Exclusive interview with Aaron Cuny, co-founder and CEO Ingenuity Prep PCS

I had the great pleasure recently of sitting down with Aaron Cuny, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ingenuity Prep PCS, a school that opened in 2013 with just over one hundred students in PreKindergarten three to Kindergarten. The school is located in Anacostia, in the southernmost school building in the nation’s capital, and so I wanted to know from Mr. Cuny how this particular location was selected. “Our belief from the beginning was that all D.C. families deserve accessible, quality school options,” the Ingenuity Prep CEO explained, “and for too many families, especially those in Wards 7 and 8, this opportunity does not exist. We felt a moral obligation to help build something that would give families another choice.” Around the time that Mr. Cuny and his co-founder, Will Stoetzer, the school’s chief operating officer, were writing their charter application, the Illinois Facility Fund study was released. The report analyzed, across 39 neighborhood clusters in Washington, D.C., the gap between the density of students in those neighborhood clusters and the supply of high performing schools. Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer identified the neighborhood where there was the greatest gap between the number of students and the number of quality school seats available to families.

Once the area was determined, Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer began connecting with local families by knocking on doors, attending neighborhood events, and standing outside the Giant grocery store on Alabama Avenue. Contrary to the divisiveness that sometimes informs our community’s debate about public charter schools, they found that parents were overwhelmingly hungry for a good school option and parents didn’t care whether that it came in the form of a traditional or charter school. They just wanted something better than what the city had previously provided.

With the help of Building Hope, Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer were able to secure space in the former PR Harris Educational Center, a site that it now shares with National Collegiate Preparatory Academy PCS, the University of the District of Columbia, and fire and emergency medical services. Back in 1997, the Washington Post’s Debbie Wilgoren explained the history of the structure:

“The building opened in 1976 with 2,300 youngsters, overflow from nearby schools. Originally called Friendship Educational Center, it was renamed for Patricia Roberts Harris, the late D.C. mayoral candidate and Carter administration appointee who was the first black woman to be a Cabinet secretary and U.S. ambassador.”

Mr. Cuny informed me that current Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. attended school here.

I asked Mr. Cuny how he came to open a charter school. “I started 18 years ago as a teacher in a district middle school in Oakland, California,” Mr. Cuny recalled. “Our school had among the worst outcomes in the state and was soon shut down. From the beginning though, I knew that our students were capable of so much more, and the school’s failure wasn’t a function of our kids’ capacity but rather the inability of the adults to fix the system and run a great institution. The curriculum wasn’t rigorous, the instruction wasn’t differentiated, and teachers received no coaching or feedback on their practice. From early on, I thought that one day I’d like to have a shot at trying to build something better, a place where the adults worked together more effectively to set kids up for success.”

After five years in Oakland, Mr. Cuny taught in private schools in Mexico for two years. The students there came from affluent families and Mr. Cuny came to an immediate observation. “The instruction at those private schools was far from great but those kids were going to be fine because of their privilege and the luxury of their upbringing. My kids back in Oakland didn’t have that advantage. Society had stacked the deck against them, and a great school with really great instruction was going to be an absolute necessity to open up opportunity for them. They simply couldn’t afford to sit in classrooms with teachers and instruction that was sub-par. ”

Eventually, with a desire to settle in a place with an emerging charter sector and a city committed to school reform, Mr. Cuny came to Washington, D.C.

Through New Leaders for New Schools, Mr. Cuny became a resident principal at DC Bilingual PCS. There he joined principal Wanda Perez and Daniela Anello, now its head of school. Mr. Cuny commented that the school’s efforts between 2009 and 2012 to significantly improve student achievement was rewarding, but he saw the lack of options that existed for other families around the city, and he wanted to do his part to positively change the situation. He remembered having dinner one evening with E.L. Haynes PCS founder Jennie Niles. “I was inspired by her story of creating the school but fairly intimidated at how overwhelming it seemed,” Mr. Cuny observed. He left that meal with the realization that he was not yet ready.

Then, in fall of 2011, Mr. Cuny and Mr. Stoetzer, a colleague at DC Bilingual, set out to build a new school, from the ground up. They began writing the charter, spending their days working at the charter and their evenings interacting with educators, community leaders, and families throughout the city. “We probably met with over a hundred people that fall listening, sharing ideas, gathering feedback. We wanted to innovate, but we also wanted to stand on the shoulders of some of the leading educators who had been doing great work in this city for years,” Mr Cuny reflected.

Now, with a mission of “preparing students to succeed in college and beyond as impactful civic leaders,” Ingenuity Prep is in its sixth term. “We’ve had lots of successes over these past years,” Mr. Cuny stated, “and we’ve learned some hard lessons as well.”

I then inquired of Mr. Cuny to tell me what makes him excited about the future of his school. He asserted, “More important than anything else, a successful school that does right by kids depends on great leaders and great teachers. Growth over these past years, with us now serving over 550 students, has meant we’ve had to bring on a lot of teachers who are new to the profession, and we’ve had consistent retention of leaders and teachers. Our apprentice teacher model, which leverages mentor teachers and coaching from experienced instructors, has helped us grow some really amazing teachers. Because of the strength of this model and pedagogical support, we have teachers who are much better in their second year than I was in my seventh year.”

Ingenuity Prep, which has added a new grade level each year since its opening, now serves students through fifth grade. While the organization is approved to expand through the eighth grade, it aspires to eventually grow into a small Southeast D.C. network that will include several elementary schools, middle schools, and potentially even a high school.

The school’s educational strategy is clearly working. On the 2018 PARCC Assessment, according to the school’s press release:

  • Ingenuity Prep’s students’ combined English Language Arts and Math scores ranked in the 74th percentile of all D.C. district and public charter schools, outperforming a range of higher-income schools across the city,
  • Students’ combined scores ranked 2nd of 36 schools in the Ward 8,
  • Of D.C. schools where the tested student population had an “at-risk” (or high-poverty) rate of 50% or greater, Ingenuity Prep’s students ranked near the top: 7th of 113 schools.
  • For the second year in a row, no school in the city with a higher “at-risk” (or high-poverty) rate had better combined English Language Arts and Math scores.
  • Students’ gains from the 2016-17 school year in English Language Arts ranked at the 92nd percentile of all district and public charter schools, and
  • Of new charter organizations opened by D.C.’s public charter school board in the past 10 years, Ingenuity Prep ranks in the top 10 and is the only such school located in Southeast D.C.

Ingenuity Prep was also recognized this past week by EmpowerK12 as being one of the top schools in the city for out-performing expectations, the second year in a row it’s received this recognition.

Despite academic outcomes that rank among the best in the city for high-at-risk-rate schools, the school is Tier 2 on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework. Among the PMF metrics the school is looking to improve is attendance. “Adverse weather results in us taking a bigger hit in this area than other schools because if a three year old is standing outside waiting for a bus it is more difficult to get here than for a child who is driven,” Mr. Cuny pointed out. As opposed to the more centralized support of attendance the school has tried in the past, this year the school is looking to leverage teachers, those with the closest relationships with families, to address this challenge.

Mr. Cuny, however, is optimistic about the road ahead for Ingenuity Prep. He added, “Our students are already outperforming many of their higher income peers from across the city. No one in our organization is satisfied though. We’re committed to continuous improvement. In the coming years, our students will show that they can compete with the best in D.C.” Mr. Cuny concluded, “The work of running a school is really, really hard. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, in ways most folks who don’t work in schools don’t realize. We encounter tons of challenges on a daily basis, and we don’t always get it right. But I’m optimistic because of the people in our building. We have wonderful and hard-working kids, families who care deeply about the hopes and dreams of their children, and a staff that demonstrates a level of commitment that is truly inspiring. We believe deeply in our scholars, and that belief is going to carry Ingenuity Prep a long way.”

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