Holy s.

This week, as part of DCPS’ final school consolidation plan, the Chancellor announced that Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan would become a Preschool through 8th grade school. Holy s!

The implementation will start by adding 6th grade in the Fall (SY13-14). Montessori elementary teachers are trained to teach 1st to 6th grade, so year one would be seamless and give time to plan Erdkinder (in CHM@L’s case, grades 7-8). Holy…

  • “Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan (Ward 6) will convert from a pre-K to grade 5 school to a pre-K to grade 8 school and add more early childhood education seats.”

This simple bullet, buried in the press release means SO MUCH. It represents at least 20 years of work by Waduda Henderson, the heart and soul of the school, dozens (hundreds?) of educators, parents, and central office staff. It represents 23 years of cohorts of students who have benefited from this fantastic program, and it represents the many more children that will have the opportunity to experience this school and its community.

I have to wonder whether the person who typed that bullet understands. Whoever you are, welcome to this very large, ‘unexclusive’ (or inclusive) team of relay racers!

When I posted the announcement to FB, several friends, aware of my role in the process, congratulated me. I’m grateful for the recognition, but more grateful for the experience and what it has taught me about the opportunities that come when ‘average people’ collaborate with ‘official people’. I’ve learned important lessons through this process, especially the value of tenacity, being inclusive, and the value of transparency.

My time on this road (7 years with children in the program and 5 ‘short’ years of actively supporting expansion) was full of disappointment. I heard a lot of “Nos”, “Not this time,” or worse, nothing. It’s pretty easy to want to give up under those circumstances, for a year, most of us did, but the quality of the education the children received during the school day, inspired a constant flow of parents to pick up the cause (there is a lot to be said about fresh energy). Given that DCPS was more likely to listen to parents (customers) than they were to teachers and principals, I do feel parents (‘average people’) played an important role in this effort. I’m grateful for the tenacity of the teachers and principal who weathered the disappointments (and changing DCPS leadership) for many more years than I can imagine.

My (incredible) mother quoted Friedensreich Hundertwasser yesterday, “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.” This pretty much sums up my perspective of the CHM@L experience. This truly has been a team effort. A team that will probably never be fully accounted for, as many of the players have long since moved on, but their contributions certainly pushed this along. How to name everyone? I can’t. But I can talk about the teams who passed the baton to each other (note that others may remember things differently – I hope I’m doing everyone justice).

  1. There was the team (team 1) who, seeing an opportunity with new leadership, reached out to Michelle Rhee via a letter signed by many in the school community. This kicked off a relationship between DCPS and parents committed to expanding the program to a space where it could grow in capacity and through middle school.
  2. Team 2 worked on surveying families to gather data around demand for Montessori middle school, then at DCPS’ invitation drafted a proposal that in the end, got no response, but served as the foundation for the next team.
  3. Team 3 went beyond the school and joined forces with 8 other schools, supporting each other in a shared vision for middle schools on Capitol Hill. With broader community support, this multi-school team got the seal of approval from Chancellor Rhee to move the Montessori program to it’s own space, but not the middle school piece.
  4. Team 4, became a Montessori-DCPS partnership and kicked off the all hands on deck approach. These folks planned gardens, designed the playground, inventoried classrooms, renovated the building, worked with DDOT to plan for changes to traffic patterns, went to ANC meetings and reached out to neighbors, designed a pilot food services program to reflect Montessori values, planned for after school care, set up a PTSO, 501c3 and raised funds, helped get the school ready for the big move, and communicated the status at every step of the way.
  5. Team 5 lived through the move and survived, while still managing to build an incredible PTSO with strong leadership. They built up our library, equipped new classrooms, worked miracles w/ a very difficult after school care situation, transformed our gardens and built relationships with the community.
  6. Once finding stability, Team 6 seized the opportunity, picked up the middle school conversation, surveyed families and VOILA, convinced Chancellor Henderson to pursue the middle school!

Each team built upon the work of its predecessors and managed to move conversation a little further at each stage. I believe that what makes us strong is the inclusive nature of our community. We welcome and accept each other and we ask for help. Our finest moments are those when everyone has the opportunity to contribute. What keeps us together is our highly imperfect, but strong commitment to communication.

And what about transparency? Transparency is what saved us from getting lost during DCPS’ shifts in priorities, or getting tossed aside during the change of administration. I recall a conversation with a DCPS employee the day that Michelle Rhee resigned. I wanted to cry, certain that while we were approved for the move, the interim Chancellor would choose to hold off on implementing changes approved by someone else. The DCPS employee reminded me that this plan was not a report on someone’s desk that had not seen the light of day. This plan had been built via community engagement, posted on DCPS (and many other) websites, picked up by the press, and not something likely to be cast aside. The fact that our process had been transparent, one where folks who supported (or hated) it could weigh in, ask questions, and shape it, gave me confidence. It was difficult to hold numerous town halls, answer tough questions, duplicate communication via email, list-servs, websites, social media, posters on walls, flyers in backpacks, you name it, but it was an incredible education about what it means to reach a diverse (sometimes divided) community and how to manage the needs of multiple stakeholders. I learned that you can’t reach everyone w/ a single sweep and you have to meet folks where they are. And you have to repeat. A lot. And after all that, you’ll still get folks who had no idea… And that while folks complain about too much information, trust me, they will be much more upset if they are in the dark.

Transparency is crucial. It not only builds trust, but opens the opportunity for folks to participate, take ownership, and make good things better. To borrow from my ‘day job’ for a moment, it’s why I believe so strongly in open government and open data. In my community, I am the ‘average person’, not the official. And it is through my ‘unofficial’ duties that I (and the teams) have been able to accomplish things that have had direct positive impact on the lives of hundreds of families. In order to get to the point of impact, our ‘average people’ team needed data, and collected and analyzed a lot of data the hard way, from PDFs or static websites, wishing we could just have access to the source, if for any reason, to save time. I realize that I looked for open data years before I learned what it was. And if I was looking for it, I can bet many ‘average people’ around the world are doing the same right now… but more on that later.

So what now? The dream of a Montessori program, with the ability to accommodate hundreds of families through 8th grade is in effect a reality, so I can safely drop the middle school search, right? More on that later