D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson calls for new approach in education

Teaching beyond the textbook in D.C. schools

August 21 at 5:19 PM

As a parent, I know what it’s like to want the absolute best for your child and to believe he or she can succeed. Even if your child is struggling, you have an unshakable belief in his or her brilliance and potential, no matter what the report card says.

I feel that way about my own children. And, as the D.C. Schools chancellor, I feel that way about every child in D.C. Public Schools — all 49,000 of them.

When your child doesn’t do well in school, you give him or her the academic support that he or she needs, but you don’t take away violin lessons or football practice. You continue to help the child explore other talents and passions. My vision for DCPS is a district in which we treat every student as if he or she were our own. It’s a place where we teach young people’s hearts, not just their heads.

At the end of the day, parents want opportunities for their children. For so long, education has been about checking boxes and fulfilling requirements. I think it’s time for a new approach. We’ve watched school systems spend millions of dollars trying to “fix” children. But our young people are not broken, and their lives are not full of holes. As educators, our job is to recognize their brilliance and give them opportunities.

In DCPS we know that when we challenge kids, great things happen. For example, last spring we asked students to design the first-ever DCPS app to help families support their children’s learning. We received entries from 18 teams, and the winning team from McKinley Technology High School spent the summer building the app through a paid internship with a consulting firm, Accenture. DCPS parents can download the app, the DCPS Parent Guide, on their Android phones this fall.

This summer, hundreds of DCPS students interned with diverse organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Washington Nationals and Microsoft. Nearly 200 eighth-graders from Alice Deal Middle School journeyed to Costa Rica, France and China to explore the cultures they studied in their world-language classes. As part of ourEmpowering Males of Color initiative, 10 teens from high schools acrossDCPS traveled to Croatia with the Step Afrika! International Youth Exchange program, where they served as cultural ambassadors and learned the art of step performance.

And that’s just what our kids did during the summer. This school year, our investments are about giving young people even more opportunities for greatness — not only in grade school but also in college, career and life.

Challenging curricula have always been part of DCPS’s strategy, but going forward, students will receive the same high-quality learning experiences no matter where they live or go to school. Every first-grader, from Simon Elementary in Ward 8 to Janney Elementary in Ward 3, will bioengineer a frog habitat and that 10th-graders at every high school will build electric batteries. And starting this year, every DCPS second-grader will learn to ride a bicycle, regardless of whether they have one at home. All high schools will provide at least six Advanced Placement courses, and some will offer more than 20.

We are going into our second year of career academies, which help teenagers make choices about their collegiate and professional futures. These academies, in engineering, hospitality and information technology, provide experience through mentoring and internships and are aligned to high-wage, high-growth jobs in the area.

Thanks to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), for the first time, our students have access to free transportation to and from school through Kids Ride Free on Metro. This is a game-changer for families.

DCPS is a place where children have opportunities to travel abroad, to learn to ride a bike or speak a new language, to design an app or build a robot. By nurturing their talents, we’re positioning them for success.

I have learned in my 22 years in education that students rise to the expectations that you set for them. In DCPS, we are setting those expectations high.

Our investments in our young people are paying off. By every indicator, from enrollment to academic performance to student satisfaction, DCPS is on the rise. Together with their families, we will help our young people understand that they can be anything they choose in this world.

The investments the mayor and I are making in young people are paying off.

The writer is chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

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