It was his smile that I noticed immediately when Rick Cruz, newly named CEO of DC Prep, and I sat down recently to talk. His kind expression is disarming, as if to say that if you had an intention of starting an argument you can forget that idea immediately.
I came to learn more about the man who has the extremely challenging assignment of following in the foot steps of Emily Lawson, the founder of DC Prep, who over ten years has put this network of charter schools on the national radar for successfully raising through the roof the academic achievement of inner city students from traditionally underserved communities.
In a sense, Mr. Cruz’s upbringing does not differ that much from the students under his care. Mr. Cruz grew up in the Bronx and was the first member of his family to go to college. He didn’t just go to any four year school: Mr. Cruz graduated with a BA in philosophy from Yale. His background also shares an eerie similarity to that of Ms. Lawson, in that both came to the CEO position with strong entrepreneurial skills.
Mr. Cruz came to Washington, D.C. to join the Corporate Executive Board, the best practices research firm founded by David Bradley, the husband of CityBridge President Katherine Bradley. He worked there 12 years in the finance and strategy division overseeing research and client services in the risk management, audit practice, and corporate compliance sectors. He described it as an “unbelievable working experience which was mission-driven, focused on growing the company’s bottom line, while at the same time concentrating on solving problems for clients.”
Mr. Cruz was intrigued by the education reform movement and transitioned to the non-profit sector, serving as Vice President of Regional Operations for Teach For America. In this role he supported seven regional offices where he says he “leveraged what I had learned and done at the Corporate Executive Board.” Mr. Cruz focused on the professional growth of executive directors, teaching them how to develop people to their fullest potential. His tenure coincided with a tremendous expansion in the number of new teachers brought into the field by the organization.
Mr. Cruz then went on to work for Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization that exposes students in low-income communities to business, finance, and entrepreneurial thinking. As the firm’s first Chief Field Officer he managed 11 field offices across the country as well as strategy and volunteer services, traveling frequently in support of the $18 million organization. As with the other groups for whom he has worked, he expanded the company’s impact at the same time that he focused on increasing the capacity of its workforce.
I wanted to know from Mr. Cruz why he thought he has been successful in his previous positions. “I enjoy building teams,” Mr. Cruz stated. “I like to work on developing leaders and coaching talent. I am definitely not a micromanager; that would not work for me. What excites me is attracting and training really competent individuals. This is the recipe for scaling up. I believe these goals are consistent with DC Prep’s aim of ultimately reaching 10 percent of all public school students in DC Wards 5, 7 and 8.”
I asked Mr. Cruz what Ms. Lawson has meant to DC Prep. “She has been the heart and soul of this organization,” Mr. Cruz answered with obvious respect. “Everyone looks to her, she is the fabric of our school,” Mr. Cruz continued. “Emily has always felt so fortunate in what she was born into in life, that she really wants to help others who are not as lucky. She could have done a great number of things, but chose this hard work. Her level of commitment is just unbelievable.”
I then inquired of Mr. Cruz why he thought she was so successful with the founding of DC Prep. He immediately answered my question. “From day one her decisions were right on in two areas: governance and finance. She is naturally a great manager; she set up an excellent financial model, and developed a fantastic Board. She is also a fantastic hirer of talent, in and out of the classroom.”
The discussion then moved to the area with which I was most interested. I wanted to know from Mr. Cruz the secret behind the school’s ability to successfully close the academic achievement gap. “As a Charter Management Organization,” Mr. Cruz began, “there is no secret sauce. You start with great people, an ultimate simplicity in the mission, no themes, and no gimmicks. Just extremely strong rigor combined with extremely high quality instruction and focus. Our students are taught to do the right thing and our faculty is trained on how to sweat the small stuff. This is all easy to say but extremely difficult to do in practice.”
I then asked the DC Prep CEO about the school’s replication plans and whether there were any concerns that quality could be negatively impacted by taking on additional campuses. Again, Mr. Cruz responded without hesitation. “There is not a Board meeting or executive team meeting we hold where this issue does not come up. We will celebrate ten years of operation with the opening of our fourth school—Benning Middle Campus—in September. We spend considerable time talking about talent development including additional teachers, coaches, and leadership positions. All this is in service to growing our impact while maintaining the quality of instruction.”
Mr. Cruz added, “Our goal has always been to open ten schools, but we chose to proceed slowly and have learned a lot about how to replicate. We spend considerable time looking at student results, both academic and non-cognitive outcomes. At DC Prep we recognize that expansion is not just about opening schools but is instead about giving underserved families access to a top-notch education for their children.”
I concluded our time together by asking Mr. Cruz, besides the area of replication, what other challenges he sees down the road. “Well, it’s a little early in my tenure to recognize them all now,” he answered. “However I can list a few things. We are in the process of implementing Common Core standards, which will come with new standardized exams. There are advances in technology which will alter how we teach. We are now working to adapt The DC Prep Way to incorporate these changes.”
“One big question, “Mr. Cruz added, “is the question of how to best continue to serve our students when they leave us after 8th grade. At the moment we are in the process of creating our second middle school, but we’ll soon turn to this and other strategic questions. Overall our major emphasis is building something sustainable in aiming to have ten schools serving roughly 3,300 students in DC. Much of what has been done in urban education has not worked in the past, but I am completely convinced that there is a charter school model for high quality instruction that is scalable. That’s what gets me up in the morning – the entrepreneurship, the creativity, and transferring all of this to a new generation of leaders.”