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Exclusive interview with Kristin Scotchmer, executive director Mundo Verde PCS

At the end of a warmer than usual day in this cold Washington, D.C. winter I entered the 16th Street temporary location of Mundo Verde Public Charter School to have a conversation with Kristin Scotchmer, the school’s executive director. Ms. Scotchmer is one of the original five founders of Mundo Verde, which in 2008 grew to a diverse group of two dozen parents who were seeking high quality bilingual educational opportunities for their children. “We saw the quality education available at the District’s Expeditionary Learning and bilingual schools,” Ms. Scotchmer explained. “We dreamed that our children might benefit from the same, only to realize with despair how few seats were really available. Rather than leaving the District to gain access to high performing schools, we committed ourselves to expanding the number of quality seats available here.”

Mundo Verde opened with 120 Pre-Kindergarten to Kindergarten students in 2011 and now goes up to the second grade with a total student body of 274. The school will eventually go through high school, as one of five members of DC International. From its beginning the charter has employed an Expeditionary Learning framework with a focus on dual language immersion and sustainability. The executive director detailed the connection, emphasizing that how children learn is as important as what they learn. “We are especially concerned with our students’ social and emotional development. When students feel safe and connected to one another, they are better able to take on risks, whether that is learning in a second language or grappling to find a solution to a rigorous problem. The confidence of knowing another language, learning about different cultures, and regularly engaging in authentic problem solving becomes a platform for lifelong leadership.”

Sustainability at Mundo Verde is woven through its operations and curriculum, going beyond a concern over the environment. Ms. Scotchmer related that, “The Education for Sustainability Learning Standards cultivate a deep understanding of the impact one person can have. With young children, this starts with the learning that their actions are of consequence and with opportunities for leadership in the classroom. Having developed an individual connection to other people, children will transfer that learning and leadership to other time zones, generations, and life cycles. Eventually the impact is global.”

Ms. Scotchmer’s leadership experience is rooted in community-based efforts and nonprofit management. She grew up in Guatemala as the daughter of community organizers. Her education at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin focused on political science and Latin American Studies. The Mundo Verde executive director went on to become Mosaica’s director of organizational development, and immediately prior to her current position, managed grant making for the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (CFNCR). Central to Mundo Verde leadership is co-founder and educator Principal Dahlia Aguilar, a Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools alumni, whose most recent previous role was as assistant principal at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus.

I inquired of Ms. Scotchmer why it is so important that the school concentrates on Expeditionary Learning. “Expeditionary Learning measures student success through academic achievement, quality of student work, and evidence of engagement. It is successful in urban, rural, and suburban schools and at every grade level.” she immediately replied. “The emphasis on engagement aligns directly with best practice in bilingual education. Through interdisciplinary projects exploring sustainability, students connect to real-world audiences and issues. Expeditionary learning is really a perfect fit.”

I was fortunate in that one of the Kindergarten rooms I visited was filled with work centered on the topic of their expedition: corn brings us to the table. The Mundo Verde executive director revealed that students had studied the life cycle of corn and how it is utilized in food. The kids visited local area restaurants to investigate how corn is present in meals offered on their menus. Math and language arts were woven throughout the expedition from graphs made of corn kernels, to measurement of ingredients in recipes, to creating corn-based menus, and practicing ordering from them.

Joining us in the discussion at this point was Topaz Terry, the school’s director of climate and culture. The two leaders explained to me how the language immersion works in practice. In Pre-Kindergarten through Kindergarten classes are held entirely in Spanish. A special music or gardening class will provide at most a half hour of English during the day. Class size is exceptionally small with 18 to 22 students in a room. Each class has a lead teacher and a fellow. Ms. Scotchmer and Ms. Terry described three year olds as learning a new language much easier, and without the frustration, that older children experience because language learning is the daily work of young children.

Ms. Scotchmer pointed to evidence that students in language immersion programs develop greater cognitive and nonverbal problem-solving abilities. She also highlighted the benefits of immersion for native Spanish speakers. “In full immersion programs, children often develop initial literacy in the immersion language. Many processes critical to the ability to read, such as decoding, transfer from one language to another. This affect can be particularly beneficial for immersion students whose first language is Spanish, when compared to their peers participating in other programs.” Classes are taught fifty percent in English and fifty percent in Spanish when students reach the first grade. Resources are available for pupils if they need help learning either English or Spanish. The school’s aim is to for students to be biliterate in English and Spanish by the fifth grade.

I then asked Ms. Terry if early childhood education makes a difference to a child’s academic levels later on in their academic experience. She replied without hesitation, “If you are just teaching them that one plus one equals two then I don’t believe it is. We are concerned with developing our youngest students’ behavioral and emotional skills, which makes them better able to learn, no matter what the content. We therefore look to cultivate character traits such as perseverance, stewardship, habits of community, and craftsmanship.”

The program appears to be succeeding at a high level. Mundo Verde’s 2011-12 and 2012-13 accountability reports to the D.C. Public Charter School Board indicate that student progress and achievement are significantly above goals in the areas of social emotional, language, literacy, and math. I requested that Ms. Scotchmer explain to me what makes her charter so successful.

“It is a joyous culture. There is quite a bit of joyous play occurring here on a daily basis. Expeditionary Learning naturally leads to kids being actively involved in what is going on around them and with each other. The creative play is fundamental to the development of intrinsic motivation, self awareness, and the ability to innovate and solve problems. Institutionally, we also place a great emphasis on transparency. For example, we welcomed writer Sam Chaltain’s request to spend time in our school in our first year, as part of the research for his upcoming book Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice. We joined the common school lottery this year because it is a great way to develop consistent, transparent information about the supply and demand of educational opportunities available to families in the District.”

The future looks exceedingly bright for Mundo Verde. In February 2013, Mayor Gray announced that the charter had been awarded the former J.F. Cook Elementary School at 30 P Street, N.W. Now a year later, the school has finalized the terms of a long-term lease, closed on $13.5 million in financing, and is schedule to move into the renovated building this summer. The new site will allow the school to expand from its current 20,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet and will be a demonstration site for operational and educational sustainability. Eventually, the student body will grow to 500 pupils. Furthermore, Mundo Verde is part of the consortium of bilingual schools that is forming the new sixth through twelfth grade D.C. International Public Charter School. All of these positive indicators may be reflective in the approximately 1,100 of kids on last year’s enrollment waiting list. It is also an extremely good indicator when the school’s founding executive director and founding principal both send their own children to Mundo Verde.

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