I had the fortunate opportunity recently to speak with Shannon Hodge, the co-founder and executive director of the Kingsman Academy PCS. Kingsman Academy, of course, is the school that replaced Options PCS in the aftermath of the financial controversies surrounding the former school’s management group. I asked Ms. Hodge how things were progressing at the charter.
“Things are going very well,” the Kingsman Academy executive director answered without hesitation. “We are in our second year. We took extremely seriously what we committed to doing in our charter. Our goal is to be a national model for the education of children with disabilities. It is certainly not a straight line from where we started to where we want to be. I look back at July, 2015, when we opened, and believe it is now much improved. I can see where we are going and what we have to do to get there. During the past two years we have learned much about what works with our students and how to adjust to some of the challenges they face.” These are remarkably inspiring words coming from a leader of a charter school specializing in teaching at-risk young people. But how she got here is equally extraordinary.
Ms. Hodge explained to me that she had been introduced to the charter as one of the attorneys working for the Hogan Lovells law firm assigned to represent Josh Kern after he became the court-appointed Receiver for Options PCS. She had applied to be, and was subsequently hired to become, the charter’s executive director during the last year of the previous school’s operation.
It turns out that since the time that she attended Harvard University to obtain her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Hodge’s interests were always split between law and education. As an only child, Ms. Hodge throughout her life put significant pressure on herself to do well. So only naturally when in primary and secondary school Ms. Hodge did everything she was told to do and earned almost straight A’s. From an early age she saw the opportunity that education presented to address inequalities in society.
While her B.A. is in Afro-American studies, Ms. Hodge also completed the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program in which she graduated as a certified teacher. While Ms. Hodge finished her undergraduate education she also concluded her student teaching in Boston Public Schools, but she quickly realized that she needed additional preparation to work with students with significant needs and challenges. So she obtained a master’s degree in educational and psychoeducational studies from Purdue University. In order to learn the administrative side of teaching, the Kingsman Academy executive director accepted a position as a guidance counselor, first in middle school and then in high school, in Indiana. She eventually became head of the department, but when she started she was the first professional African-American hired in the school system.
Ms. Hodge noticed many similarities between her students in Boston and those living in poverty in her high school. She saw her job as helping her scholars see what was possible for their lives after graduation. It was at this time that the No Child Left Behind law was being implemented. Ms. Hodge sadly observed that the law’s testing requirements did not account for the challenges that many students and their schools face.
She decided she wanted to go to graduate school and so obtained her second degree from Harvard in educational administration, planning, and social policy. She was there working on her doctoral degree when a law class that she was taking convinced her to attend Stanford to pursue her J.D. After obtaining her law degree, and clerking in Richmond and Chicago, Ms. Hodge joined Hogan Lovells.
Ms. Hodge has come to understand that the District of Columbia students she serves need the most and deserve the greatest effort and energy that the staff can provide. She learned much from Mr. Kern and greatly appreciates his ability to see past the first five or six levels of an issue. When she became involved in the school through him she became aware of the firm determination of its talented staff which led her to become convinced there was tremendous potential here. Ms. Hodge thought she could utilize her skills to join the challenge of advancing the charter’s strategic vision.
The 6th through 12th grade charter currently teaches 246 students: 26 in middle school, 208 in high school, and 12 enrolled in non-public schools. The student to teacher ratio is 12 to 1. The school demographics include 88 percent of students considered at-risk; 57 percent possess disabilities, and 62 percent of high school students are over-aged and under-credited. Ms. Hodge informed me that 17 percent of those attending Kingsman Academy PCS are homeless. Not known is how many have been incarcerated or otherwise detained within the last 12 months, but it is believed to be at least 10 percent of the student population. 79 percent of the pupils come from Wards 6, 7, and 8.
The breakdown of special education levels at Kingsman is as follows: 7 percent are at Level 1, 29 percent are at Level 2, 18 percent are at Level 3, and 47 percent are at Level 4. This compares to the overall student population in the city as being 36.1 percent at Level 1, 30.5 percent at Level 2, 11.6 percent at Level 3, and 21.9 percent at Level 4.
It was interesting to learn from Ms. Hodge that 43 percent of the student body has no identified disability. According to the Kingsman Academy executive director, in addition to students who may be drawn to the school because of its programming for students with learning or emotional disabilities, the charter attracts families who simply want their children to attend a small school or are familiar with its mission “to provide an individualized and rigorous education in a supportive environment to prepare scholars for post-secondary success and responsible citizenship.” That mission is carried out through a project-based academic model and a four-tiered system of interventions designed to meet students’ academic, behavior, and engagement needs.
For most of the student body, Kingsman Academy looks like many charters in the city with a Monday through Friday schedule from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. There are five periods that include subjects such as science, math, Spanish, and humanities. Each Wednesday morning, students complete electives such as soccer, Community Club, life skills, photography, natural hair, mural arts, and etiquette. Many students participate in ace360, an athletics development program the school designed to prepare student athletes for success after high school. Each Wednesday afternoon there is a half day of professional development for the staff.
For those over-aged, under-credited pupils most at risk of dropping out, Kingsman Academy PCS offers the R.I.S.E. program. The acronym stands for Raising Individual Scholars towards Excellence. Students participating in R.I.S.E. have before and after school classes and sessions on Saturdays. The charter has found blended learning to be especially helpful with this population of young people.
In the future, the DC Public Charter School Board’s Alternative Accountability Framework tool will be relied upon to provide a public quality report. However, Ms. Hodge is not waiting for this measure to develop a high performing organization. “Success at Kingsman Academy means more than making sure students earn a high school diploma. It means preparing students to lead successful lives after graduation. We want our graduates to thrive in college, in the workforce, or in the military,” the Kingsman Academy executive director related passionately. “We want them to be active leaders and responsible citizens, to provide for their families, to be lifelong learners. They deserve nothing less.”