Exclusive Interview with Peter Anderson, head of school Washington Latin PCS

I had a nostalgic day recently as I returned to Washington Latin PCS, the charter where I served on the board of governors for six years. During my time as chair the school secured and renovated the old Rudolph Elementary School as it’s permanent facility.  This was also a fantastic opportunity to have my first extended conversation with Peter Anderson, the head of school who three years ago succeeded Martha Cutts in this role.  The discussion was fascinating.  I first asked Mr. Anderson how he thought Washington Latin was progressing.

“Latin is doing extremely well when you consider various indicators,” Mr. Anderson answered without hesitation.  “We continue to retain more than 80 percent of our teachers and, of those to whom we extend contracts, over 90 percent accept them.  This has been the pattern the last three years.  Of course, retaining the teaching staff is important to the overall success of the school.  One of our sayings over here is that ‘people matter’ and who is in the classroom is more important than books, buildings, or budgets.  Being able to keep our talented instructors provides continuity.  We also have some fairly new teachers who are rising stars, and who are taking on added responsibilities under the tutelage of our amazing principal Diana Smith.   These individuals are incredibly smart and acclimating exceedingly quickly.  We have been intentionally trying to develop a diverse faculty both in race and intellectual experience.  We look for a range of backgrounds.  For example, we enjoy meeting teachers who have lived internationally or traveled extensively and we look for people who have been athletes or coaches since they know what it is like to work on a team.  We have teachers who have taught in private schools and urban public schools and those that have these backgrounds who are from other parts of the country. “

The Latin head of school then spoke about other signs that the school is in a strong position.  “Our students continue to perform well on external measures,” Mr. Anderson related.  “Our students post strong scores on Advanced Placement exams, PARCC, SAT, the National Latin Exam, and the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages.  In addition, both our middle and high schools are ranked Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework”

However, following in the exact mold of former head Martha Cutts, the leader of Washington Latin believes there is more to be done.

“Our goal is to improve the academic performance of our at-risk student population and that of African American males,” Mr. Anderson asserted.

With the recent news that many of the city’s independent schools are eliminating Advanced Placement, I wanted to get Mr. Anderson’s take on the value of these courses.  He responded to my question as if he and his team had already spent hours pondering the same issue.  “We still believe that AP is rigorous yet doesn’t pigeonhole us into having to teach to the test.  The instructional staff makes every attempt to make advanced placement more accessible to a wide variety of students.  We have actually added AP classes and designed some of our own more challenging courses, such as Honors Humanities, The History of Jerusalem, and Advanced Arabic.”

Mr. Anderson added that Washington Latin now offers AP Computer Science Principles that appeals to a diverse group of scholars.  He informed me that a goal is for students to track in AP classes in an earlier age.

“This summer we had approximately 250 out of our 700 students attend summer school,” he said. “Only a small percentage of those are there for remediation.  Summer school allows pupils to work in small groups to prepare for more rigorous classes in the future.  For example, we offered a bridge class to Algebra 2.  Now more students are taking geometry in middle school.  One class that was particularly interesting was Underwater Robotics.”

Mr. Anderson then returned to some of the other positive trends currently being experienced at Latin.

“Depending upon the grade level, Mr. Anderson explained, “we retain about 95 percent of our students year after year.  Some grades retain 100 percent of their class.  Our internal surveys of parents and students indicate high levels of satisfaction with the school.  We were recently re-accredited for five years by AdvancED and we solicited intensive feedback from our parents, students and teachers as part of this process.”

When asked about college performance, Mr. Anderson indicated that “in regard to our matriculating seniors, we brought in a record $10.5 million in merit-based scholarships in 2017; this year a smaller graduating class realized $6.6 million.   In addition, the list of colleges and universities that our students are attending grows each term.  This year, there is a student attending New York University in Shanghai.  Another will be studying in Rome.  Past graduating seniors have enrolled in community college, small liberal arts colleges, Ivy League schools, large research universities, and HBCU’s in all parts of the country. Note that fit is of the utmost importance to us.  As such, we are always looking for post-secondary options that can meet the needs of our graduates, whether it is a larger institution like the University of Vermont, a smaller college like Eckerd, the military, or culinary school.”

I next wanted to know from Mr. Anderson what he is enjoying most about his time at Latin.  “There are a number of things I love here,” the head of school asserted.  “I would have to start with the team that leads this school.  Over the course of my 21-year career I have often gone into leadership roles in which I’ve had to restructure and bring in new people.  That is just not my experience here.  This is the best leadership group with whom I’ve ever worked.  It makes my job so much easier and allows me to think strategically instead of having to be in the weeds.  As you can see I really appreciate them.”

Mr. Anderson continued, “I also truly enjoy the community here.  The people who work here are genuinely interested in the lives of their colleagues.  The level of compassion and empathy toward each other is so rewarding to see and there is a really positive relationship between the teachers and students.  Please allow me to tell you a story about this topic.  When I was a student teacher at NYU I was assigned to work at a Title 1 school in Chinatown.  The second school at which I trained was in Tribeca, which was a highly progressive institution of non-Title 1 children.  One day when I walked into the teachers’ lounge of the first school I heard the instructors bashing the kids.  Now, I knew these pupils were good kids and were compliant, which is a proxy for what many teachers consider to be respectful.  I never walked into that room again.  Here at Latin, the teachers’ lounge is right next to my office.  When you enter this space, you hear philosophical discussions amongst the staff.  You see co-workers in deep conversations about how best to help particular students or engaged in collaborative planning.  It is inspiring.  Being with the faculty demonstrates that they believe in, and constantly reinforce, our motto that “words matter.”

Mr. Anderson also stated that he really enjoys being in Washington, D.C. where it is so charter school friendly.

“When I worked in New York I got involved in charter advocacy,” he recalled. “I would go up to Albany and lobby where I would see Seth Andrews, the creator of Democracy Prep PCS, and Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy PCS.  They received most of the attention.  But my career afforded me a unique prospective because the first charter I led in Harlem, a Kindergarten to eighth grade school, was a conversion from a traditional school.  Therefore, it was unionized.  So, I was able to talk to state representatives from this angle.”

Here in D.C., Mr. Anderson is excited that Washington Latin has now joined the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.  The Latin Head of Schools explained that the group is an association of charters that are not part of charter management organizations.  He detailed that the newly established national group is set up to share best practices, advocate for favorable local, state, and federal policies, and pursue funding and other resources. Latin is also of course a party to the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit brought against the city for equitable charter school funding compared to DCPS.  Mr. Anderson is proud that the initial judgment siding with the traditional schools is being appealed and that Latin is a part of this effort.

An area we briefly touched on, but perhaps the one that speaks volumes about the success of this school, is the student demand to be admitted.  This term there were 2,300 applications for approximately 100 open slots.  As the final part of the school’s five-year strategic plan adopted in 2016 the charter will eventually expand.  With Mr. Anderson’s experience as a teacher, administrator, and school leader in traditional, parochial, and charter schools, together with his high performing leadership team, this appears just the right group to bring Washington Latin to the next level.

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