On a recent Friday morning, students in Kalee Barbis’ English class at Washington Leadership Academy work diligently on laptops as they sit under the high, vaulted ceilings of the school’s Great Hall. Light filters through stained glass windows as the students put the final touches on essays about the lives of Matthew Shepard, Trayvon Martin, Pablo Escobar, and others.
Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C., charter school, students are busy coding in a dimly lit room and trying, fruitlessly, to explain the equipment they’re using to the mystified group of visiting journalists. This, they explain, is the virtual reality lab.
With the school’s castle-like architecture (the building was formerly a monastery) and with computer science and technology at its core, it’s no wonder why the staff and students refer to Washington Leadership Academy as “High-Tech Hogwarts.”
Indeed, with its grand physical space and an emphasis on coding and service-learning projects, the school stands out from traditional high schools in more ways than one.
That, its founders say, is the point.
“The idea is to totally reimagine what high school is and what it does,” said Stacy Kane, the co-founder and executive director of the school. “We saw what was happening in high schools in D.C. and thought, ‘We could do better.’”
And so, with the help of grants from a number of foundations, the school has created a program intended to prepare its students, mostly black and from low-income families, to not just graduate from high school, but to emerge with the practical skills and experiences necessary to go to college and, eventually, sit in the board rooms of major tech companies.
“I can be a CFO of Snapchat,” reads one student-made poster hanging in the hallway.
‘Just Like Kids in Private Schools’
With its focus on computer science and technology, the school hopes to equip students with the marketable skills they’ll need to compete in a fast-evolving and increasingly global workforce.
But the school’s administrators also know that students will need more than just good grades to compete with their more affluent peers in the suburbs of D.C. and elsewhere. That’s why the school works to build its students’ social capital by bringing in professionals from the community to speak and requiring students to complete externships in their junior year.
“Our students will have opportunities to work in Congress and build connections just like kids in private schools,” Kane says.
Much of the work that goes into building that social capital happens within the school’s walls.
Its classroom and behavior management practices are based on a philosophy of restorative justice wherein students are taught the social and emotional skills necessary to resolve conflicts. When behavioral issues inevitably arise, the students involved are required to attend an “RJ” session. They sit in a circle and talk through the conflict with the school psychologist, the director of social-emotional learning, or the dean of students, Kane said. Only in rare cases are students suspended, she said.
“Students come to school with invisible backpacks that carry all their trauma and stress,” said Joseph Webb, the school’s founding principal. “Sometimes those backpacks get so heavy that kids can’t take it and that leads to some of the behavior issues we see.”
Part of the school’s commitment to restorative justice includes training teachers on how best to teach and respond to students who have undergone trauma. And in a sign of the school’s priorities, midway through this year, the staff decided to lay off the school security guard and use some of that money to hire a school psychologist.
Still, Kane and Webb point to systematizing the restorative justice practices as one of the primary challenges they’ve faced in the school’s first year. Motivating students disenchanted with school is another.
Journalists visit Washington Leadership Academy earlier this month as part of the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar. (Twitter/Seth Andrew).
Transforming Learning into an Experience
Back in the virtual reality (VR) lab, students Jerome Foster and Zoe Valladares don VR goggles and proudly explain the coding they’ve been working on throughout the year.
“There’s no reason every school in America can’t do this,” said Seth Andrew, a co-founder of the school, as he held up a set of Google Cardboard VR goggles. “The VR lab transforms the idea of a computer lab into an experience.”
The school will have a great deal of financial help to expand its integration of VR into the classroom. Washington Leadership Academy was one of 10 schools awarded $10 million apiece from the XQ Super School Project, a competition that provides schools with funding to invent and experiment with new, innovative ways to teach and engage students and reimagine the high school experience.
‘I Don’t Want to Be Average’
While the staff takes pride in what’s been accomplished in just its first year, they are candid about the many challenges along the way and the difficult work ahead. Right now, the school only serves ninth graders. It will steadily expand to 12th grade, adding a grade level each year.
As its student and staff numbers swell, some of the school’s practices like restorative justice, allowing students to take computers home, and integrating VR into the school will be tested.
The question of “scalability” is one that invariably surfaces and that cannot yet be answered with much certainty. And to what extent the school’s focus on technology and service learning will translate into success in core subjects such as reading and math remains to be seen. Students came into the school year with reading levels as low as first grade, Kane says.
As for the students of Washington Leadership Academy, the feeling of uncertainty that accompanied them at the start of the school year has been replaced with a sense of belonging.
Kevin Ford, a ninth grader, said he wasn’t sure if the school was the right fit at first. But over time, he has come to find his identity. Next year he plans to take Advanced Placement computer science. Eventually, he intends to attend a four-year college. This, he said, is what will help him achieve the career and life he hopes and envisions for himself.
“I don’t want a low-paying job,” Kevin said. “I don’t want to be average”.