also comprehensive services available for the entire student body.  The principal and CFO explain that staff social workers work with kids and their guardians to increase their chance of success at the charter.  An on-site dental clinic and two staff nurses care for the health of their kids.  A parent liaison and community outreach coordinators are present to smooth the transition between time at the school and at home.  Programs encourage grownups to come in to learn about various aspects of the curriculum.  Parents are surveyed to understand the best means to communicate information about their offspring.

We stop for a few minutes in the multipurpose room.  There Mr. Cline relates that his staff has recognized that they have a captive audience during the lunch period.  He pushes a button and a screen the size of those found in old time grand movie houses descends from the ceiling.  The principal shows me the microphone that he and his teachers use to reinforce academic lessons learned throughout the day.  In one such exercise his instructors dress in costumes to assume the identity of characters from books the children have read.  Kids are then asked to recall aspects of the material to which they have been exposed

After my visit has concluded I travel in my car through the streets of Anacostia on my way to work.  At some point an automobile is in front of me whose driver must send at least one child to Eagle Academy.  I know this because of the bumper sticker on the back of the car.  It says simply “Eagle Academy, Starting Early and Soaring High.”  I’m totally convinced that this is exactly what this charter school is doing.

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