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Exclusive interview with Jack McCarthy, AppleTree Institute president and CEO

I met recently with Mr. Jack McCarthy, the president and chief executive officer of the popular and highly respected AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and Appletree Early Learning Public Charter School. The setting was a little unusual for my exclusive interviews since our conversation took place at the Southeast Washington, D.C. Douglas Knoll Campus. The school is located right in the middle of a subsidized housing complex.

Mr. McCarthy wasted no time in explaining the mission of AppleTree. “Our goal,” Mr. McCarthy stated, “is to close the achievement gap before our children enter Kindergarten.” The CEO related that AppleTree now educates approximately 640 students on seven sites. Some 73 percent of all AppleTree pupils qualify for free or reduced lunch. 80 Pre-Kindergarten three and four year olds are enrolled at Douglas Knoll, 95 percent of whom at this facility are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The location of the school is intentional, as I was about to learn is the way everything is approached at the charter.

“We are able to reach the children who benefit the most by locating the school inside of the housing complex,” affirmed the AppleTree CEO. “Access to this type of program is especially important for kids living in poverty. The groundbreaking Hart and Risley study found that low income children by the time they reach three years old are exposed to 30 million fewer words than those of middle or upper class families. In order to reverse this phenomenon AppleTree designed an evidence-based, data-driven program that is highly focused on building young childrens' language and vocabulary skills with teacher-child interactions that are warm and nurturing.”

The issue Mr. McCarthy and is team is addressing is especially profound. Today, about 70 percent of D.C. third graders cannot read at a basic level of comprehension, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “The Nation’s Report Card.” Research has demonstrated that the failure to learn to read by the end of third grade is a leading contributor to students being identified for special education, being retained in grade, dropping out of high school, and the failure to find a job.

I asked Mr. McCarthy what led to his creating AppleTree. The story is fascinating. It turns out that Mr. McCarthy was a co-founder in 1996 of Boston Renaissance Charter School, the first such school in Boston and only the nation’s 32nd charter. He was responsible for finding and financing a building for the Kindergarten to sixth grade 650 student school and arranged for $12 million to renovate their 14 story building. His epiphany came during Renaissance Charter’s first lottery. He watched as 1,000 parents found out that their children were not selected for admission. Everyone seated around him was crying; there was not a dry eye in the place. The powerful value of charter schools indelibly entered Mr. McCarthy’s being.

Through a D.C. contact from a foundation that supported Boston Renaissance Mr. McCarthy became involved in the birth of the charter movement in the nation’s capital. He worked with early pioneers such as Mike Peabody, founder of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, and Congressman Steve Gunderson, who shepherded the original D.C. charter legislation through Congress. In 1996, the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation was formed with the mission, according to the school’s website, “to increase the supply of effective schools through innovation.” Mr. McCarthy and his partners created the first charter school incubator which led to the founding of some of the city’s early groundbreaking public charter schools such as Cesar Chavez, Paul, and Washington Math, Science, and Technology.

One of the most unique components of AppleTree is the Institute. Mr. McCarthy maintained that it “serves as the research to practice” branch of the organization, developing new instructional techniques and refining proven strategies. Data and continuous improvement are heavily relied upon to drive pedagogical improvement. During the 2001 to 2002 school year the Institute opened Apple Early Literacy Preschool, a privately funded laboratory school at the Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest D.C. with two classrooms of 36 pupils. According to Mr. McCarthy their main emphasis was to provide and develop a quality program that “would do no harm to the children and at the same time figure out the most effective way to teach this population of underserved kids.”

In 2005 AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School opened at the Riverside location. Six more campuses were founded over the next five years. The work of AppleTree has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and private sector match partners including Fight for Children, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Boeing, JP Morgan, PNC Bank and others. The entities have provided $6.5 million in grant money toward the development of Every Child Ready, a unique program that includes teacher professional development, curriculum, and systems for school support. The focus of AppleTree’s Every Child Ready early learning model is “what to teach, how to teach, and how to tell it in improving instruction and learning.” In addition, DC based Venture Philanthropy Partners has invested $3 million in AppleTree’s five year business plan.

I then asked Mr. McCarthy about the recent controversy regarding whether the Early Childhood Performance Management Framework developed by the D.C. Public Charter School Board was overly tilted toward academics rather than emphasizing social and emotional development. The AppleTree CEO was happy to answer this question. “This is a false choice. It’s like asking what is more important in water: hydrogen or oxygen? A student needs both components to be successful. We are satisfied with the Early Childhood PMF and we understand that it will improve over time.”

Combining research and instruction AppleTree has grown into a $15 million system with 175 staff. There are seven AppleTree Early Learning preschools and the organization also provides instructional support to preschool and Pre-Kindergarten classrooms at four other charters, including Tree of Life, Center City, Potomac Lighthouse, and Ingenuity Prep. Moreover, the influence of AppleTree continues to grow. Through it’s AppleTree @ model, it will operate preschool and Pre-Kindergartern for Democracy Prep when it takes over for Imagine Southeast next fall. AppleTree also plans to team with Rocketship Education Public Charter School when it opens in D.C. in 2015. These AppleTree @ partnerships will provide a smooth transition from preschool through elementary school at Democracy Prep and Rocketship.

During our conversation it became clear to me that Mr. McCarthy has a much different vision from many other charter founders I have met. He comes across as not much interested in conquering the early childhood market for children so he can boast about the size of his student population. What drives the AppleTree founder, and what leads to him putting in seemingly endless workdays, is his desire to truly close the achievement gap by bringing effective early learning to scale in DC. This may be why he and his team are realizing impressive results. Compared to children who have not attended AppleTree his alumni recognize 25 percent more letters entering Kindergarten, and score 20 points higher in reading in first grade. Mr. McCarthy had this to say about the school’s accomplishments:

“We provide an education that provides children with the skills and positive behaviors they need to succeed in school. Since many of our parents didn’t have great educational experiences, we help them understand what their children are learning and assist them in making good school choices.

AppleTree is leveling the playing field between affluent and disadvantaged, children, while also leveling the playing field between new preschool teachers and more experienced ones. These will always be our goals of our research to practice model. Our intent is to continuously improve our practice.”