Exclusive interview with Stacy Kane, co-founder and executive director Washington Leadership Academy PCS

Let’s start with straight facts about this high school.  It’s been open for three and a half years.  The charter began with 110 students in the ninth grade.  There is now a total of 396 pupils, with roughly 100 kids per grade level.  This year Washington Leadership Academy PCS has its first senior class.  The demographic makeup of the student body is approximately 70 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, 24 percent eligible for special education services, and 54 percent who fall into the category of at-risk. 

Over the previous two years, the only times in the school’s early existence that it has been ranked on the DC Public Charter Board’s Performance Management Framework tool, it scored in the Tier 1 category.

Yet, after reading all of the above information, I feel that I have told you extremely little about this truly amazing place.  Please allow me to try again.

There are seven co-founders of this institution.  They are Duane Rollins, Joey Webb, Miles Taylor, Natalie Gould, Phil Stephen, Seth Andrew, and of course, Stacy Kane.  With the exception of Ms. Kane, and Ms. Gould, who is the school’s chief operating officer, the others are involved with the charter these days in a less direct manner.  Mr. Taylor and Mr. Andrew were Congressional pages when they were younger, and especially now that the Congressional page program is closed, they were interested in creating a high school that allowed its pupils to have real world experiences.  Mr. Rollins and Ms. Kane were focused on integrating technology and computer science into the new school.

Ms. Kane has an intriguing background.  Her mother is a social worker and her father is retired.  She attended Vanderbilt University on a full community service scholarship.  The Washington Leadership Academy executive director graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Human and Organizational Development and Sociology.  During her undergraduate years she started a college preparation and mentoring program.  Ms. Kane went on to earn a Masters’ degree in Public Policy and Education Policy, also at Vanderbilt, then obtained a law degree at Emory University

Her next move was to join the Presidential Management Fellowship program and later became the deputy director of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program.  It was during this time that she became acquainted with the Washington Leadership Academy co-founders with whom she shared a passion for quality in public education together with a driving interest in technology.

I asked Ms. Kane about her motivation to start Washington Leadership Academy.  Her response came quickly and eloquently.  “It was my study of sociology,” she intoned.  “I grew up confused about racial inequality in my community in Cincinnati, Ohio. My college course work in sociology resolved my confusion. I finally understood that the reasons were historic, structural, and even intentional, specifically with regard to race. I wholeheartedly subscribed to the philosophy that human liberation is bound up together; if some of us aren’t free and equal, none of us are. I began to dedicate myself to equity work, and I’ve never slowed down. I never intend to.”

The trying to do something about it became immensely personal to Ms. Kane.  She and her husband became foster parents to a young man who was at the time 15 years old.  He is now studying at Howard University, and still comes home every weekend for family dinners and laundry.

“It is part of my ethos about everyone being deserving of opportunity, in this case, of a loving family,” Ms. Kane related. “He has added so much joy and love to my life and to my immediate and extended family. I’m incredibly lucky he’s in my life and I’m so proud to call him my son.”

Which brings us to Washington Leadership Academy.  Ms. Kane explained that during the formation of the charter the founding group was extremely fortunate to win a $400,000 incubator grant with City Bridge Education.  The grant allowed her to be able to work full-time on the creation of the school as her team researched and imagined what the high school of the future would look like.

While her students come to Washington Leadership Academy with academic skills in reading and in math anywhere from grades pre-Kindergarten three and above, the charter was established as a college preparatory institution with a technology focus. It is a unique vision in that it is a school that provides training so that its students are prepared both for college and for meaningful employment in the computer science field.

With such an academically diverse population of students, I inquired of Ms. Kane how those who are behind are brought up to grade level. 

“We have a number of strategies,” she remarked.  “We try everything we can.  The school employs a large number of special education teachers.  Many of our classrooms have two teachers who work in parallel to make sure students have extra support.  Students in their freshman and sophomore years receive double periods of English Language Arts and math.  The use of technology has also been a game changer.  It allows our teachers to differentiate instruction tied directly to the progress of our students. Of course, the most important tool is our incredible team of teachers and staff. All of our outstanding results are a direct result of their efforts.”

The Washington Leadership Academy executive director then reflected that at this charter, because of the use of blended learning and other characteristics integrated into the school’s pedagogy, “In every class each day may look different.  Our teachers have flexibility in the way they approach teaching and their subject matter.” 

Another aspect that makes Washington Leadership unique is that eleventh graders participate in internships on Fridays in businesses, nonprofits and government.  Beginning in the fall semester they receive assistance preparing resumes and cover letters.  The program teaches interviewing skills and students are trained in professional behavior in the workplace.  Then there is a match day in which they are paired with a site based upon their interests and abilities.  Teachers visit the students when they are at their assignments.  Ms. Kane observed that the internships are all part of the real world experience the school strives to provide its pupils.

But there is another crucial reason behind these work assignments.  “For affluent children, internships are a natural part of their high school experience,” said Ms. Kane. “This is often not the case for students who come to WLA.  Providing internships for all of our students is another form of trying to not only achieve equity, but give our students a leg up in college and career.  These jobs can then be placed on their college applications the following year.”

The Washington Leadership executive director went on to explain that ninth and tenth graders participate in project-based learning on Fridays.  There are also year-long classes in the upper grades in Seminar and AP Seminar, and Research and AP Research, in conjunction with the College Board’s AP Capstone Diploma Program.  These efforts are aimed at providing a rich college preparatory curriculum.

I became so impressed with the information Ms. Kane presented to me that I asked her if the school was preparing to replicate.  Her response frankly caught me off guard. 

“To us,” Ms. Kane asserted, “scale is about providing facets of our school to other existing schools so that our impact is much larger than the student population within our walls.  The things we are excelling at we want to share openly and freely with other schools that serve similar student populations.”

At this point Ms. Kane reminded me that in 2016 Washington Leadership Academy was the proud recipient of XQ: The Super School Project prize that provides a total of $10 million, $2 million a year over five years.  At the time of the award, more than 700 teams comprised of over 10,000 members applied for a grant.  XQ is part of the Emerson Collective, which was founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

There are three big projects that Washington Leadership Academy has planned to tackle as a result of receiving these funds and the first is a free, open, online high school English Language Arts curriculum. WLA has partnered with CommonLit to achieve this first goal. Ms. Kane revealed that the curriculum is already being utilized by more than 40 schools across the country, including both charters and district schools. 

The second anticipated project is to try, as Ms. Kane detailed, to delineate “the secret sauce” behind WLA’s high performing instruction in computer science and technology.  The school’s final goal, according to the Washington Leadership Academy executive director, is to design more rigorous classroom material around project-based learning.

With so much activity at the school I wondered if it was difficult to attract the right teaching staff.

“We look for teachers with four to five years of experience.  We generally do not use recently trained instructors.  We also support our staff by providing them with three hours of class preparation a day.  This also provides them time to share best practices with other teachers.”

Teacher retention, according to Ms. Kane, has been excellent as has student retention.  Part of the student retention strategy includes thirty-minute advisory periods in which ten students of the identical gender meet with the same teacher daily.  The student body is also divided up into five houses.  Ms. Kane reflected that the school holds events that promote friendly competition between the houses.

Washington Leadership Academy’s permanent facility is a spectacularly beautiful former seminary college in Northeast that resembles buildings I’ve seen at Cornell or Yale University.  Lee Montessori PCS and a variety of small non-profits share other parts of the campus.  Washington Leadership Academy’s students have now applied to college.  They will hear about admission soon.  Between the campus they learn in everyday and the curriculum designed for college preparation, their future indeed looks bright.

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