Partners in Progress: Turning Around a Washington, DC School Takes Teamwork and Joy

City Year

National and local education leaders met at the DC Scholars Stanton Elementary School, where 18 City Year corps members currently serve. The visit included a roundtable discussion on the school’s turnaround effort and the importance of partnering with key stakeholders to achieve education reform. (Photo courtesy of City Year/Elliot Haney)

There’s a transformation occurring at an elementary school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital and it begins, each day, with chants and song. “Stand up!” and “C-O-L-L-E-G-E! College is the place for me!” ring out of the cafeteria where students gather for a daily morning ritual of activities designed to build school culture and student confidence. Just a few years ago, DC Scholars Stanton Elementary struggled with chronic underperformance and was long known as a place ruled by chaos, where neither students nor educators felt it was possible to focus on learning. Today, the school is turning around. With the help of strong partnerships and engaged stakeholders, chaos is being replaced with joy, as educational outcomes improve for the school’s young “scholars.”

On Monday, Secretary Arne Duncan visited DC Scholars Stanton to observe the school’s progress and to participate in a roundtable discussion, highlighting the importance of partnerships in the effort to dramatically improve teaching and learning in persistently low-achieving schools.

Secretary Duncan joined a group of local leaders and stakeholders including District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) CEO Wendy Spencer, and City Year Co-Founder and CEO Michael Brown, for the visit.

City Year Group Photo

(Photo courtesy of City Year/Elliot Haney)

Three years ago, DCPS engaged in a partnership with Scholar Academies, a national nonprofit education management organization, to run Stanton. As Chancellor Henderson noted, “Back then, there was a sense that if you went here, you were coming because you could go nowhere else.”

Third grade teacher Sheryl Garner spoke poignantly about the school’s transformation. She remarked that before the turnaround, almost daily she was “kicked and punched by students,” many of whom had difficult backgrounds and limited understanding of how to manage their emotions in school. She said, “I’m glad I decided to stick with it because I’ve seen so much growth here.”

Now, there is order in the classrooms where university pennants line the walls, reminding students that higher education is within their reach—and a goal that they can strive for each day. In addition to college banners and achievement awards, it’s not uncommon to see students working in classrooms and hallways with City Year AmeriCorps members—who represent another key element in the story of progress at DC Scholars Stanton.

City Year has partnered with the school for six years; but this year, DC Scholars Stanton was able to double its number of City Year service members. These young people provide intensive before-, during-, and after-school support to students in reading, math, and social-emotional skills development. Principal Rena Johnson and Assistant Principal Sanja Bosman also credit City Year members with helping to improve overall school culture.

Eighteen City Year AmeriCorps members work at the school now through a federal School Turnaround AmeriCorps grant, jointly administered by the Department of Education and CNCS, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps program this year. Wendy Spencer, CNCS CEO, noted, “This partnership expands the role of AmeriCorps members in helping students, teachers, parents, and school administrators transform schools into models of achievement.” With the help of Jeff Franco, executive director for City Year-Washington D.C., approximately 150 City Year members serve in more than a dozen schools across DCPS.

Students and families at DC Scholars Stanton also benefit from a home visiting program, coordinated by the local Flamboyan Foundation, a private, family organization focused on improving educational outcomes for children. Through the program, teachers are trained to visit families and build relationships with parents and caregivers, with the aim of helping students to succeed in school.

Secretary Duncan acknowledged the efforts of all the partners at DC Scholars Stanton, saying, “Turning around a school is some of the hardest, most controversial, and yet most important work in the country. … Together, you are doing something remarkable.”

The hard work is beginning to show results. Since 2011, students at DC Scholars Stanton have improved their proficiency rates in mathematics from 10 to 42 percent. Reading proficiency rates have doubled from 10 to 20 percent.

As Mayor Gray stated, “Education reform is never done.” There is still much to do to ensure all Stanton scholars achieve to their fullest potential. But, even though the work is ongoing and challenging,  Lars Beck, CEO for Scholar Academies, summed up the experience, saying, “You might think it’s crazy, but working together to turn around schools is … exciting and exhilarating … it can even be joyful.”

Tiffany Taber is senior communications manager in the Office of Communications and Outreach