Chief Chat with John Davis, Chief of Schools

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By Bianca Viazzoli

“Thank you for spending your summer with DCPS,” John Davis, The Chief of Schools at DCPS said to the UELIP cohort, “your energy and passion are greatly appreciated.” After professing his disdain for talking about himself, John kindly gave his time to share his professional journey with this summer’s UELIPs.

John started out as an engineer. While coaching basketball after work, he decided it was time for a career switch. John decided to join Teach for America where he worked toward his teaching certification. John said he saw himself get “better and better” and found it “eye opening to see great teachers teach.” By his fifth year, he had earned the title of “Teacher of the Year” in his school, a title he is very proud of. By his sixth year, John admits he was “a little burnt out,” so he decided to take an opportunity to teach struggling young men in Kenya.

When he returned to the United States, John taught in Baltimore City Schools, and after two years he decided to join the Baltimore City Principal Internship Program. At that point, Baltimore City was in the process of breaking down their large schools into smaller ones. This allowed John to start as Principal in a brand-new school called New Era Academy.  John confessed it was “wonderful to start a new culture,” but the experience was just as difficult as it was memorable.

It was after his experience in Baltimore City that he was asked to join DCPS. “I never imagined working in Central Office,” John admitted, and he found it “daunting” after fifteen years in the classroom. John has a had a long journey at DCPS in the last ten years, but he now finds himself in the role of Chief of Schools. The Office of the Chief of Schools is made up of the Superintendents, School Turnaround, Student Wellness, Academic Planning and Support, and College and Career.

John played a major role in the implementation of extended year school. “The way we do school now is the same as how we did school then,” John claims, “It needs re-imagining.” The way his team decided to re-imagine the classroom is breaking up the nine-week summer vacation and spreading it across the whole year, allowing more time in the classroom in hopes of reducing summer learning loss. John said frankly, “I don’t care where you live, this is best for all kids.”

With many years of experience, John offered the UELIP cohort some advice and observations he has gathered along the way.  “Principals,” John said, “are leaders among leaders.” Although they are asked to do a lot, they cannot do it all. Delegation is important, so principals are able to better support other leaders to do their job. He urges aspiring principals to be “out and about to have a pulse of the school.” The best principals, in John’s opinion, must be visible to build a strong school culture and community.

As John moves on to Baltimore City schools, he says there isn’t much he is worried about. He is proud to have had a hand in the hiring of almost all DCPS principals, and hopes to gain similar relationships in his new position. Although it is hard, John claims that leading schools is ‘the work’ and he can’t see himself doing anything else.

Meet Jameson Mitchell, Summer ’17 UELIP

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By Kyle Hietala

DCPS Office: Office of Teaching and Learning, Health and Phys. Ed. 
Education: Rising Senior at George Washington University
Program of Study/Major: Public Health
Hometown: Western Springs, Illinois

“Yesterday, I got into a bike accident,” Jameson mused. “I thought my bike could get over the curb, but it couldn’t.”

This summer, Jameson is working on developing curricular resources for a 2nd grade bike riding program. She’s not riding with the 2nd graders, though; she’s filming them. Jameson is compiling a video portfolio for physical education teachers and volunteers to use, to make teaching kids how to ride a bike into a more orderly, less chaotic ordeal. Additionally, she’s creating how-to videos for cooking lessons. Jameson models cooking skills, like how to chop vegetables, and creates short video modules to accompany lesson plans.

A lot of her work happens away from a cubicle and computer screen. She’s “really happy to go to schools,” because it’s “so helpful to see the lessons and how they play out.”  Even though she’s an aspiring policy wonk, Jameson appreciates seeing the tangible, on-the-ground impact of big programs. “One girl I filmed on her bike was really struggling in the beginning, but a few weeks later, she was doing great.” She describes that on-the-ground work as the “most rewarding part” of her summer work.

Jameson comes from a family of teachers, but is more interested in big-picture issues and work around public health and sustainability. “Public health is closely related to education,” she observed. Good health education, in her opinion, is more about giving kids concrete skills they can use in their lives, rather than making them sponge up facts and figures about nutrition or exercise. “You can teach kids about grams of sugar or have them memorize names of vitamins, but that doesn’t usually change how they act or eat,” she pointed out. Jameson appreciates the approach that DCPS takes in teaching kids how to exercise and how to cook healthy food, an approach that is heavily hands-on. “These things you learn in school can affect you for the rest of your life,” Jameson said.

In the future, Jameson hopes to pursue a Master’s Degree in either Public Health or Public Policy. “All of my policy classes in college have been my favorite classes,” she said. “I’m really interested in both making policy and implementing it.” Though she isn’t ready to commit to one specific track, she wants to approach health and sustainability issues from a big-picture perspective. For now though, she’s focusing on refreshing her own bike-riding skills, with a little bit of help from the 2nd graders in her videos.

 

 

Meet Ruby Miller-Gootnick, Summer ’17 UELIP

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By Kyle Hietala

DCPS Office: Office of Instructional Practice, LEAP Innovation and Design Team
Education: Brown University
Program of Study/Major: Education and History of Education
Hometown: Washington, D.C.

This summer, Ruby is helping DCPS to improve its professional development and teacher training curricula, especially the recent LEAP program that aims to help teachers improve their craft through collaboration, extensive professional feedback, and customized support. She is reviewing current LEAP modules to make sure they are consistent with the best practices of teaching as articulated by the District’s Office of Teaching and Learning, or in other words, she’s making sure that the District’s PD teaches teachers the right stuff (don’t worry, she’s found that it does.) Ruby is also attending intensive on-site teacher training sessions to see how the work done in Central Office translates to on-the-ground professional development.

Ruby’s interest in education springs from her scholarship and previous experience teaching with Breakthrough Providence and Breakthrough New York, two intensive teacher-preparation programs that work with high-achieving, under-served students. As a teacher in New York and Rhode Island, Ruby taught a civics education program to middle schoolers, a task that was “hard to do in the wake of the election of Donald Trump,” Ruby observed.

That’s because many of her students feared the changes that might come during his Presidency, especially students who were, “scared about whether their parents would be able to stay” in the country. Ruby focused on showing her students that democracy is vertical, and that even if federal politics are problematic, a lot of change can be effected at the local level. “This was about providing them with a way to stay hopeful,” she noted. “My students felt excited that they could make change in their communities, even as middle schoolers,” she concluded.

Ruby is deeply concerned about issues of equity in education, thanks in large part to her studies of the history of education. “One of the first things you learn,” she said, “is that education was supposed to provide all students with an equal and fair education.” But that promise, Ruby observed, “excluded women and people of color, who weren’t even in the mix.” To her, the question is, “how do we undo what’s been done?”

“I feel a little jaded because we have to change so many things about the system,” she offered candidly. “Sometimes I feel cynical,” she confessed. But that’s not stopping her, and she hopes to take on an urban teaching residency after college. “Being the best teacher I can be, and being as aware of a person I can be,” is what I can do, she said.

Meet Saherah Khan, Summer ’17 UELIP

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By Kyle Hietala

DCPS Office: Chief of Schools, School Turnaround and Performance
Education: Rising Senior at Virginia Tech
Program of Study/Major: Public Policy and Business Management
Hometown: Arlington, Virginia

Saherah is deeply committed to social justice: that’s why she founded Humans Against Social Injustice (HASI), a non-profit advocacy group that seeks to influence legislation around issues such as gun violence, domestic violence, racially-based travel bans, and access to education.

“The only way you change things in government is if you’re actively tracking legislation and working on changing it for the better,” she said. “Americans don’t realize how much access the government gives us to itself.” So, Saherah’s organization helps to solve that problem by bringing people together who care about social justice issues, and then organizing trips to Capitol Hill to meet with representatives. She hopes to grow her organization to be more well-known, so that more people will reach out to their representatives and lobby for much-needed policy changes.

This summer, Saherah is working with the School Turnaround Team to help strengthen partnerships between low-performing DCPS Schools and community organizations and volunteers. She’s assembling a portfolio of school partners and reviewing their performance. Her goal is to identify the partners that are most positively impacting DCPS students, and then to examine those partner organizations in closer detail to figure out what parts of their approach make them successful.

“Anything I engage with must have a foundation of making positive changes,” Saherah said. “My work has to be influencing people directly.” Indeed, she hopes that her project this summer will help the students most in need of additional support, by providing the District with better information about its partner organizations.

“I used to always have a plan,” she mused, “but I don’t even know know what I’m doing tomorrow.” In the future, Saherah hopes to continue to do work around child advocacy, but she wants to remind people that “life is full of detours, and you don’t always need to have a plan.”

 

 

Meet Leah Jaffe, Summer ’17 UELIP

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By Kyle Hietala

DCPS Office: Office of Instructional Practice, IMPACT Operations Team
Education: Rising Junior at UC Berkeley
Program of Study/Major: Global Development
Hometown: Sherman Oaks, California

Even though she describes herself as “not really a data analysis person,” Leah has grown more comfortable crunching numbers and working with Excel over the course of the summer. Her project involves studying social-emotional learning (SEL) and how it can be seamlessly incorporated into professional development for teachers. She thinks SEL is important for students, since it, when done well, “creates a better overall learning environment, one in which students are more able to become kind, compassionate citizens.”

Leah is focusing on how to market and promote SEL to teachers, so they’re better equipped to implement it into their day-to-day teaching. “We need buy-in, and we need to make sure our resources make clear the connection between SEL and positive academic and life outcomes,” Leah pointed out. To get that buy-in, DCPS needs effective professional development sessions that prepare teachers to implement SEL. “As a student, I just saw PD days as early-out Tuesdays,” Leah mused about her own public high school experience. Now as an intern, she “understands the value of it more clearly.”

Leah is also examining teacher evaluations this summer. She’s studying research questions such as, “how do teachers with different types of preparation, like Fellowships, TFA, traditional preparation, etc. perform in the classrom?” She has been analyzing policy papers about using qualitative student feedback as a way to evaluate teachers. So far, she’s conflicted: “it’s great students have a voice,” she said, “but teachers sometimes point out that students can have biases.” Leah is combing through so much data that she sometimes needs to take a break to refresh herself. Her choice leisure activity? Reading an NPR article about education.

Even though she was originally interested in Latin America politics and International Relations, Leah has discovered a new passion for education and work around curriculum. “I can see myself becoming a teacher,” she concluded.

 

Meet Yael Caplan, Summer ’17 UELIP

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By Julia Weigand

DCPS Office: Office of Talent and Culture, Teacher Recruitment and Selection Team
Education: Rising Senior at University of Chicago
Program of Study/Major: Public Policy with a specialization in Education Policy, minor in Comparative Human Development
Hometown: Bethesda, Maryland

Yael Caplan, a public policy undergrad with previous internship experience in the urban school district of Chicago, has developed a keen eye for recognizing the nuances in education policy. At DCPS, Yael’s efforts focus on improving the teacher selection process. Currently, she is refining teacher preference surveys, a data-based initiative that aims to match teachers with their ideal school environments.

“The more I learn about the district, about the different pipelines for hiring and what it means to be a highly effective teacher, the more I understand the data, but, the trickier it gets,” Yael said. Examining data allows Yael to better understand the qualitative components that DCPS should be considering for its teachers during the hiring process. Discussing her project, Yael noted the nuance involved in using data to make robust conclusions, “it is important to step back and think about the questions behind the data,” she said.

Data is a clear interest of Yael’s — she worked with the Research Management Team at the Chicago school district office and is considering writing a thesis about the balance between data collection, and accountability maintenance in education research.

Like many UELIPs, Yael’s interest in education is derived from her experience as a high school tutor; however, it has been her time in Chicago that hardened her interest into a passion.  Immediately following her matriculation to the University of Chicago, Yael began tutoring kindergarten students. Her exposure to the Chicago system stood in stark contrast with the “bubble” of quality schools she had attended while growing up. Yael discovered education in the city has a myriad of problems, many stemming from racial and economic segregation and translating to inequity.

Although Yael recognizes that many schools simply lack the resources they need to succeed, she remains motivated by her belief that, when schools are “done right,” they can be momentous mechanisms of change. To make tangible changes in districts like Chicago and D.C., Yael thinks reform efforts should engage children outside the classroom. Yael emphasized the importance of incorporating academic and health services as well as early childhood education programs in reform efforts, as students benefit from the connectivity between community, family, and classroom.

After college, Yael wants to work for a think tank or research organization that focuses on children’s welfare and education. Longer term, Yael hopes to attend law school to deepen her skill set as an advocate for equity in education

Meet and Greet with Chancellor Antwan Wilson

 

By Bianca Viazzoli

DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, known for his signature hat and friendly wave, says he is “committed to making a difference in the lives of young people” and has been for the last 30 years. Chancellor Wilson sat down with the UELIP cohort, and answered all the burning questions we had about all his new initiatives and his journey to DCPS.

One of Chancellor Wilson’s priorities is incorporation Social Emotion Learning into schools. SEL does not hinder rigorous academic standards, but supports them, according to the Chancellor. This is achieved through “baking in” SEL into training and professional development for all of our school staff.

The Chancellor is a strong believer in collaboration. He believes that collaboration is essential for students to have an appreciation for other people, but he also believes this is an essential need for us here in central office.  Chancellor Wilson emphasizes the idea that “excellence cannot be achieved alone.” “There is value in the collaborative approach,” says the Chancellor, “everyone wins.” When comparing other districts, he has been a part of, the Chancellor says one disappointing quality he has witnessed is the disregard of talented employees. The Chancellor says our “greatest resource is people, not money.”

Chancellor Wilson said he urges educators to believe in the students first, and to lead with values. He believes it is DCPS’s responsibility to “put young people in the position to succeed.” He believes that teachers can no longer allow children to hide in the classroom. Teachers encourage students to speak, learn to be social aware, learn how to self-manage, and allow them to see themselves as participants in their learning. According to the Chancellor, students will not be motivated to learn if they don’t understand why they should be motivated.

One of the Chancellor’s philosophies is that educational success “shouldn’t attribute to where you live, your race, or how much money you have.” Chancellor Wilson believes that DCPS is on the rise, and wants to ensure that the changes and shifts that are coming are not meant to make life more difficult, but are coming to make educational success accessible to every student.