Exclusive interview with Dr. LaTonya Henderson, executive director of Cedar Tree Academy PCS

I had the privilege recently of interviewing Dr. LaTonya Henderson, the executive director of Cedar Tree Academy Public Charter School.  The school is named after Cedar Hill, the estate and national historical site of abolitionist Frederick Douglass that is located near its campus.  Ms. Henderson informed me that Cedar Tree currently enrolls 380 students in grades Pre-Kindergarten three, Pre-Kindergarten four, and Kindergarten.  When I asked Ms. Henderson how she obtained her permanent facility I learned that in the past our paths had directly crossed.

It turns out that Cedar Tree Academy originated from the remnants of Howard Road Academy.   I remember vividly the highly impressive Tracey Johnson who used to be Howard Road Academy’s board chair.  We ran into each other at many of the meetings in the early days of D.C.’s charter school movement.  Then we became competitors.

In February 2008, the DC Public Charter School Board, under the leadership of Tom Nida, was forced to shutter Washington Leadership Academy PCS in Southeast because it had run out of operating funds and was in deep debt that included payroll taxes it had failed to pay.  Mr. Nida invited other interested charters to bid on taking over this school in midyear.  I was then chair of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts and we decided to try and expand.  Three other charters that satisfied the criteria to replicate also put in proposals, and each institution gathered at a Ward 6 church one cold evening to make their case for taking over the failed school in front of the PCSB and about 100 angry Washington Leadership parents.  Multiple times Mr. Nida had to fight back the strong emotions of those in the audience to keep the session moving.  At the end of the tense meeting Mr. Nida announced that Howard Road Academy had won the selection process.

I was terribly upset that we had not been picked but I was also incredibly impressed with Mr. Johnson that night.  He related to Mr. Nida that his staff had put together a series of issues that needed to be resolved in order to have a successful takeover.  I believe the number of items on the list reached into the eighties.

It turns out that Dr. Henderson was the principal at Howard Road Academy at the time and she informed me that she was the one that had assembled the document to which Mr. Johnson referred.   Dr. Henderson then explained that she really wished that William E. Doar had won the request for proposal.  She elaborated.

“Howard Road was doing great at that time,” the Cedar Tree PCS executive director related.  “Academically we were extremely strong.  Financially we were solid and we were not lacking for cash on hand.  But as soon as we assumed control of this school, the situation changed dramatically.”

“We just expanded too quickly,” Dr. Henderson continued.  “We had added two campuses to the two we already operated.  At our peak we were up to 1,000 kids.  Integrating the parents and students into the existing program proved spectacularly problematic.  Our board of directors, which in the past was strongly united, was now bitterly divided over the decision to grow.  The daily frustrations became so great that I decided to leave.”

She was able to stay away from the charter for four years.  Then Mr. Johnson convinced Dr. Henderson, after about five or six unsuccessful attempts, to come back to the school as a board member.  Upon her return she found that the PCSB was on the verge of revoking the school’s charter due to low academic performance.  Just as she had done with the Washington Leadership project, Dr. Henderson put together a plan to rectify the situation.  She proposed sharply reducing the size of the charter by two campuses so that they could focus on their high-performing early childhood program.  One of the four campuses had already been closed by Howard Road due to poor student outcomes.   Dr. Henderson did not know if the PCSB would go along with this idea.  She worked closely with Scott Pearson, the board’s executive director, who Dr. Henderson described as “extremely helpful” in advancing the plan.   Eventually the PCSB went along with the strategy as long as the school was able to demonstrate three years of academic growth.

Cedar Tree is in its fourth year of scholastic advancement.  The charter is now ranked as Tier 1 on the Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework.

The early childhood charter now occupies one of the buildings that was owned by Howard Road Academy.  At the start of the restructuring there were 150 students.  Now there are approximately 19 classrooms with 22 kids or less in each one.  There are about 70 staff members.  The curriculum includes Spanish, music, African American dance, and physical education that even encompasses learning tennis.  Parents have expressed that they would love the school to expand beyond Kindergarten.

I asked Dr. Henderson to describe the children that Cedar Tree serves.  The executive director answered in rapid fashion.  “One hundred percent of our student population qualifies for free or reduced price meals.  These are absolutely the best kids in the world.  They are so innocent.  They are absolute sponges.  In many ways these are traditional Southeast kids.  There are parents living in poverty, maybe addicted to drugs, often led by single mothers.  But you have to understand.  I am the children that we serve.  I grew up in the projects.  My mother, who passed away when I was 15, was an alcoholic.  She had a ninth grade education.  I am the youngest of nine children.  My mom repeatedly stressed to her children that when you reach the age of 18 you either have to go to college or the military.  I chose college.  We also were raised going to church every Wednesday and Sunday.  I had an extremely spiritual foundation.  I am convinced that all the people that prayed for me led me to where I am today.”

The Cedar Tree PCS executive director then spoke philosophically.  “The way that we approach learning over here is that we are building a solid foundation.  We understand that along the way the structure above the ground may be washed away but the house can always be rebuilt.  It is getting the foundation right that is most important.  It is analogous to putting money in the bank to prepare for the future.”

I believe the next logical inquiry for Dr. Henderson is to understand what led to the school’s success.  Again, it appeared that the words were already sitting on the tip of her tongue as I started to speak.  “We make a personal connection with every parent.  I stand outside Monday through Friday at drop off and recess.  I talk to each of them daily.  We demonstrate that we love all of these children.  I make it a point to call the grownups and visit their homes.  We develop a deep trust with the adults.  We show through our actions that we believe with our hearts that without exception they can succeed at high levels.  Our faculty knows that the amount of love we show changes a child’s life.  It happens daily at our school.  Therefore, if it ever comes to the point in which there is an issue with a child that we need to address, the parents become our strongest advocates.  This is the direct result of the time and effort we have taken to develop this strong trust.”

“Moreover,” the Cedar Tree executive director added, “like all schools now we utilize data to monitor the progress of our children.  One tool that has been particularly effective has been the School Readiness Consulting that is offered once a year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.  Here outside observes assess teacher interactions with students in the areas of emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support.”  Dr. Henderson is proud of the fact that Cedar Tree consistently scores strongly on this measure.

After spending some time with Dr. Henderson, I would not imagine that it would be any other way.

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