I had the great pleasure of sitting down recently for a conversation with Lauren Maestas, the chief executive officer of DC Prep Public Charter School. Ms. Maestas had just completed her one-year anniversary on November 5th of her promotion to CEO after serving as the school’s chief talent officer for the previous two and a half years. Her professional background is fascinating.
Ms. Maestas obtained her law degree at New York University. Before and after this achievement she worked for McKinsey and Company in a consulting role. It was six months into her second stint with the firm that Ms. Maestas had an opportunity to join a project for an urban school district. During this engagement, she recognized the importance of quality public education in a country where too few board rooms include people of color. She also realized that she wanted human capital work to become the focus of her career.
Her next position was with the New York City Department of Education as the director of school leadership. The job appealed to her because of the innovative work the NYCDOE was doing under Chancellor Klein’s leadership. However, her timing was not good. Joel Klein resigned as Chancellor shortly after she joined, and people started leaving the agency.
While she was with McKinsey her co-worker and mentor Byron Auguste, husband of Monument Academy PCS’s founder and board member Emily Bloomfield, pointed Ms. Maestas to Uncommon Schools, a charter management organization that now operates 54 schools serving 20,000 students across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, Rochester and Troy, New York. She was able to land employment with them, becoming their chief talent officer a year later. She worked with the CMO for four years in New York City.
Ms. Maestas’ husband then accepted a new job in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and so Ms. Maestas left Uncommon Schools and went to work for Transcend Education, a nonprofit that helps develop new school models that prepare all students to succeed in the 21st century. But Ms. Maestas was working at home in a city she with which she was unfamiliar, and this fact combined with her personality trait as an introvert convinced her that she needed to be doing something else. It was Maura Marino, the co-founder and CEO of Education Forward, who introduced her to DC Prep. It was then that she became the charter’s chief talent officer.
I asked the DC Prep CEO what it was like working under DC Prep founder and former CEO Emily Lawson. She answered as soon as the words escaped my mouth. “Emily is really amazing,” Ms. Maestas explained. “She is smart and has a really good heart. Emily believes wholeheartedly in the mission. She is always thinking ‘what’s the next step, what’s the next step.’ She has built an excellent team and outstanding board. Everything she does is in the interest of the students.”
Ms. Maestas related that D.C. Prep currently teaches over 2,000 pupils across five campuses in Wards 5, 7, and 8. All of these schools are ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework. I wanted to know what makes DC Prep successful. Again, Ms. Maestas responded without hesitation. “The staff is extremely passionate about our purpose,” the DC Prep CEO commented. “I am surrounded by some really smart individuals. We get results together. Our time here is all about the kids and the values that we share. This is really about the people doing the work.”
Of course, Ms. Maestas is not the first person to succeed Emily Lawson as head of DC Prep. Current DC Public Charter School Board chair Rick Cruz tried it years ago. It was not successful. I asked Ms. Maestas why her tenure will have a different outcome. “There is a tremendous difference between the two situations,” Ms. Maestas asserted. “Rick came in from the outside so that is a difficult circumstance. I had already been a part of DC Prep for a couple of years. I had experience partnering with the other members of our senior team. I played a role in establishing the goals that we are now striving to implement. I was a part of the process.”
We then began a discussion about the specific objectives Ms. Maestas has for DC Prep. She detailed three. “First,” according to the head of DC Prep, “we want to make sure we are serving all students. Toward this aim we want all of our campuses to score as Tier 1 on the PMF. Second, we are thinking about how to continue to refine our approach so that we can enable our students to achieve even more in the future. To accomplish this goal we have embarked on a five-year strategic planning process, where we are thinking about how to make changes in our program model to better serve students and how we can be the best place for great people to work. Our third priority is to open Anacostia Middle Campus, to ensure that our Anacostia Elementary Campus students can attend a DC Prep school through the eighth grade.”
One area that Ms. Maestas does not want to concentrate on is growth of her charter management organization beyond Anacostia Middle School. “We had students coming to our campuses in Wards 5 and 7 from Anacostia,” Ms. Maestas informed me. “Therefore, we wanted to open in Ward 8 to serve these children closer to where they live. We currently have 560 Ward 8 students enrolled in a DC Prep school. Our pattern is to create elementary and middle schools in close proximity to each other. We searched for a building beginning in 2014 in Anacostia that would hold both schools, but due to historic preservation requirements we could not find one. At first we opened our elementary school in trailers behind the Big Chair and operated there for two years. However three years ago we purchased a former Catholic school on V Street, Southeast. We renovated the space and moved in at the start of the 2017-to-2018 term.”
Ms. Maestas continued: “We are opening up a grade a year at Anacostia Elementary and we are up to third grade at the current campus. Our middle schools start at the fourth grade. We signed a two-year lease through Building Pathways for the ground floor that Excel Academy is not using in the Birney Building, and there is enough room for us to go through the fifth grade in this area. Building Pathway’s lease with Excel is coming to an end, but for over a year we have not been able to get an answer as to whether Excel is staying or leaving the property. The building lease is held by Building Pathways for 12 years with D.C.’s Department of General Services and it specifies that a charter school will be housed in the Birney Building.”
According to Ms. Maestas, while all of this was going on a property went up for sale on Frankford Street Southeast. She said it met their requirements for the middle school in that there is sufficient space for a school building, it is located within a mile of the elementary school, and the price is something DC Prep can afford. There were other prospective buyers, so they put down a refundable deposit in August which gave them 60 days to conduct diligence on the site.
Ms. Maestas acknowledges that the last few months have been challenging. “Summer is our busiest time,” the DC Prep CEO informed me. “We were closing out one school year, while getting ready for the next. Raymond Weedon, who had been our senior director of policy and community engagement, transitioned to become executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS in July. We put down a deposit on the Frankford Street site in August, while in parallel we were working to welcome back our teachers. On August 14,th I reached out to ANC 8B Commissioner Darrell Gaston. We held a community meeting on August 22nd to share information about DC Prep’s interest in the Frankford Street site with the Fort Stanton community. I have been in touch with Commissioner Gaston on a weekly basis to update him on our diligence process and answer his questions since that time. I also asked to present to ANC 8B, which I did in October. I see now that I should’ve found a way to do more outreach directly to members of the Fort Stanton community, rather than focusing on ANC forums.”
According to Ms. Maestas, the DC Prep team is working hard to invest in direct community engagement in connection with the purchase of the parcel on Frankford Street. “Now that we have hired a chief of staff, we have more bandwidth to host community meetings. We have bi-monthly meetings on the calendar through the end of the year, and will do a similar cadence in 2020. We hope these sessions will allow us to answer any questions that members of the Fort Stanton community have for us, and we hope that they will allow us to join forces to seek a permanent location that meets our students’ needs while also not requiring that we build on Frankford Street,” Ms. Maestas was quick to point out that, “if we can find a different solution as to where to place our middle school I would take it. We are going to try to collect signatures on a petition, which we hope to present to city officials to ask their help in identifying under-utilized city-owned facilities that could be Anacostia Middle School’s permanent home. I will bring members of the neighborhood to join me if they wish. Our consistent aim is to serve the Ward 8 community in the best way possible with a strong emphasis on collaboration.”