U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met for the first time with a coalition of District of Columbia education leaders and held a panel discussion including parents, teachers, and students at a D.C. middle school that is producing dramatic gains in student achievement. The event also was the first time Secretary Duncan met with the city’s new mayor, its education leaders, and the new leader of the city’s teachers’ union.
Though the event was organized to kick off the new semester, most of the discussion served as a celebration of incredible accomplishments at Sousa Middle School. In the last two years, Sousa has grown reading scores by around 30 percentage points and math close to 18 points, while creating a safe and orderly academic culture. “There is no reason why D.C. can’t be the best urban school system in the country,” Arne Duncan said.
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During the question and answer period, parents, students and teachers lauded Sousa and asked panelists to what they attribute Sousa’s success and specifically what other schools can learn from their story. “Parents used to not want to send children to Sousa, but now it’s a school of choice. How do you replicate that?” parent Mark Tillman asked.
One consistent answer resounded from all parties: Sousa has accomplished its incredible work by setting the bar high for faculty and students. The school has created “a community that pulls together and sets incredibly high expectations,” D.C. Public Schools interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson explained.
In conversations afterward, teachers described how the faculty work extremely long hours and offer Saturday school sessions for all students, regardless of achievement level. The teachers are willing to work hours because they are absolutely committed to their students and to their principal, Dwan Jordon. The effect on students is tremendous. “These kids run down the hill to go to Saturday school,” 6th grade science teacher Erin Fisher said. “It’s really incredible.”
Mayor Vincent Gray affirmed the group’s commitment to education reform in D.C. explaining that by meeting together today they are “creating a team committed to academic excellence” that began at Sousa and must spread throughout the district. “If it can happen at Sousa, it can happen to any public school in D.C.,” Henderson agreed. “We have just gotten started.”
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County, North Carolina.