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Exclusive interview with Jami Dunham, CEO Paul Public Charter School

I had the recent fortunate opportunity to interview Jami Dunham, the chief executive officer of Paul Public Charter School. Paul has an extremely interesting story to tell. It is the only traditional school to have converted to charter status, which it did in 2000. At the time it was led by principal and founder Cecile Middleton, who instilled in Paul Middle School, then grades six through eight, a vision of sending students to Washington, D.C.’s highest performing high schools. Ms. Middleton, a fierce educator, became frustrated with the disarray and red tape that characterized DCPS at that time and with the new charter school law knew that she could provide something better. It took a couple of determined attempts and the help of Public Charter School Board executive director Nelson Smith and the PCSB’s Charlotte Cureton to achieve her goal. The focus on raising the academic performance of its students has continued unabated to this day.

As evidence, Ms. Dunham was proud to point out that Paul has been a D.C. Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school for each of the three years that this measure has been reported. In fact, the leadership team is pleased with what they have been able to accomplish with a student population in which 71 percent of its 670 members in grades six through ten qualify for free or reduced lunch and an 88 percent African American population. Most students come from homes in Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8.

Almost as soon as I met Ms. Dunham she handed me a graph. The data on the page is important since the Democratic candidate for Mayor Muriel Bowser has touted Alice Deal Middle School for all as a means of improving the city’s educational offerings for kids preparing to enter the ninth grade. Deal has about 20 percent of its population that qualifies for free or reduced lunch, and about 30 percent African American pupils. The diagram compares reading and math performance between the two institutions. In reading, Paul has a 49 percent proficiency rate among black students almost identical to Deal’s 51 percent. In math, for African American kids, Paul’s proficiency rate is slightly higher at around the 80 percent range. In fact, whether you are referring to Free and Reduced qualifying students in reading and math or the proficiency rates in these subjects for English Language Learners Paul meets or exceeds Deal’s results. It is as if Ms. Bowser should change her campaign slogan to “Paul for All.”

Ms. Dunham became head of the school five years ago. In a way it was only fitting that she landed in this position since her mother had attended Paul. Her main goal has been to maintain both the high level of academic rigor and the strong sense of community which is a feeling permeating throughout the school and includes both the children and adults. Ms. Dunham credits the caring individuals have for one another as one of the major factors leading to the school’s success. She listed some others for me.

“We have benefited from some advantages other charters did not have when they first started,” the Paul CEO explained. "We had a building so we were not distracted by a search for a permanent site. We have two gymnasiums, an auditorium, a field, separate band room, and parking, which have allowed us to provide a comprehensive educational experience to our students from the first day of operation.”

Because Paul does not have a themed curriculum as many charter schools do, I asked Ms. Dunham how her board of directors would describe Paul’s focus. She answered as soon as the words came out of my mouth. “The board would immediately point to our “Triple A Program. The A’s stand for academics, arts, and athletics.”

Ms. Dunham related that Paul is a liberal arts school centered on the humanities. It offers classes in both Spanish and French, with plans to add Mandarin in the future. One unique feature of Paul, the proud CEO detailed, is that it has an arts integrated curriculum. “The philosophy at our school,” Ms. Dunham stated, “is that high stakes testing necessitate a deliberate connection to the arts.” Paul’s art program includes visual arts, dance, theatre arts, concert band, and vocal music.

We spent a few minutes discussing the importance of athletics at Paul PCS. Ms. Dunham expressed how crucial sports, teams, and clubs are to middle school students, especially boys. “It gets and keeps them engaged in school," the CEO emphatically stated. “We understand that it may not be algebra that keeps them coming back day after day and we are alright with this, for now. We want to just make sure they keep coming back.” Ms. Dunham described how being able to participate in sports is a driver for some kids to do well in academics. “We do not allow a student who has below a 2.5 grade point average to participate in the athletic program at Paul,” Ms. Dunham remarked.

The third A of course stands for academics. Paul is proud of their Tier 1 PMF ranking and everything they do in this area is deliberate. “When we were contemplating opening a high school,” the Paul CEO recalled, “we established and continue to run a ninth grade academy named after Cecile Middleton to increase the likelihood that students would be successful at this transition. We engaged Charter Board Partners in preparation of this move to improve board governance, align the board’s committee structure, and to attract board members that could take us to the next level.”

It is clear that Paul has a consistent and persistent urgency about what they do. “Students are assigned classes by teacher and by activity,” Ms. Dunham informed me. "Since approximately 60 percent of our pupils enter Paul PCS being years below grade level academically we utilize interventional courses and tutors to bring them up to where they need to be. Students are tested four times a year in reading and math and we develop re-teach plans around data.”

Character education is also an important component of the educational plan at Paul. The program develops children to be motivated, educated, responsible, independent thinkers. Part of the goal to grow kids as individuals is to allow them to gain experience traveling to other countries. “Our eventual target is to have every student travel abroad at least once during their time with us,” detailed the school’s chief executive officer. “Right now we send our students to other localities during semesters abroad and over summer vacations. For example, 23 young men and women will have had the opportunity to visit Japan this July.”

Ms. Dunham stressed the need to provide the proper environment to keep students in school, especially African American boys. “So many members of this population sadly end up incarcerated, committing suicide, or being murdered. The aim of Paul is to have an impact on the entire community by doing nothing less than readying our students to compete in the global economy.”

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