When my Facebook feed popped up yesterday, I really could not believe my eyes. My friend Jessica Wodatch announced that after 16 years it was her last day as executive director of the wildly popular Performance Management Framework Tier 1 Two Rivers Public Charter School that she co-founded. Here is what she wrote:
“After 16 beautiful years, I am stepping down as Executive Director at Two Rivers. Today we had our last closing circle together and my staff shared this beautiful video. It has been a true honor to work alongside such amazing people to do such important work. I have loved getting to see children grow and grow up, getting to know families, and collaborating with brilliant educators to create and nurture a joyful learning community. I’ll be staying on for a few months to help our talented new ED, and then I’ll be setting off to work as a leadership coach. Of course, TR will always be a part of me and in my heart, so I won’t be far away. Thanks to everyone for their long-time support of me and the school, and to the Two Rivers family for such a meaningful and loving celebration!”
I interviewed Ms. Wodatch eight years ago and it made a tremendous impression on me. I remember it like it was yesterday because she did something that I still believe is highly impressive. Upon meeting her, the Two Rivers PCS executive director walked me right up to some randomly assembled students so they could tell me about their school.
That day began a professional association with Ms. Wodatch that I have cherished ever since. One of my favorite times of the year was when I could attend one of the school’s Showcase Nights so I could hear student presentations around the academic expedition that had recently concluded. Almost always my visit ended with me experiencing tears of joy for what these scholars had accomplished. I have reprinted my interview with her below:
My time with Ms. Wodatch began with what I hope will be a new tradition for my exclusive interviews. She marched me right up to a classroom in her bright and colorful middle school off Florida Ave, N.E., and pulled out three young students for me to meet. I even had the opportunity to ask them some questions. But I will come back to these students later.
We then sat down in her office so that I could learn more about Two Rivers. The Executive Director explained to me that it was founded by about three dozen parents who were looking for alternatives to the traditional schools for their children. Ms. Wodatch was familiar with the work being done by Capital City PCS and asked their representatives if they would open a branch on Capitol Hill. While she was told that there were no plans to do so she was informed that there were a group of individuals living in this area trying to form their own school. Ms. Wodatch immediately became involved.
Two Rivers opened in 2004 with 150 students and 25 teachers. It has grown to 450 students pre-K through 8 th located in two buildings across the street from each other. Ms. Wodatch estimates that she experienced “about 20” failed facility deals before they settled on their permanent site.
It is a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school. Their elementary school DC CAS proficiency rate in reading of 78 percent is the highest of all charter elementary schools. The 72 percent DC CAS proficiency rate in math for the elementary school is the fifth highest of all D.C. charters. The scores are not quite as high for the middle school with a 58 percent proficiency rate for reading and a 54 percent proficiency rate for math.
Ms. Wodatch was extremely eager to tell me the reasons behind the school’s success.
“First you have to understand that change takes time,” Ms. Wodatch informed me. She said that she has worked closely with her board on this subject and has received their support and encouragement.
“Second,” Ms. Wodatch explained, “you need to pick a curriculum that is research based and stick with it.” Two Rivers uses the Expeditionary Learning, which according to the school’s web site “emphasizes interactive, hands-on, project-based learning. The school focuses on the whole child, recognizing the importance of character education and the social-emotional needs of children while helping them achieve academic excellence.”
I then asked Ms. Wodatch for her motivation behind opening the school. “I have a passion for equality and justice,” she answered without a moment of hesitation. “My father was a civil rights lawyer and one of the authors of the American for Disabilities Act. I started out at Teach for America working with third graders in the Bronx. I have worked with special education children at both St. Coletta and Kingsburry Day School. Engaging with this population of kids instructs you how to teach all children. I believe that all children can learn and that they deserve the same opportunity to do well in life.”
It was at this point that I understood what really drives Ms. Wodatch. She is doing this for the children. This founder has none of the self focus I have seen from others who have created successful schools despite the tremendous odds working against them. Ms. Wodatch believes in her heart that “learning should be fun and relevant to the kids’ lives,” and that “building a school involves building a community.” The executive director quickly got to the bottom line. “Walking into school is like walking into a hug. Having a kid here (her three children attend Two Rivers) makes me a want to be a better parent.”
These notions are consistent with her belief that the school needs to be welcoming and diverse. There are other foundations behind her work and that of her staff. For example, they believe that the arts and physical education are not extras to be provided as an obligation but subjects that should be fully integrated into the curriculum. Music and Spanish are also emphasized at the school.
Besides the high academic results, the end result of these efforts to provide a truly special and caring learning environment are an extremely stable staff and student population. “In the history of the school not one teacher has left to accept another teaching position somewhere else,” Ms. Wodatch proudly said. “On the student population side our re-enrollment rate is around 90 percent.”
But the school is not content to stay in one place regarding their progress. The staff spends time every week on professional development and is heavily dependent on data to drive student assessment. According to Ms. Wodatch “the goal is not to just teach the basics but for our kids to learn 21 st century skills. We focus on subjects such as equality, expert thinking, and complex communications.”
Which now brings me back to the students I met at the beginning of my visit. All three were well- dressed, professional, and extremely articulate. They looked me straight in the eye as they spoke. These kids had a confidence you don’t usually see in kids their age.
The students uniformly described their school as a community. When I asked whether they missed their friends since Two Rivers is not a neighborhood school they each shook their heads no. “We have made plenty of new friends here,” remarked one of them, “and the work is harder than it would be at my regular school.”