Exclusive interview with Jenifer Moore, Sela PCS interim head of school

Sela PCS has a lot going for it right now.  The school just reached its five-year mark since it began operating and sailed through its review by the DC Public Charter School Board.  In addition, Sela learned a few months ago that it is ranked Tier 1 on the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, the second consecutive year that it earned this grade and only the second time that it was eligible for grading.

But I discovered recently that the school has another great asset, and that is its interim head of school Jenifer Moore.  I recently had the fantastic opportunity to sit down with Ms. Moore.  You may never meet a more positive and uplifting individual.

Ms. Moore explained to me that this is her third year at Sela.  For the previous two years she had the position of director of curriculum and instruction.  Her path to the charter school is interesting.

The interim head of school spent three years as the lower school principal of Arts and Technology PCS, and she was working there as it was being shuttered by the PCSB for poor academic performance.  KIPP DC PCS ended up taking over this facility.  She was offered the opportunity to become vice principal of the lower school under KIPP, but she decided to push herself out of her comfort zone and join the DCPS Office of Early Childhood Education.  She spent an important year there becoming exposed to multiple early childhood programs such as Creative Curriculum, Tools of the Mind, Readers/Writers Workshop, and Reggio.  She also received the race and equity training that she came to realize would become part of her calling.

During this period something else was taking place.  Ms. Moore had gotten to know Natalie Smith when she too worked at Arts and Technology as the director of academic and staff development.  Dr. Smith was now the head of school at Sela and began recruiting Ms. Moore to come over to the charter.  Ms. Moore turned Dr. Smith down a couple of times but finally agreed to join her in the role of director of curriculum and instruction.

Sela PCS has had a fascinating history.  The Hebrew language immersion school opened its first year with grades pre-Kindergarten four, Kindergarten, and first.  It has added a grade each year but has also grown backwards to add a pre-Kindergarten three.  The charter now goes up to the fourth grade and will conclude its growth at grade five.  The student body of 202 is diverse, composed of approximately 72 percent black, 21 percent white, and 8 percent Hispanic pupils.  Forty-three percent of the children are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Dr. Smith left Sela at the end of last year.  The board of directors, Ms. Moore stated, was completely transparent with the staff and parents saying that its preference would be to grow someone from within the organization.  “The board has provided me with a tremendous amount of support,” the interim principal related.  The decision as to whether she should be made the permanent head of school will come at the end of this school year.

Now I feel I must pause.  Throughout my conversation with Ms. Moore she spoke to me passionately about the help she has received along the way.  When she was the lower school principal at Arts and Technology the first year was challenging, especially around a difficult culture.  In the following years she was able to build a team of educators who did whatever it took to improve teaching and learning.  They developed a shared vision of excellence.  In addition, there was a mentor, Ms. Aleem, who cheered Ms. Moore on and gave words of wisdom at the right time.

Those who worked with her at DCPS did exactly the same thing.  “At DCPS,” Ms. Moore opined, “my colleagues and coaches were extraordinarily skilled.  I had never met so many educators that were both talented and driven about enriching educational experiences of D.C.’s youngest learners.  In a short time, I learned so much from them.”

Once she became interim head of school the staff became excited, announcing that they were now her cheerleaders.  After spending some time with Ms. Moore, I had this sudden urge to assist her becoming head in any way that I could.  Her personality emits warmth toward people that is immediately contagious.  I then asked Ms. Moore why she believes her school has been able to reach Tier 1 status.

“There are a couple of things,” the interim head of school extolled.  “We have a tremendously dedicated staff.  They give a lot of themselves on a daily basis.  The 28 teachers demonstrate true collaboration which is amazing to watch.  Our teachers come from all over the world.  They each bring different experiences and various points of view.  There are many considerations when we think about how we train these professionals and how they interact with parents.  So here’s the other reason that I believe we are Tier 1.  Every adult in this building makes every decision based upon what is best for the child.  I believe it is impossible to be Tier 1 without putting ego aside.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strong foundation that the previous head of school built.  She poured her heart and soul into Sela over the past three years creating systems that would benefit students long term.”

Ms. Moore also wanted to speak about the professional development activities at Sela that support its mission “to offer children of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in the District of Columbia from pre-k to 5th grade, the opportunities to achieve academic excellence in a safe nurturing environment that focuses on Hebrew language immersion, promotes the value of diversity and provides the skills for taking action in the world.”   She revealed that teachers are given time for professional development every week on Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.  “We focus during these sessions on what we can glean in an hour that can go directly into the classroom,” Ms. Moore detailed.  “We also have all-day professional development during which there are sessions led directly by the teachers.  These meetings are data driven.  The teachers are learning how to modify lesson plans based upon the academic measurements we are receiving.”

I then wanted to know why parents select Sela PCS for their children.  Ms. Moore eagerly responded, “Some parents certainly do feel connected to the Hebrew language.  Others think it is really cool.  Many people are attracted to the diversity of the school and the supportive environment that exists here.  There is such a strong community reflected by the strength between the school and families.  Families actively support our school and we encourage them to provide feedback regarding our work.”

We then engaged in a discussion of where Sela is going as an institution.  Ms. Moore listed two buckets. “We want to strengthen the Hebrew program,” the interim head of school stated.  “The language immersion program is not included in the PMF.  We believe that all students can learn Hebrew, even those classified as special education pupils.  Our pre-school students spend 80 percent of the day in Hebrew language classes and the older kids have a Hebrew block during the day.  We have some really strong Hebrew teachers.”

The other area that Ms. Moore was extremely interested in mentioning was the school’s continuing efforts to support diversity and inclusion.  She related to me that student suspensions at Sela are exceedingly rare.  “We provide training to staff around equity beginning in summer training,” Ms. Moore recalled.  “Because some of our teachers come from countries outside of the United States they may have little experience educating African American students or with students with special needs.  We all bring biases to our positions and we strive to understand what they are and to overcome them as much as possible.”

If anyone can lead this school to reach its goals it is Ms. Moore.  She grew up in Washington on New Hampshire Avenue.  Her mother instilled in her the values of family, hard work, and integrity.  She received her undergraduate degree from Howard University and her masters in Educational Administration at Trinity D.C.  Ms. Moore once worked as the Rights of Passage coordinator at the Covenant House and once again one of her supervisors took her on as a mentee.

“I love what I’m doing,” Ms. Moore exclaimed.  “Diversity and equity are extremely important to me.  In my current position I’m still extremely close to teaching and learning.  I am now stretching in my skill sets and I’m comfortable about it.  So many of the people in my life have come together to help and prepare me to teach other adults how to serve children.  It is all about service.”


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