Character and leadership help D.C. charter school jump to highest ranking


QUALITY EDUCATION- Linda Kim reads to her first grade classroom at Center City public charter school Congress Heights.

By Moriah Costa |

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At Center City public charter school Congress Heights, a group of about 25 first graders sit crossed-legged in front of Linda Kim as she reads to them about Ancient Egypt. Upstairs, Tamika Fernandez helps her fourth and fifth graders solve decimal problems on the whiteboard, while across the hall, Wendy Oftedahl’s class of seventh graders listen to author Karen Harrington talk about the writing process.

It’s teachers like Kim, Fernandez and Oftedahl who, under the the leadership of Congress Heights Principal Niya White, helped the charter rank among the city’s top tier schools by the D.C. Public Charter School Board last month.

The charter school, located in Ward 8, is the first to go from the lowest rank to the highest since the board began ranking schools four years ago.

The rankings, called the Performance Management Framework, are released each year and measure how well schools prepare students for college and improve math and reading skills, from Tier 1 to Tier 3. The board also measures attendance and re-enrollment.

This year more than 12,000 students attend the city’s 22 highest performing schools, a 9 percent increase from 2013.

White credits the higher rating with the school’s commitment to building student character, providing constant feedback to teachers and engaging parents.

“We needed to change our shift so that students understood that being a student with good character would actually take you far and improve you as a person in general,” she said.

White became the principal three years ago and under her leadership the school has retained 86 percent of its staff year after year, a huge feat in an industry rife with teacher dissatisfaction and turnover.

She is rarely in her office and spends her days co-teaching, observing classrooms or going over test results with students. White makes an average of 16 informal and three formal visits to each classroom a year, not counting the times she co-teaches.

“It’s not the teachers who are walking on this journey by themselves, but definitely with us every step of the way and having conversations about it,” White said.

The school’s commitment to building character is seen throughout the hallways and classrooms, which are lined with the students’ work and reminders about the school’s mission to building character, excellence and service.

Anita Haynes enrolled her daughter, Aliya, in Congress Heights as a preschooler and has stayed in D.C. for the past four years so she can continue attending the school.

QUALITY EDUCATION- Tamika Fernandez teaches her fourth and fifth graders how to solve decimals at Center City public charter school Congress Heights.

Haynes said she is very happy with how family-oriented the school is and never has any concerns about safety or bullying.

“(White) runs it really tight over there,” she said.

Aliya, who is now in second grade, is learning sign language and reads books that fourth graders are just starting to read at other schools, Haynes said. She said Aliya’s school work is difficult at times, but the teachers are always willing to provide extra help.

“They talk about a lot of stuff that elementary kids aren’t even exposed to until high school,” she said.

Congress Heights is one of six Center City schools across the district that serve mostly low-income students. The charters were originally Catholic schools and transitioned to public charter schools in 2008.

The charter’s Shaw and Brightwood campuses ranked as Tier 1 while its Petworth and Capitol Hill schools ranked as Tier 2. One of the schools, Center City Trinidad, ranked as Tier 3.

Russ Williams, president and CEO of Center City schools, said he is working to improve the quality of the other schools to Tier 1, but has had difficulty finding high-quality leaders.

“There aren’t six Niya Whites. What I need are six Niya Whites,” he said. “And that’s a problem citywide. There’s not a strong enough cadre or pool of people that really get what an effective principal is.”

Williams said he put new leaders in lagging schools. Internal data indicates Trinidad has improved from last year. Williams has high hopes the school will rank as Tier 2 next year.

Both White and Williams are happy with the ranking, but think more needs to be done to give students a quality education.

“This is good, but it’s not good enough and we can do better,” Williams said.

But for Haynes, Center City is good enough.

“I plan for (Aliya) to stay there until she gets to eighth grade,” she said. “I have no interest in other schools.”