Last evening my wife Michele and I had the great privilege of heading over to the Columbia Heights Educational Campus auditorium to watch the first public showing of the film Breakthrough. The event was co-sponsored by CityBridge Education and Stone Soup Films, the firm that produced the movie. During the introduction we learned that Stone Soup is a Washington, D.C. company that develops all of its projects through the use of volunteers. I would say this is just about the perfect organization to make a documentary that covers D.C.’s charter schools, a movement composed of hundreds of people contributing their time, money, and expertise for no financial remuneration.
The documentary follows three schools that were awarded $100,000 each through Citybridge’s “Breakthrough Schools: DC” challenge in 2014 to create new or redesigned transformational schools in the nation’s capital. This was the initial year that these grants were made and Monument Academy PCS, Washington Leadership Academy PCS, and the Wheatley Education Campus were part of the first cohort of six winners.
So here’s the bottom line. I basically watched the last 20 years of my life replayed before me on the big screen. The audience saw Monument Academy, the first boarding school in the city for foster children, go through the amazingly complex struggle of securing a permanent facility. The commercial spaces that were identified as possibilities all fall through and the charter is eventually awarded, with the help of Building Hope, a shuttered DCPS building, the former Gibbs School. I went through similar hunts with Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy, the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (now City Arts and Prep PCS) and Washington Latin PCS. But the structure was in such a poor physical condition that Monument must practically rebuild it from the ground up, a repeat of what Washington Latin went through at its own expense when it assumed the old Rudolph Elementary.
We get a first-hand look at a Monument Academy parent information session held at a public library, since this is before the school had its own location that would allow it to hold meetings of this type. The picture captures the exceptionally tough questions and comments by those considering sending their own offspring to this new school. Michele and I witnessed exactly the same scenario when we were trying to convince parents to sent their kids to WEDJ.
Breakthrough took the large audience for a closeup view of the charter approval process for Washington Leadership Academy before the DC Public Charter School Board. I remember this as if it was yesterday as I observed and wrote about Seth Andrew’s team making a confusing and unstructured presentation one year; only to be followed by a revised application 12 months later that perfectly reflected the exciting vision for this groundbreaking charter that won unanimous approval by the board to begin operating.
The film is an accurate portrayal so it does not have a completely happy ending. The Wheatley Elementary School’s attempts to implement a blended learning approach based upon competency-based student assessments. During its first year of implementation only three classrooms end up adopting this new approach which results in its dynamic instructional leader for this effort, Tanisha Dixon, leaving the school at the end of the term. It brought back in my mind the high all of us associated William E. Doar experienced when in our first couple of years we met the Annual Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind only to find much later the three founding women departing and the hiring of Ten Square consulting group to get the school back on track academically.
All of this brings me to my final impression of the film. This heroic work that many of us in this town have been doing to finally close the achievement gap is really really hard. Thank goodness we have CityBridge Education, with Katherine Bradley as the fountainhead and Mieka Wick as chief executive officer, to provide financial assistance and many other avenues of support as public school reform reaches an entirely new level. The organization’s goal is to create 25 new or reconstituted schools in the next five years. I can’t wait to see the sequel.