February 20, 2019

Why This School Founder Symbolizes the Best of the Eight Cities Project

By Bellwether

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via @StokesSchool on Twitter

Last month I saw a tweet that Ms. Linda Moore’s famous Kindergarten tea parties had resumed at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes School Brookland* campus. In an instant I was transported back to our interview with Moore, who founded and named the school after her mother. We captured her voice in our Eight Cities project.  To be honest, I felt a little left out that I didn’t get to attend either her school or one of her tea parties. In all the cities we visited to research stories of dramatic educational gains, we interviewed many inspirational school leaders and educators, but Moore was one of my favorites. Leaders like her are the foundation that enables change — after all, systemic reform means nothing if kids don’t have a good school to attend.
On an almost-balmy March day last year, my colleague Tanya Paperny and I climbed the daunting hill leading to the Stokes Brookland campus. It is a modern, high-ceilinged former seminary housing over 300 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students. We both broke a sweat by the time we entered a small conference room, yet it was nothing compared to the warmth we felt when Moore (known to her students as Ms. Moore) entered the room.
Our conversation was less an interview, and more a travelogue of the journey she embarked on two decades ago, when she made the decision to start a dual-language school for students in her D.C. neighborhood. Moore recognized that “having schools that were founded by local people makes a difference to the people in our city.” Indeed, part of Washington D.C.’s secret sauce is the large percentage of charter schools opened by local residents, a contrast from cities like Camden, where transformation came with help from national charter networks. Moore’s idea to teach students in either French and English or Spanish and English seemed almost crazy at the time; thankfully, she persevered.
While our eightcities.org site is named for the places we profiled and their ability to get more students into better schools faster, it is really about the people who believe every child can learn and succeed. (We hope our site’s use of original photo portraiture made this obvious.) I got to meet people like Jamar McKneely in New Orleans, Chief Executive Officer at InspireNOLA charter schools. While two of their schools are “A” rated, McKneely pledges that they “will not stop until all our schools have reached their highest potential.” In Denver, Allegra “Happy” Haynes inspired us with her career-long commitment to the city and its students. Early in her Denver Public Schools career, she was tasked with telling parents how the system was failing them and their kids. Today, as the district continues to improve, Haynes believes a key lever was empowering “schools to be the real unit of change.” Supporting and improving school leadership is central to driving student achievement gains.
Whether or not you have previously visited eightcities.org, I encourage you to go pick a city or two and read the stories. Appreciate all the factors that helped increase opportunities for students in each city, but really listen for the voices of the people who rolled up their sleeves.
In her conversation with us, Moore referred to the first parents who brought their children to her new school as “angels” because they “decided we would be worthy of [their] trust.” Stokes School clearly earned that trust: the Brookland campus is the most in-demand and racially integrated school in Washington, D.C. and holds the Tier 1 (highest performing) designation on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board School Quality Report. Stokes recently expanded the number of students who can benefit by opening a campus on the east side of D.C., called the East End campus.
Every city has dedicated school leaders and educators. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to elevate the voices and vision of people who have been relentless in their pursuit of opportunities for children in their communities.
*Note: The Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School participated as a Bellwether Strategic Growth Institute cohort member.

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