I had the great honor of sitting down for an interview recently with Julie Meyer, the recently departed executive director of The Next Step PCS. I asked her about how she came to the school. “My family moved to D.C. in 1988,” Ms. Meyer explained. “I was appalled at the state of public schools and felt that, with home rule, city officials should be focusing on quality education for all youth. I myself am a red diaper baby, meaning that my parents were members of the Communist Party. My mother was a teacher in Los Angeles and worked on issues such as racism in the public school system. She was actually called before the Hollywood version of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In college and after graduation, I became an activist involved with the Central America solidarity movement, which was organized around opposition to American military involvement in the region. I also worked for The Central American Refugee/Resource Center, which provides support for immigrants fleeing hostile conditions in that part of the world, and later helped found and direct the Lambi Fund of Haiti.”
In 2005, Ms. Meyer met Linda Ohmans, the founding principal of The Next Step. “The Next Step PCS is the oldest charter school in the city,” Ms. Meyer detailed. “It was chartered in 1996 by the D.C. Board of Education and opened in the fall of 1998 when our founding organization, the Latin American Youth Center, opened their main site on Columbia Road. Linda sought a part-time executive director. She was aware I spoke Spanish and that I knew the Latino community and nonprofit management, but I didn’t have a Masters’ Degree in Education. She needed someone to interact with the Board of Education and to assist with securing a permanent facility. We had about 70 students at the time and had severe space constraints. We decided to add an evening program because of demand and economies of scale. In a matter of about two years my position transitioned to full-time.”
Before I go any further, I just want to include some background information about the The Next Step PCS. The mission of The Next Step PCS is to “provide students who face extraordinary challenges and who are not supported in traditional high schools with the opportunity to continue their education.” The school’s website details its main features as follows:
- TNSPCS offers a bilingual (English/Spanish) ABE (adult basic education), GED, and ESL program open to all youth between the ages 16-24.
- Class sizes are small and the student support and engagement staff includes social workers, case managers, attendance and transportation coordinators, and college and career counselors.
- Three free, healthy meals per day are available to students and free childcare is offered both day and evening.
- The program is offered year-round, with a minimum of 195 instructional days and has developed a curriculum aligned with the national common core standards and the GED examination.
- TNSPCS uses differentiated instruction, instructional technology, restorative practices and tutors to accommodate a diverse student body. Students receive guidance in order to continue their education beyond the GED at community college, vocational education programs and/or further English proficiency courses.
The Next Step is a Tier 1 charter as ranked on the DC Public Charter School Board’s 2017 Performance Management Framework, the first time that it has reached this mark in the three years that this tool has been used to benchmark schools. Here’s what the board had to say about The Next Step reaching this milestone, “The Next Step PCS educates students ages 16-24, with the average student being 21.6 years of age. Over the years, this Tier 1 school has managed to create a school environment that has led to achieving an 88% student enrollment rate throughout the 2016-17 school year. This is the highest retention rate among all the adult education public charter schools.” The charter now teaches approximately 400 students, with 92.1 percent of its enrollment classified as being composed of Hispanic/Latino and 6.4 percent being black. Eighty-nine percent of the student body are English Language Learners and 4.5 percent are special education students.
The Next Step was originally located in the same building as the LAYC, and opened with 25 students. Ms. Meyer related to me that the school quickly ran out of room. “There was a lot of demand for an evening program and we believed that we could use these classes to help pay for additional square feet,” Ms. Meyer recalled. “Like a lot of charter schools, two different negotiations for a permanent facility fell through. The third one was the charm, which we accomplished through the assistance of Ten Square Consulting.”
The charter’s home on 15th Street, N.W. was owned by Capital City PCS, but that school outgrew this location. In December 2011, Next Step purchased the building and moved in the following summer. The structure originally served as the headquarters for the Central Presbyterian Church. Woodrow Wilson became a member of the congregation shortly after becoming President in 1913. Sometime after 1958 the church vacated the property. It had been utilized by community groups until Capital City purchased it and renovated the dilapidated space.
Ms. Meyer characterizes The Next Step as “not fitting neatly into any boxes.” She mentioned that the school teaches many of the most at-risk students in the city. It provides courses in ESL and prepares pupils to take the GED. The population is composed of a majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants. There are 10 native languages represented at the school.
The charter, according to Ms. Meyer, completed a two-year process last summer to develop its strategic priorities. She summarized them as “keeping the students coming and keeping them enrolled.” These goals can be a challenge, Ms. Meyer added, because many of the students have jobs and kids of their own. Priorities include continuing to create more flexible schedules to accommodate student needs, growing the Career and Life Skills department, and, with the assistance of a $500,000 grant from CityBridge Education, implementing Individual Life Plans to encourage greater agency and goal-setting and monitoring by students themselves.
I then wanted to know from Ms. Meyer why she thought the school was able to reach the Adult Education PMF Tier 1 level. “The school makes every effort to provide supports needed to maintain students in class and approaches young people with respect and kindness, building strong relationships between students and staff,” Ms. Meyer remarked. She pointed to the fact that Next Step had 57 of its students obtain their GED last year. This statistic represents around an 80 percent pass rate for those academically prepared to take the test. Students must be reading at at least the 11th grade level to pass the GED, but at The Next Step most students enter on average at a fourth-to-fifth grade level in their native languages.
Ms. Meyer was excited about the efforts the school has made in tracking the progress of its students. “We remain in contact with alumni as much as possible and continue to support them as they develop their education and careers,” the former executive director beamed. “We push hard to have them go to college. They often go to the University of the District of Columbia or Trinity Washington University when the idea of obtaining a higher degree never entered their minds. Some students attend culinary school or other vocational training programs. We assist them with applications, financial aid, and more.”
Another goal of the charter which Ms. Meyer is especially excited about is the expansion of career and life skills training provided to the student body, including, among many avenues: financial literacy, legal workshops, career exploration opportunities, and computer literacy. “Unfortunately, people take advantage of immigrants, and the poor,” Ms. Meyer exclaimed. “Our students also receive legal training. They often don’t realize they have rights. We link them with mental health services and organizations that provide legal assistance and provide transportation assistance. Housing remains a major problem for low-income youth in our city.”
Ms. Meyer then summarized the achievements of Next Step PCS. “We meet the students where they are,” she intoned. “We have been able to grow the school in size, comprehensiveness, and flexibility. Every staff member becomes a mentor for these students. It is a relationship-based school. All who come in contact with us mention the positive atmosphere. We have students articulate their short and long-term professional, personal, and academic goals.”
In conclusion I wanted to know about Ms. Meyer’s current plans. Although she said that she has nothing presently lined up, she did want to talk about the transition. “I believe leadership changes are good,” Ms. Meyer stated. “I feel that transitions become more difficult when the organization becomes linked with one individual and style. The Next Step is fortunate to have an excellent, experienced senior management team and a new executive director who will help take the school to the next level. We are currently a great school that in three to five years I believe can be a national model for educating older, opportunity youth. This is really not an easy space within which to operate. I’m extremely hopeful for the future of Next Step PCS.”