Wow! If you want to learn why DC Bilingual PCS is ranked in the top five percent of academically performing charters in the nation’s capital, come with me on an interview with Daniela Anello, the hard-charging, effervescent head of school. I had the great pleasure of sitting down with her for a conversation.
Ms. Anello explained that DC Bilingual began operating in 2004 as part of CentroNia, the organization founded in 1986 by Beatrice “BB” Otero to assist in educating low-income immigrants to this country. The school was at first completely housed in the same building as CentroNia in Columbia Heights, but by the fifth year it was offering pre-Kindergarten to third grade and needed additional space for its inaugural fourth and fifth grade classes. The school then added leased space at 14th and Irving Streets N.W., the same location above the CVS Drugstore that incubated several of our city’s charters including E.L. Haynes. After the DC Public Charter School Board closed the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS in 2015, DC Bilingual consolidated its campuses into CAP’s Keene facility located at 33 Riggs Road, N.E. Coinciding with the relocation was a break with CentroNia as the school’s management company, a move taken to improve its financial position. Ms. Anello joined the staff of DC Bilingual at the start of the fifth year.
The DC Bilingual head of school has a fascinating background. Ms. Anello was born in Chile, and when she was four years old her parents moved her and her sister, four years her senior, to Astoria, Queens. She attended the local PS17 elementary school while her dad supported his family by working in restaurant and construction jobs. But he came to America with only a five-year visa, so at age nine she moved back to Chile. It was a complete culture shock. “In New York I was basically alone with my family,” Ms. Anello revealed. “My parents didn’t speak English and I didn’t have many friends. Then I returned to Chile and we have a large family there with about 25 cousins. It was then I really immersed myself in my culture and language.”
When Ms. Anello was 13, her parents received green cards and returned to the United States. But this time they did not settle right next to Manhattan. Ms. Anello detailed, “I was entering middle school and my mother and father were scared to have me roaming around on my own. They didn’t want me traveling on the subway by myself. So they decided to locate about 30 miles north of N.Y.C. in a town called Sleepy Hollow. The school I attended there was incredibly diverse. It was a complete melting pot. I was placed in a self-contained ESL class, and my closest friends came from all parts of the world such as Portugal, Egypt, and Italy. These were people who were extremely proud of their heritage. Later I was assigned a general education class and I had tremendous difficulty comprehending the texts that were read.”
Attending the school was also an affluent set of pupils from the other part of town. Ms. Anello recalled, “There was a boy from this group who was the smartest kid in the classroom. He consistently volunteered to speak up and he answered all the instructor’s questions. I decided at age 13 that this was the person I was going to marry.” Amazingly, years later, her prediction became a reality.
For college Ms. Anello attended the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she started as a psychology major but soon switched to teaching. “Psychology was too philosophical for me,” the head of DC Bilingual opined. “I like to plan and implement projects and see them to fruition. Psychology was just inefficient for me.”
After finishing school Ms. Anello began teaching at the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in Boston. She was an instant hit. “The school had not had a new teacher in many years,” Ms. Anello stated. “Most of the instructors were all people of Italian decent which in the past matched the demographics of the neighborhood. But now the area was predominately inhabited by Hispanic families. There was no one at the school that could really communicate with the students and parents except for me. I became the principal’s right hand person to help with translations and parent communication. Over time people came to respect the work I was doing.”
But after two years at the school Ms. Anello’s husband sought to move to Washington, D.C. His strong interest in politics would eventually lead to landing a job in President Obama’s administration. Ms. Anello then accepted a teaching position at Friendship Academy Southeast PCS. The DC Bilingual head of school soon became convinced that she needed to go back to school to hone her skills as an instructional leader. So, twelve months later she began her Master’s degree at the prestigious Columbia University Teacher’s College. There she studied under her hero Lucy Calkins.
Upon returning to Washington after her nine-month program she knew she wanted to work at a school that taught dual languages. She was attracted to DC Bilingual from the moment she walked in the door. “I immediately hit it off with principal Wanda Perez, who had arrived the school a couple of years earlier,” Ms. Anello remembered. “I was also attracted to the fact that the charter serves such a high percentage of kids that qualified for free or reduced meals.”
There was, however, a problem at DC Bilingual. The previous school year’s DC CAS for third graders demonstrated proficiency rates of 3 percent in math and 30 percent in reading. “We were in crisis mode,” Ms. Anello related, “recognizing that if we didn’t turn the academics around the charter would be closed. We literally cleaned house. I spent the entire summer writing literacy curriculum as an instructional coach, and became the principal’s right hand person in helping to set up the systems we needed to strengthen the hiring process, teacher coaching, and professional development experiences.”
It was also during this period that Ms. Anello completed an Emerging Leader Program through the New Leaders program. After moving up the ranks as resident and interim principal, in April 2015 Ms. Anello was named head of school.
Ms. Anello believes that what sets DC Bilingual apart from other charters is that it is high performing while teaching a low-income population that varies between 76 percent and 82 percent of children living in poverty. But there are other characteristics as well. Ms. Anello asserted, “We are closing the achievement gap with our 440 students in grades pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade. DC Bilingual has a waiting list of 1,623 children. Students do not leave our school to go someplace else and neither do our teachers. Most of our staff have been with us for over six years. People are happy, and part of the reason is that everyone believes that they have an important role in the success of the school. We set high expectations here but we also provide the support to allow individuals to be successful. We believe that all children, no matter their background or special needs, can become bilingual and achieve high academic success.”
There is so much depth to this school that it is impossible to capture everything in one article. Ms. Anello described enrichment activities for the students that link them to the outside world such as learning where food comes from. There are sports, music, art, dance, and gardening programs. For the parents there is DACA immigration workshops, English classes, and cooking lessons. Ms. Anello exclaimed that she absolutely loves the parents “because they remind me of my own family.”
Each minute of the day is planned and everything at DC Bilingual is done intentionally. I will conclude with one illustration that Ms. Anello shared with me. When evaluating a job applicant for a teaching position, she has the interviewee teach a mock class in front of a coach. This makes sense since all of the classes at DC Bilingual have coaches. Then, when the applicant is through the coach makes suggestions for improvement and then the applicant teaches the class again. If the teacher can accept the advice and improve the lesson then, and only then, will this individual proceed to the next round.
Ms. Anello indicated to me that there are assessments for all activities instigated at DC Bilingual. After spending some time with this head of school I came to understand that I would expect nothing less.