When I first entered this Ward 5 charter’s permanent home, the third space that it has occupied, the atmosphere seemed different from many of the other schools I have visited. Children were everywhere. The pupils were moving, and talking, and sitting, and eating. The activity level was high. Obviously contributing to my perception was that school had just let out and aftercare activities were starting. But please take it from me; this was not the strict and orderly silence that has greeted me upon my arrival to several other classroom buildings. I was immediately intrigued to know more about the educational approach of the adults leading these students.
I was soon greeted by Ms. Deborah Dantzler Williams, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS’s head of school. The first thing Ms. Williams did upon meeting me was to bring me to a board located in the school’s lobby containing pictures of the staff. She is extremely proud of the diversity of the school’s team. Ms. Williams explained that diversity is an intentional goal for the student body as well as for the employees.
Ms. Williams then filled me in regarding her past professional career. She has over 30 years’ experience as a teacher and administrator in some of the Washington, D.C.’s finest private schools, including Beauvoir and Sidwell Friends. Along the way she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and Sociology from Howard University, a Master’s Degree in City/Urban Community and Regional Planning from the same school, and a Master’s of Organizational Leadership at the Teachers College of Columbia University. She enjoyed all of her instructional experiences but wanted to have an impact in some of the schools that were instructing more typical D.C. students, such as those living in poverty. An associate of hers went to work for a small 20-year-old nonprofit named The Center for Inspired Teaching and spoke to her about coming along. The organization provides professional development, leadership training, and an Office of the State Superintendent approved teacher certification program specializing in placing the child at the center of all educational efforts. Ms. Williams joined the group as its director for strategic partnerships.
The Center for Inspired Teaching provides a teacher residency that covers two years, the first year residents are placed in DCPS and public charter schools working directly with a Master Teacher, and the second year residents lead their own classrooms with the support of a mentor. When a school accepts a resident, the Center often encourages it to add another so that there is more synergy around the pedagogical philosophy utilized by Inspired Teaching. A question that naturally arose out of the program was whether an entire school made up of Inspired Teaching-trained teachers would succeed. Since Inspired Teaching is focused on a methodology around engagement, it was only natural that it would eventually seek to create its own school. In 2010, the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School was chartered by the DC Public Charter School Board after the Center brought together a founding group. Ms. Williams has been its head of school from the beginning.
Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS opened its doors with 137 students in seven classrooms from Pre-Kindergarten three to the third grade. While it utilizes the Common Core Curriculum, it concentrates, according to Ms. Williams, “solely on the needs of the students by emphasizing wonder, experiment, and learning.” There are now approximately 470 students, with about one thousand on its waiting list. It is no secret why so many families want to send their kids here. When looking at its results on the DC Public Charter School’s Performance Management Framework, the score has risen for each of the four years that it has been evaluated. Since the 2016-to-2017 term it has been ranked as a Tier 1 institution.
But test scores are not the only reason for this school’s popularity. Ms. Williams detailed, “We are committed to diversity and equity among our students.” As a demonstration school, Ms. Williams related, Inspired Teaching offers a progressive style of education based upon the following principles:
- Children are inherently good and have an innate desire to learn
- Every child can be successful in school
- Children’s energy, unique talents, and individuality are assets, not obstacles.
- Every student possesses the ability to think critically, learn and understand information, and solve complex problems
- Every student should spend their time in school engaged primarily in these kinds of activities
The standards-based curriculum, the head of school informed me, is based upon the four “I’s” of Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity. “You will hear kids’ voices when you come into the school,” Ms. Williams boasted. “You will see them moving. We believe that children need validation for who they are as individuals. We show the students that they have power and we want them to invest it here in their education. We want them to understand the benefit of the methods we are using to further their learning.”
Ms. Williams is especially proud of the teaching residents from the Center for Inspired Learning. She says that the Inspired Teaching Charter School currently has eight residents that are paired with Master Teachers. These residents also have a mentor based at The Center for Inspired Teaching. The head of school detailed that after these residents are in the classroom for about six weeks, they gradually begin to pick up responsibilities delegated by the Master Teachers such as running the morning meetings. Ms. Williams stated that there is a rigorous process in place for selection of those that want to become residents. All are interviewed so that an understanding can be gained about their approach toward working with students. For example, an interview question might be “tell us about an interaction with children that demonstrates your philosophy toward them?”
The Inspired Teaching head of school stated that there are currently 10 residents in the program, and approximately 65 who have completed the program and are still in the field teaching. One particularly positive aspect of the residency is that after the teachers complete their two years of training they are eligible to earn a Master’s Degree from Trinity University.
Ms. Williams remarked that at the school there are generally two classes per grade Pre-Kindergarten three through sixth grade, and one class currently in the seventh and eighth grades. You will typically find two adults, including a master teacher and a resident, in a class of 25 students. But this is hardly the rule. “There may be other educators in the classroom depending upon the unique needs of the students,” Ms. Williams instructed.
Ms. Williams is a Washington native whose children were also educated in this city. She and her husband live in the house she grew up in. Her entire professional life has been dedicated to preparing the successive generations of children to be successful in this world. The Inspired Teaching Head of School informed me that she is not through making improvements in the way kids are taught. “We are still honing our craft,” Ms. Williams stated, “and therefore our team will continue to work hard to place our children at the center of what we do on a daily basis.”