I had the great honor of sitting down recently for an interview with Dr. Golnar Abedin, the founder and executive director of Creative Minds International Public Charter School. I came away thinking that the city could not be more fortunate to have this charter school as part of our community.
Dr. Abedin explained to me that the school was approved in 2011 from around 20 applications that year; only four schools were approved by the DC Public Charter School Board that cycle. Creative Minds International opened in the fall of 2012. The story of how the executive director reached this milestone is fascinating.
Dr. Abedin obtained her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in the field of psychology. As part of her program she was placed to work with children with severe emotional and behavioral challenges. During the same period, she was assisting with dance therapy for children who had Down’s syndrome. She found these endeavors especially rewarding.
When she finished college, Dr. Abedin was hired as an assistant teacher at Sawtelle Learning Center, a private school for children with autism. After about a year and a half, Dr. Abedin decided to pursue her master’s degree in special education. She attended the prestigious Teacher’s College at Columbia University while being employed full-time at the private Gateway School in Manhattan that served students with learning disabilities. “This school provided a fantastic opportunity for the students within small class sizes and learning groups,” the Creative Minds executive director related. “They implemented engaging approaches and differentiated instruction within an exquisite learning environment. As an assistant teacher, I worked in classrooms that implemented small-group instruction with five to ten students at a time. They also integrated art and movement therapy. I was inspired and became committed to this intentional, multi-disciplinary approach to special education.”
Gateway offered her a teaching position after finishing at Columbia, but Dr. Abedin was adamant that she wanted to practice her profession in a public school setting. So she became an instructor at an urban bilingual Spanish middle school, also in New York. “This was an eye-opening episode that highlighted the systemic trends that lead to inequities of educational opportunities, and heavily fueled my desire to make a difference for public school students. The atmosphere could not have been more opposite of the private school,” Dr. Abedin detailed. “The teachers yelled at the students all day long. There was not much instruction in either English or Spanish, leaving the students with serious gaps in learning. One day the principal took one of my students out of the classroom stating that he was not going to learn anything anyway, so he might as well clean the hallway floors. As a new and idealistic teacher, this incident was traumatic and disillusioning. Instead of being bilingual, many of these students ended up illiterate in both languages; many were performing five to six years below grade level. This was right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Law. These kids were taking grade-level standardized tests when they did not have the skills to approach the content. The entire situation was extremely sad. When they offered me tenure I turned it down and left to find explore other implementation models.”
Dr. Abedin’s next stop was at a Greenwich Village magnet middle school that afforded her the opportunity to teach and implement strategies for the inclusion of special education and at-risk students. “The school was part of the small schools movement in New York City. I learned a lot alongside my colleagues because we were given autonomy and encouraged to try new things. I stayed at this school about four to five years and it was a great learning opportunity in teaching and leadership.”
She and her husband then relocated to Washington, D.C. after he had accepted a position at the George Washington University. Dr. Abedin decided to go back to school to obtain her PhD in Organizational Leadership and Education Policy at the University of Maryland. She augmented her studies with international education and economics courses, and worked in school leadership positions in D.C. charter schools.
It was over the years that she was completing her program that she had a son. At two and a half years of age he was diagnosed with sensory integration challenges. Logically, I had to ask her how it felt to have a child like the students she had been caring and advocating for throughout her career. She said her son is “twice exceptional,” a term used to describe students who are gifted in some areas while they experience challenges in others such as attention and executive function. The knowledge and experience she gained raising him further confirmed her belief that all students have individual learning profiles and interests that require creative approaches to education that keep them engaged to maximize their learning potentials.
During her son’s early childhood, Dr. Abedin consulted with Dr. Stanley Greenspan who had a practice in Bethesda, Maryland called the Floortime Center. He proved to become a tremendous influence in the life of the Creative Minds executive director. Dr. Abedin reflected, “Dr. Greenspan was an expert in child development with a deep understanding of how individual sensory-processing systems influence learning. He also deeply believed in the importance of children’s emotions in learning. He would prescribe the number of times I should engage in play with my son that involved following his interests, as if it were doses of medication. After being exposed to the brilliance of Dr. Greenspan, I believed that that every parent should have access to his approach and his techniques.”
Next came a frustrating phase for Dr. Abedin. She could not find a good school option for her child. For employment she did some charter school special education consulting and instructional coaching as well as a short stint at SAIL PCS, when she was approached by other parents having similar difficulties around their children’s education. A gentleman by the name of Bob LaVallee connected with her about his interest in partnering to start a new charter school and was interested in Dr. Abedin’s inclusive and international education model. Although the application deadline was fast approaching, the two of them along with a small group of community members assembled the necessary paperwork with Dr. Abedin writing the entire educational plan. In 2012, Creative Minds International opened on 16th Street, N.W. with 103 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three through second grade, including Dr. Abedin’s own son. It had a waitlist of over 500 children.
This waitlist is now more than 2,000 students.
Three years ago, Creative Minds International moved to its permanent location at the Sherman Building on the Old Soldiers’ Home campus in Ward 5. The charter currently teaches 438 pupils in grades pre-Kindergarten three through seventh. Plans are to add its last grade, eighth, next year and grow to about 510 students.
The mission of Creative Minds International PCS is to offer “early childhood, elementary, and middle school D.C. public school students a highly engaging, rigorous, international and inclusive education plan that provides them with the knowledge and skills required for successful participation in a global society through a project- and arts-based international curriculum that fosters creativity, self-motivation, social/emotional development, and academic excellence.”
Dr. Abedin expounded on the foundation of Creative Minds International, which coincides directly with her life experiences. She describes the schools pillars as “international, inclusion, and the arts.” The Creative Minds International executive director is bilingual, studying Spanish in school and through time spent in Madrid and Valencia, Spain. She is proud of the fact that the charter is the first in D.C. to be accredited by the International Primary Curriculum, which emphasizes thematic, interdisciplinary and project-based learning; most subjects are taught around themes and integrated across disciplines. Creative Mind’s unique model requires highly skilled and specialized lead and inclusion staff.
What gets Dr. Abedin excited about the field of education is to try and figure out how kids learn. Her doctoral school dissertation investigated the effect of arts-focused education on student engagement in a public charter school inclusion environment. For this executive director and her team, the key to increasing students’ ability to learn is to raise their engagement in learning which leads to higher levels of academic achievement. The arts, according to Dr. Abedin, are a powerful way to achieve this outcome in children.
Creative Minds International is a rising Tier 2 school as ranked on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework. One of the weaknesses of using the PMF when it comes to this charter is that in the testing grades, an average of 40 percent of her pupils are categorized as special education with Individual Education Plans. But she is proud of the student-centered approach to learning that takes place here, which includes every student receiving instruction in Spanish and Mandarin starting age three, and choosing one of the two languages toward the goal of proficiency beginning in grade four.
“I had no idea that I’d be doing this when I began my education,” Dr. Abedin related. “But it became vitally important to me that we prove it is possible to successfully meet the needs of all learners in a rich, engaging, public school setting. I couldn’t be more proud of the work of our team of teachers, specialists, and aides at Creative Minds who bring tremendous creativity, experience, and dedication to our students each day, and the support of our Board of Trustees. It’s hard, rewarding work and we are lucky to have a strong school community committed to our model.”