#RethinkSchool: Bringing Hopes and Dreams to Those Most in Need

Like moths to a light, people from all over the country gravitate to Washington, D.C. – longing to make a difference, witness history and understand the complexities of the political process. I am like many young transplants that moved to D.C. for work and began to understand the social justice issues that threaten those who are native to our nation’s capital.

However I, unlike many other young transplants, had to quickly navigate the complexities of the education system. From my own experience, I know the difference a quality education and support system can make on students growing up in poverty.

So, when I moved to D.C. as the sole caregiver for my teenage sister, I knew exactly what she needed to be able to thrive. She needed a quality education, healthy community and individuals who could serve as mentors. As I researched areas to live and send my sister to school, I discovered Anacostia is home to some of D.C.’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. From food insecurity to lack of affordable housing, the residents in this community are confronted with daily obstacles.

When I got word that a new charter school, Digital Pioneers Academy (DPA), was opening in Anacostia, I was curious. I wondered if the founder received the same information about the area that I had. I wanted to know her hopes for the school and dreams for the poverty stricken community. Most of all, how they were going to Rethink School.

A student during computer class at the Digital Pioneer Academy

DPA founder Mashea Ashton is a longtime advocate for charter schools. She has worked to highlight the inequalities between district public schools and charter public schools, the myths surrounding charter schools, and the best practices to share with other school leaders. She believes that all students, regardless of where they live, should have access to a high-quality education, be it private, charter, or district schools.

In New Jersey, Ashton served as CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund (NCSF), a foundation established by Sen. Cory Booker to facilitate the growth and quality of charter schools in Newark. In a recent interview with Sen. Booker, he attributed the successes of Newark Public School to the extensive education reforms he helped bring about with NCSF. Upon returning to D.C., her goal was to bring high-quality education options to many disadvantaged D.C. children so that they can compete in the changing economy.

Students during computer class at Digital Pioneer Academy

DPA recently opened on August 20, 2018 in Ward 7, D.C.’s second poorest neighborhood. The school is the first middle school in D.C. with a focus on computer science. DPA serves 150 students and expects to add one grade per year. The school provides a unique, personalized educational experience that integrates best practices from schools across the country, preparing students to be innovators and active citizens in our technology-driven world. According to their website, there are more than 10,000 open computer jobs and 65% of children today will end up in one of those jobs in the future.

Ashton’s goals are to have all of her students achieve 2 years of academic growth each school year, be ranked as a Tier 1 school by their third year of operation and always have a student body that reflects the Anacostia community.

Rethink School means to question everything so that nothing limits students from being prepared for what comes next. A growing number of educators, parents, community leaders and entrepreneurs are being empowered with flexibility to innovate and provide students with increased education options within the public school system.

Thanks to a growing number of leaders, like Mashea Ashton, more low-income families living in neighborhoods like Anacostia will have more access to high-quality educational opportunities in their communities.


Denisha Merriweather is a Confidential Assistant in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.