I have to say it has been years since I have become so emotional during a visit to a charter school. But there I was in the highly hospitable company of The Children’s Guild PCS principal Bryan Daniels, and Kathy Lane, chief education officer, listening to the story behind the school’s founding. “Scott Pearson [past executive director of the DC PCSB] was not sure the board was open to another charter school in the district,” Mr. Daniels recalled, “but then we explained to him that our goal was to serve a student body of which fifty percent have disabilities, and his eyes lit up.” As Mr. Daniels detailed, The Children’s Guild began operating in 2015 with 385 students in grades Kindergarten through eight, and get this, the charter opened with all grade levels at once. This was definitely not the norm of a charter starting with a couple of grade levels and gradually adding additional classes to meet its enrollment target.
“The first year was really tough,” Mr. Daniels explained. “We had all of these children, half of which did have special needs. We bus in all of our scholars, who come from each of the city’s eight wards, but mostly from 7 and 8. OSSE was on-site, since they send ten to twelve buses a day, the charter board was here, and it was not going well. We really thought we were going to have to re-evaluate what we were doing. But we figured it out. By the end of the first year, the PCSB was singing our praises.”
Ms. Lane revealed that the school’s parent organization, The Children’s Guild, has been around since 1953. According to the group’s website it was founded by “Dr. Leo Kanner, father of child psychiatry and the discoverer of childhood autism; Dr. Matthew Debuskey, pediatrician; and Sadie Dashew Ginsberg, prominent child advocate.” The Children’s Guild, as specified by Ms. Lane, operates three charter schools, a preschool, and three non-public schools in Maryland. A common characteristic of The Children’s Guild schools, Mr. Daniels mentioned, is their provision of wraparound services, such as foster care, mental health care, psychiatry, trauma related services, and services for children and youth with autism and their families. The Children’s Guild PCS is evaluated by PCSB on an alternative accountability framework due to the volume of students with disabilities served. Mr. Daniels related that the charter was created to accept the students who were often unsuccessful in more traditional settings.
The school’s mission is to “use the philosophy of Transformation Education to prepare special needs and general education students for college, career readiness, and citizenship in their community by developing their critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills, self-discipline and a commitment to serve a cause larger than themselves.” Mr. Daniels offered that this is accomplished by providing both an inclusionary model in a general education setting and through self-contained classrooms led by teachers with the support of dedicated aides. “Our aim with the self-contained setting is to be much more therapeutic and allow these students to attend school with their siblings who may not require the same level of instruction,” Mr. Daniels said. “The goal is to transition the self-contained students to a less separated environment.”
When I asked how the school can manage students with such variations in learning ability, most with their own Individualized Education Plan, the two leaders simultaneously looked me in the eyes with smiles on their faces and practically recited in union, “at the Children’s Guild we are here to make the impossible, possible.”
This is probably when tears started flowing down my face.
The school sits off Bladensburg Road, N.E., in Ward 5. The rented building is large for the school’s post-peak of the pandemic enrollment of 215 students. The charter’s current enrollment ceiling is 450 pupils. There are specialized rooms for social workers; physical, occupational, speech therapy; and some just so kids can expend their energy. Colorful murals adorn all of the hallways and common spaces, making the walls come alive, infusing optimism as you traverse the structure. The Children’s Guild’s work is centered around an organizational philosophy called Transformation Education (TranZed). The model has eight pillars that include:
- Value-Infused Culture,
- Focus on Well-Being,
- Enriched Environments and Experiences,
- Brain Literacy,
- Behavior Motivation Continuum,
- Arts Enhancement,
- Community Influence, and
- Ownership Mindset
There seems to be no bounds to the depth of the program at The Children’s Guild. Beside TranZed, Ms. Lane handed me her Culture Card, and its printed material includes the purpose of the school, seven Foundational Beliefs, and sixteen Workplace Expectations. Among the expectations are, Number 6: “Own it!,” Number 7: “Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk,” and my personal favorite, Number 16: “Make the Covert, Overt.” I have a feeling that Mr. Daniels also especially liked this one as he repeated it to me several times throughout our conversation. “We hold daily Culture Card meetings across all schools, programs and the corporate office each morning specially designed to focus on a discussion around each one of the expectations,” Ms. Lane commented. I can tell by the worn nature of her card that the information contained within did not lack from being referenced.
The school’s principal spoke about the need for another location. “There is ample room here but there is almost no area for parking, a lack of green space, and it is isolated from other parts of the city,” Mr. Daniels remarked.
Mr. Daniels pointed out that the charter is now ready to “re-boot and grow. Many families,” the principal asserted, “especially those living in Wards 7 and 8, did not want their children traveling very far during the pandemic. This meant literally meeting the children where they were. Teachers joined students in community centers, recreation centers, and libraries. They volunteered to bring food to pupils’ homes. We created our own Meals on Wheels program. Each scholar was provided with a Chromebook and hotspot. When kids did return, we established a hybrid model.” The outcome of these heroic efforts of the leadership and teachers at the school cannot be underestimated. “We have seen a 50 percent growth in academic achievement above grade level over the past two years,” Mr. Daniels asserted, “this included quantifiably a 60 to 65 percent increase in math and English language arts.”
It takes a special staff to reach this level of instruction and Mr. Daniels and Ms. Lane smiled most brightly when talking about the employees. “Our teachers are 95 percent African American,” Mr. Daniels noted, “with 25 percent of them being males. One hundred percent of our student body qualifies for Free or Reduced Meals.”
Professional development plays a significant role at The Children’s Guild in order to effectively work with D.C.’s most at-risk children. “Continuing education for teachers occurs each week on Wednesdays and for two weeks before the school year starts. The preparation includes in-depth training for working with students impacted by trauma,” Mr. Daniels remarked.
“Our enrollment used to include a homeless population of 25 percent,” Ms. Lane intoned, “but then during the pandemic, most members of this group unfortunately seem to have disappeared, despite our efforts to locate them.”
The principal is proud of what The Children’s Guild has been able to establish during its relatively short history. “We are a place of love and comfort,” Mr. Daniels intoned. “We once had a child who ran away from home. She ended up on our doorstep because she felt safe here.”
Mr. Daniels and Ms. Lane have big plans for the future of The Children’s Guild. Besides identifying a new facility, they would like to increase the quality of their offerings of drama, instrumental music, vocal music, and visual arts. “We would eventually like to be a feeder school for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts,” Mr. Daniel asserted. “In addition, perhaps one day we will even offer pre-school.”
With Mr. Daniel and Ms. Lane at the helm of The Children’s Guild, I came away from my visit to the Children’s Guild thoroughly believing that the sky is the limit.