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Fight for Children's 2014 Quality Schools Awards

It is a rare thrill to return to an event that you look forward to attending each year only to find that the organizers have successfully reinvented the program. Yesterday, I joined Fight for Children's Quality Awards luncheon held at the Pavilion Room at the Ronald Reagan Building. The circular meeting place with a vaulted ceiling surrounded by expansive vertical rectangular windows bathes the space in light. Prior to the event a maître d’ commented to me that this is the best hall in the complex.

New this year was the addition of large posters strategically located in the lobby outside of the room, one for each of the award finalists that included pictures of the schools, student demographic information, and scores on the 2013 DC CAS. The boards were a great idea because they provided a natural opportunity for socializing as the representatives from each educational institution gathered in front of their respective display and arriving guests traveled amongst them, stopping to learn more about the schools. It was not an easy job for the staff to have the attendees take their seats for the start of the formal ceremony.

After the welcoming remarks by Fight for Children's president and chief executive officer Michela English, we heard from two rising sophomore students from Bell Multicultural High School. The pupils, Jennifer Meza Castaneda and Miheret Hasenu, were perfectly impressive. They shared both the podium and their presentation as one read a paragraph in Spanish and then the other would follow with a few sentences in English boasting about their opportunity to attend a dual language immersion program. Halfway into their talk the two switched the languages in which they were speaking, never missing a beat.

The chorus from DC Bilingual Public Charter School entertained the crowd during lunch. DC Bilingual is a Public Charter School Board Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school that won one of the Quality School Awards last year. At the conclusion of their lively performance Fight for Children’s board chairman Raul Fernandez greeted the guests with a few remarks.

What came next was fascinating. Mr. Fernandez moderated a conversation between DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson and vice chairman of the D.C. PCSB Darren Woodruff. Quality was the central theme of the two panelists’ observations; with Ms. Henderson describing her efforts to raise the level regarding the teachers, curriculum, and family engagement found in her school system, and Mr. Woodruff pointing out his organization’s desire to accurately measure the performance of charters through the use of the PMF. Ms. Henderson revealed that she has now been with DCPS for seven years and summarized the significant progress that has been made during this period in DC CAS and NAEP standardized test scores, as well as the positive turnaround in the number of students attending the traditional schools.

A most interesting part of the discussion centered on innovations taking place in each school sector. Ms. Henderson spoke about her team’s effort to expand the employment of blended learning. However, she asserted that you have to be deliberate in its implementation. “Some people like to say iPads for all,” noted the Chancellor, “but it’s the same as saying there should be a treadmill for all. This does not mean that it will be utilized effectively.” Mr. Woodruff also discussed the expansion of blended learning, as well as the popular growth of bilingual and expeditionary learning offerings in the charter schools.

It was then time for the presentations of the awards. Fight for Children board member Gina Adams introduced the four finalists through professionally produced videos providing an overview of each contestant. They were Friendship Public Charter School, Chamberlain Campus; Kelly Miller Middle School; Seaton Elementary School; and Truesdell Education Campus. The Rising Star Award winners, chosen by a ten-member independent selection committee of prominent representatives in the education field, were Friendship PCS and Kelly Miller Middle School. Each school will receive a $100,000 grant over two years to improve the educational outcomes for under-served students in the District of Columbia.

The glossy brochure accompanying the program states that Friendship’s Chamberlain Campus, educating 700 children in grades Pre-school through eighth located in Ward 6, will utilize the grant to increase the English Language Arts proficiency rate of its students by seven percent a year. The staff at Kelly Miller, a Ward 7 school serving more than 300 pupils in grades six through eight, plans to expand its School-Wide Enrichment Model to all of its teachers as a means of increasing academic achievement “among its high-potential, low-income students.”

The afternoon included a who’s who of public education leaders in this town, too numerous to name all of them. So as each of the winning school’s teams excitedly congratulated one another and had their pictures taken in the front of the room, with the sun pouring into the space from those huge windows, it felt, at least for a couple of hours, that all is moving in the right direction for the children of the nation’s capital.

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