I had the great pleasure recently of visiting Early Childhood Academy PCS and sitting down for a conversation with the school’s executive director Wendy Edwards. Ms. Edwards explained that ECA started in 2005. She informed me that the Ward 8 charter is currently leasing space in two different small community centers with two different landlords. One was built by former D.C. City Councilmember H.R. Crawford and is now managed by his son. The Walter Washington Estates is located behind the school. Ms. Edwards detailed that both locations of the school were opened simultaneously. She recounted that the charter began with 110 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three and pre-Kindergarten four. The school has added a grade a year and now goes up to the third grade. Approximately 254 students are currently enrolled at Early Childhood Academy PCS; one hundred percent of the children qualify for free or reduced meals.
This was the perfect time to pay a visit to ECA since the charter is currently building a brand-new permanent facility. It is a fantastic story. The Menkiti Group, a developer located in the Brookland community of Northeast D.C., purchased the long-vacant Johenning Baptist Church so that ECA could have a permanent home. The situation reminds me of the Ezra Company that acquired abandoned warehouses at 705 and 707 Edgewood Street, N.E., so that the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts and D.C. Prep PCS, respectively, could operate at these locations. Ms. Edwards wanted me to know that Karl Jentoft of TenSquare Consulting, was a tremendous help in securing the $19 million dollars in loans, including New Market Tax Credits, to secure this property and construct an addition. She is also grateful for the great support from CityFirst and Chase National Banks. The property will be a 38,000-square-foot facility and hold 300 students. Since the new headquarters is located directly next door to one of the current classroom buildings, Ms. Edwards and I were able to take a walk over to observe the progress. It is extremely impressive. The new school, which ECA will own, will open this summer.
On our way back from the construction site I asked Ms. Edwards about the difficulties of teaching children living in poverty. “Yes,” the head of ECA replied, “it definitely brings its own challenges. If you are not able to tap into the social and emotional needs of the child, you will not get anywhere academically. Many of these children have high ACE (Adverse Childhood Event) scores. You must have a holistic approach with them. Our staff has received Positive Behavior Facilitation training developed by Dr. Edna Olive. But here is the bottom line. It is your relationship with the child that dictates your bond with the child. Your values and convictions drive the connection. You have to be cognizant of who you are and your belief system. If you don’t accept that these kids can learn like any other child, then it is not going to work.”
I then wanted to know more about Ms. Edwards. “I came from DCPS beginning in 1978,” Ms. Edwards detailed. “I’ve played a variety of roles. I was an elementary school teacher, a special education coordinator, and an assistant principal. I concluded my time with DCPS as the assistant principal of Raymond Elementary School in Northwest D.C. In 2005, I learned that Early Childhood Academy had just been chartered and was seeking a head of school. I was hired as the founding principal. The charter was actually opened by the Nation’s Capital Child and Family Development Center (NCCFD). At that time, NCCFD operated several Head Start programs throughout the city. We parted ways in 2007. In 2010 I became the executive director and Thann Ingraham was promoted to principal. I never thought that I would leave DCPS, but this opportunity has been absolutely perfect for me.”
Our discussion then turned to learning from Ms. Edwards what her greatest challenge was once she transitioned into the executive director role.
“The biggest challenge,” Ms. Edwards answered without hesitation, “was comprehending that each charter school is a self-contained small business. We had to be respectful of the public money we received and utilize it appropriately. There were so many decisions to be made, it was really unbelievable. I absolutely love the autonomy.”
When I asked Ms. Edwards about her greatest accomplishment, she was also ready with a response. “My greatest satisfaction,” the head of Early Childhood stated, “has been building a strong administrative team. Most of these individuals have been with me for a decade; our current principal has been at ECA since we opened in 2005.” Ms. Edwards added, “I’m confident this is why our school has been ranked as Tier 1 the last several years. We have grown from where we were in 2005 but we have also had a lot of leadership stability. The message has not changed over this period. We want to provide developmentally appropriate models for our children. Our goal is to teach the whole child. Toward that end we want to attract teachers who have passion, compassion, and are smart. We will then support them in continuing to mature and develop as instructors.”
I then requested of Ms. Edwards to provide me with other reasons for her school’s success. “We talk about values a lot with the staff and with the children,” Ms. Edwards asserted. “We know that you cannot talk about positive values if you do not display them. The kids will pick up on this fact. Kindness, respect, being able to politely express differences, these are hard lessons for our kids. Our students don’t always come from neighborhoods where people talk things out instead of acting things out.”
“One of our efforts,” the ECA executive director opined, “is that we want our pupils to be in school. Toward that end we provide free breakfast, free lunch, and a free snack for aftercare for all of our students. Some of our parents didn’t grasp at first that their children needed to be here every day, especially in pre-Kindergarten. For some parents, education did not serve them very well, so they don’t understand the importance of a good education for their children. We are dealing with a very transient population. About 45 of our families are homeless. Others will change residences from the District to Maryland and back to the District again.”
Ms. Edwards revealed that the staff at the school will do whatever they can for the students. “We have school uniforms,” Ms. Edwards remarked. “But if the children come in without them we will provide them. We also buy them for some families.”
Early Childhood Academy has two teachers for each classroom that range from a low of 13 children in a pre-Kindergarten class to 28 students per classroom in the third grade. Differentiated learning is applied to all grade levels, according to Ms. Edwards. “There is whole group and small group instruction in both reading and math,” the executive director offered. “Every day between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. the Response to Intervention period is implemented in all classrooms, during which time most students complete activities reinforcing previously taught standards, while struggling students are provided with targeted instruction.”
In other words, according to Ms. Edwards, “when you work at Early Childhood Academy, you are sort of all in.”