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Exclusive interview with Erika Bryant, executive director Elsie Whitlow Stokes

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I had the honor recently of sitting down for a conversation with Erika Bryant, who on August 1st, 2013 became the executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School. Linda Moore, who had held this title from the time the school began in 1998 has now transitioned to the position of founder and senior advisor. In this role National Charter School Hall of Fame inductee Ms. Moore will have four areas of focus.

The first, Ms. Bryant explained, is that Ms. Moore will work to develop enhanced revenue streams for the school. The new executive director detailed that the school supplies its own in-house catering for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. The charter also provides this service to the two campuses of the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School (LAMB).

An additional focus for Ms. Moore is to develop augmented programs for the school. For example, Elsie Whitlow Stokes is part of the D.C. International middle and high school consortium of five language immersion public charter schools which will open in the fall 2014. Elsie Whitlow Stokes 6th grade will move over to that facility. This creates capacity for additional Pre-Kindergarten students.

The third area with which Ms. Moore will assist revolves around communications and external relations. The school has an extensive communications strategy to parents, supporters, and other stakeholders. That strategy includes wide use of social and electronic media.

Ms. Moore will also serve as a staff liaison to the school’s board of trustees who appointed Ms. Bryant. Ms. Bryant mentioned that Ms. Moore will play an important role as an advisor since she has so much institutional knowledge about Elsie Whitlow Stokes.

I then wanted to know what plans Ms. Bryant has for the charter. She replied without hesitation, “First, I want to continue its good work.” She then easily moved to other possibilities. “As I mentioned, because our sixth grade students will move to DCI, we will expand our Pre-Kindergarten classes. Furthermore, we want to grow our international study programs." The executive director related that for the last 10 years the 6th grade class has traveled abroad for a week, with the students enrolled in Spanish immersion going to Panama and the pupils in the French immersion program visiting Martinique. As part of this exchange, students developed pen pals in their respective countries. She stated that these trips will now transition to the 5th grade after both grades take the excursion this term. Her eventual goal is to have students from Panama and Martinique reciprocate by coming to study at Stokes.

Ms. Bryant mentioned that the school is also seeking International Baccalaureate program accreditation. Other important goals boosting the school’s cash reserves so that it is relying less on per pupil funding, and expanding the current Saturday Academy to serve those living in the community.

Ms. Bryant is especially proud of the school’s catering program and wants to add to these services. Ms. Bryant informed me that Stokes won a U.S. Department of Agriculture Gold Award of Distinction. The school was selected due to the overall quality of their nutritional offerings, the physical fitness program, education centered about food, the school’s garden, and efforts to support green initiatives. The executive director highlighted that only one half of one percent of schools in this country have received this distinction.

Perhaps one reason for the recognition is that all meals at Elsie Whitlow Stokes PCS are prepared from scratch. A French-trained chef who came from the Montgomery County school system leads a team of five individuals whose quality products have led to people from the outside visiting the school just so they can partake of what is being served at lunch. Ms. Bryant explained that much of the ingredients come from local farms. She added that students have gone on field trips to these locations to learn the origins of the food that they eat.

I then asked Ms. Bryant if the school had transitioned to the Common Core Curriculum. “Yes,” she replied instantly. “We have aligned our standards to the common core. We have done quite a bit of work in this area. Consultants aided our efforts last summer and through this school year. We are excited about the Common Core because we believe that it will encourage a higher level of thinking in our students, the same enhanced level of thinking that being in a dual immersion language school develops.”

Stokes School is ranked as a D.C. Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school and so I asked Ms. Bryant why she thinks it has attained this status. Here the executive director became animated with excitement in her voice. “We set extremely high expectations,” Ms. Bryant answered. “These expectations are clear to everyone at the school. We consider ourselves a family and we are very tight knit. There is a real sense of community at Stokes. In addition, we have a strong sense of ownership. We strive on a daily basis for academic excellence."

All of these qualities, Ms. Bryant detailed, have led to both a soaring student re-enrollment rate and high daily attendance percentages. The positive indicators, combined with greater than average standardized test scores, have allowed Stokes to reach Tier 1 with a student body in which 69 percent qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch.

Ms. Bryant is no stranger to Elsie Whitlow Stokes PCS. For eight years she served as its director of operations and then for two years held the position of managing director. Of course, her preparation for her current job was aided by the fact that she is Ms. Moore’s daughter. I asked her if it was difficult stepping into the role long performed by her mother.

“It is a great honor and great pleasure,” Ms. Bryant exclaimed. “There is a bit of a challenge because my expectations are so grand. I have such a passion to excel. I really never thought that I would be the school’s executive director. But the school community supported the idea and I will do my best to live up to the ideals of my grandmother."

Ms. Bryant’s grandmother is, of course, Elsie Whitlow Stokes. During a previous interview with school founder, Linda Moore, she had this to say about her mother:

“At about the time that Ms. Moore was first becoming a grandmother Ms. Stokes became terminally ill. The two of them then engaged in what Ms. Moore referred to as ‘importance of life conversations.’ They discussed how indispensable it is to care for and nurture children, and the high value in being a good teacher. She talked with her mother about the significance of self discipline together with the idea that people should have the ability to care for themselves and their communities. The final lesson her mother taught was that ‘you can do anything you want to do.’”

The future certainly appears bright for this charter school. Ms. Bryant certainly believes this is the case. “The dual language immersion model opens up all types of academic possibilities for our children. Our first students are about to finish college. Two Stokes School alumni are at Harvard University.” The new executive director also attended this school to obtain her Master’s Degree in education administration, planning and social policy with a concentration in international education. She also speaks both Spanish and French in addition to her native English. The legacy of Elsie Whitlow Stokes is obviously in extremely competent hands.

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