Society and Culture, Education

Cage-busting leadership in DC education

A visit to the Luke C. Moore Alternative High School

A visit to the Luke C. Moore Alternative High School

One of the best parts about doing education policy in a place like Washington, DC is the host of excellent schools within a short metro ride from our office, giving us a chance to leave the ivory tower and see first-hand the excellent work DC teachers and principals are doing. Two weeks ago, at the launch event for Cage-Busting Leadership, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson introduced the AEI Education team to a principal who embodies the characteristics of a “cage-busting leader”: Someone who is willing to take risks and think of new solutions to help students.

Yesterday, we followed up on Chancellor Henderson’s recommendation and went to visit Luke C. Moore Alternative High School (LCM). There, Principal Azalia Speight continues to devise new solutions to escape frustrations familiar to many other school leaders — and some not-so-familiar frustrations unique to LCM. In particular, LCM serves disengaged youth, ages 17–20, who have dropped out of high school. Many of these students have adjudication issues, or have had difficulties in traditional school settings. Of these students, 75% are also responsible for a child. Additionally, when Mrs. Speight became principal of LCM, she inherited an abysmal attendance rate of 36% in 2009.

Now, in 2013:

  1. The average daily attendance has increased to 74%.
  2. Disciplinary referrals and suspensions have been reduced by 50%.
  3. Math proficiency has increased by 16%.
  4. ELA proficiency has increased by 27%.
  5. The number of graduates has increased by 50%.

So how did Mrs. Speight bust out of the cage? We saw two key ways:

  1. Leveraged community resources to meet her students’ needs. Cage busters ask themselves what problem they are trying to solve. In the case of LCM, Mrs. Speight worked to solve the “truancy problem.” She identified two key factors contributing to her school’s truancy: Childcare and transportation. LCM now offers onsite day care and subsidized metro cards and bus passes for students.
  2. Reimagined teaching and learning to meet her students’ needs. Cage busters aren’t bound by the traditional structure of the school day. In the case of LCM, Mrs. Speight worked with her assistant principal, Mr. Murray, to redesign the instructional model. In an effort to accommodate the nontraditional pathway to a high school diploma, LCM offers its students the opportunity to take more credit hours through online classes, evening classes, and block scheduling that facilitates credit completion quarterly rather than at the end of each semester. They also offer multiple graduation dates throughout the year. Speight and Murray also empower their staff to assess mastery of content based on a student’s competency, not on a student’s seat time. This allows students to catch up on their school work after long periods of absence.

The team at Luke C. Moore Alternative High School continues to cultivate creative solutions to address the unique challenges that their students face. After all, as Mrs. Speight relayed to us yesterday, “If [LCM] doesn’t do everything [they] can to help the students succeed, where will they go?”

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