By Joey Webb
Four years ago, I ventured into a local coffee shop in Washington, D.C. to meet with Stacy Kane, an education entrepreneur who had a wild idea about starting a new high school. She was intent on creating an innovative, high-quality high school option beyond the selective schools in the city, and she wanted to do so using personalized and project-based learning. Our meeting was to talk about ideas, but it quickly blossomed into something more than that. What Stacy had to say fit into a familiar dialogue about education innovation happening nationally: Personalized learning was something worth investing in.
I was already a believer. I had just moved to D.C. from North Carolina, where I spent time building a personalized learning platform for Maureen Joy Charter School. My school was ranked #1 for student growth among charter schools in the state despite having served a 93% free and reduced lunch population. In that meeting, I made it clear to Stacy that while I believed in innovative school models, I knew the only way to do it right - and with equity in mind - was to start with the most rigorous vision of outcomes possible and design backwards from there. For me, that meant finding the highest quality curriculum and assessments available. Sure, we could wade through the flashy new playlists, algorithm-driven and other digital tools, and all the different LMSs available, but only if we first agreed that rigor was the starting point. That was how the Washington Leadership Academy (WLA) was born.
Four years later, WLA is one of D.C.’s highest performing high schools and one of the nation’s most innovative - a winner of the XQ Super Schools Prize.
- WLA is one of 6 out of the 37 high schools in D.C. that are rated 5-star.
- WLA is not a selective test-entry school but it ranks 1st in school performance.
- It predominantly serves low-income, minority students (99% students of color and ~88% FARM).
- Its academic model focuses on personalized learning and project learning.
- Roughly ~60% of its students are “at risk.”
So how does an innovative school design work…? We grounded every aspect of WLA’s design with rigorous outcomes in mind and backwards mapped its content from there.
When I started working on innovative school design, often the excitement around the promise of personalized learning was paired with concern that it wasn’t advancing the ball for low-income, minority students. Those naysayers weren’t wrong. Too many of our nation’s innovative schools still don’t yield results for the exact students they are designed to serve. There’s a reason for that: While personalized learning should allow for individualized paths to learning, it shouldn’t allow for lowering the bar. Unfortunately, sometimes altering the learning path results in altering (read: lowering) the standards for kids.
At WLA, every action we took centered itself around a rigorous outcome. The goal was that regardless of the pathway, all students would reach high standards. To do that, we developed rigorous content expectations and curricula. And then we needed to pair that with quality aligned assessments that measured what students were learning and could provide fast and useable feedback for teachers. It took us a year of searching through nationally normed assessments, none of which were up to snuff, to find CenterPoint Education Solutions. Built by a passionate leader whose middle name might as well be rigor, CenterPoint provided a clear lighthouse around which to design our curriculum and personalized model. As a part of our partnership, CenterPoint curated a set of benchmark assessments that aligned with our curriculum/scope and sequence. They also designed an item bank for us to pair with our units, so that teachers could prepare lessons with rigorous outcomes in mind. As a leader, when it came time to review lesson plans, exit ticket data, and interim assessment performance, I could see clearly how our school was doing against the high expectations we set.
Seeing success is what drives a joyful student culture. If you walk the halls of WLA and ask a student what they think of their school, the first thing they’ll say is “it’s hard and our teachers expect a lot of us.” That’s true. Last spring, a student caught my attention because he looked distraught. It turned out that he was still mulling over a passionate debate that had ensued in math class when he and a group of classmates were tackling a certain math task (designed by CenterPoint). The math task was part of the most challenging portion of the lesson, and he could feel the intellectual burn. The next day I saw the same student, beaming with joy: He and his cohort had solved the task.
These types of experiences are commonplace at WLA, and that is what gets kids to show up and feel the joy of learning. Our students know the work is hard, but they also know that when they accomplish things it translates to real success and self-efficacy. Rigor, achievement, and high standards for academics are built into the school culture narrative for students. The students can tell their own story of success.
When our first cohort of students walked through WLA’s door in August 2016, I spoke to them often about breaking the bias around students of color in D.C. and nationally. We showed them the city’s achievement data. I promised them that if they worked hard with us, they could match or outperform other schools, even those that were more affluent. This was the foundation of WLA, and the reason we started this school - we truly believed that high expectations paired with high-quality tools and personalized instruction can ensure that all students can succeed.
On one of the first days of school last year we welcomed that same first cohort into a WLA Town Hall meeting. We revisited the same data and talking points we made in their first year, when they had just arrived at WLA. We then shared the most recent city-wide achievement results with them, which identified WLA as a 5-star school. The room erupted, tears were shared, and the cheering took a long time to stop. The students knew how it felt to see success throughout the year, but the school achievement graphs, with WLA’s name at the top, made it official. They had reached their goal, something they were very proud of. They had committed to working hard, found joy in the process (which is most important for them), and took pride in their outcomes. While the students might say life at WLA is “hard, and our teachers expect a lot of us,” they’ll also tell you, “We’re some of the highest achieving students in the city, and I love it here.”
When I made that promise to them four years earlier, I knew we could confidently keep that promise because the materials we developed with CenterPoint and other partners set a high bar that would get them there. Every class period, assignment, exit ticket, benchmark and growth assessment was a reason to celebrate because it brought them one step closer to meeting their goal.
If you find yourself up for a new challenge and want to start an excellent school (or want to redesign the school you’re in), start with rigor in mind and then immediately find a partner like CenterPoint to help you build a path to success for all your students.
Joey Webb is the Co-Founder of Washington Leadership Academy, a public charter high school in Washington, D.C. WLA is one of the original XQ Super Schools and ranks highly among D.C. schools and in national assessments. WLA is in its 4th year of operation and is open enrollment with a ~88% FARM population, 25% SpEd population, and serves 60% at-risk students.