Linda Moore, the executive director and founder of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., was inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame Monday morning at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference.
Moore has operated the school since 1998, and it was labeled a Tier 1 Performing DC charter school in 2012 by the DC Public Charter School Board. (The board ranks charters into tiers based on students’ growth in test scores, proficiency on state tests, attendance, re-enrollment rates, and other factors. Tier 1 is the highest ranking a charter school can receive.) The school operates with a bilingual education model, with each student undergoing at least half their education in either French or Spanish.
The charter school founder sat down with me before the awards ceremony at the national conference, held in the nation’s capital, to talk about how the charter school climate has changed over the past 15 years. Moore also spoke about the challenges of finding a permanent facility in the District, and about the inspiration for the school.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. My questions are in bold.
You’re a pioneer of the charter schools movement, especially here in DC. Over the past 15 years, do you think it has gotten easier for you to operate as a charter school?
We’ve been very fortunate in Washington in having a very wonderful support community. We have organizations that support charters and provide social services, for example, to schools—particularly small [charter schools] and [charter] schools that are just being launched. There is strong belief in the city that charter schools have a right to be here. We think our parents have voted with their feet, since [charter schools] now have 43 percent of the public school population. So from my perspective, looking at it over the long haul, I think it’s much easier to operate now than it was in the beginning, when we were really creating much of what we do as we were also trying to steer the ship.
I read that you moved into a permanent home in 2008, which wasn’t that long ago. Can you talk a little bit about what that process was like?
Finding a permanent facility was quite a challenge, and I think it continues to be quite a challenge for schools. I believe, again, that it is easier now than it once was, but we looked for a suitable facility for six years.
We started looking at the beginning of the real estate boom here in town. As soon as we saw a piece of property that might have been appropriate, it had been scooped up by a developer. We had to go through many processes in order to get financing, so it took us longer to begin to move forward on a piece of property. DC’s charter school authorization law has a provision for facilities financing, which is a help because some jurisdictions don’t have that. But other jurisdictions actually do have more buildings that are available or land on which one can build. In DC, there’s not a lot of land available, so it was a struggle.
It took us a long time. There were lots of people who helped us. I would spend weekends driving up and down streets looking for vacant property and vacant land, for example. The building that we eventually found did not come through traditional real estate means, it came through someone who knew that a piece of property was going to go on the market, and we got a head start on it.
Was it configured like a school, or did you have to do a lot of remodeling?
We purchased a former seminary which was configured like a dormitory, actually, so we wound up gutting the building and building [it] out. But it is a perfect location, I believe, and it’s a lovely building. The children are very comfortable there. The parents are happy there. Neighbors have gotten pretty much used to us being there. There’s a difference between an elementary school and a seminary in terms of the traffic that it brings to the neighborhood, but it has worked well for us.
Your school has been ranked as one of the top charter schools in DC, and your students are doing well. What makes you different? How are you doing it?
There’s no one single bullet, but I believe that central to doing well is having a really clear mission that everyone buys into. We wanted to do two things when we started out. We wanted to create a school that would be a model for education, and we wanted to create a school that would successfully develop children to become scholars, leaders, and responsible global citizens. Our goals were very clear. We spent some time trying to think about how to get there, but we also elicited the buy-in [from] the larger community.
One of the things that I think is peculiar to our school is that everyone who is associated with it in some way is invited to contribute to the development of the school. We have been around for 15 years, and we’re still developing. There are still things that we need to do better. There are still initiatives we want to implement. And we try to get everybody’s input, and we welcome people to take responsibility for providing leadership to executive these quality measures.
Somebody said once, if you want to be a good leader, then you need to convince everybody that the outcome was their idea. And so that’s part of what we are trying to do. We’re not trying to convince, we’re trying to engage everybody in creating this place we call school. That’s really central to our success.
Did you work in the regular public school system before you moved into charters?
I actually did not. My mother, for whom the school is named, was a first-grade teacher, and I grew up in her shadow, watching what she did. But I never felt that I had the personality or inclination to be an effective classroom teacher. I grew up very much in awe of teachers. But I also grew up with some skills around managing and organizing, and it is the interest in education combined with the capacity to put things together that got me.
What was it about the charter model that attracted you? Or what did the charter model allow you to do that you might not have been able to do in a traditional school setting?
The idea of starting a charter school actually emerged once my mother became terminally ill. And I had spent time, a couple of years, talking with her about the meaning of life and what was important, and clearly her career as a teacher and the children she influenced were important to her. And during her illness, some of her former students made it clear to me how important she had been in their development.
At the same time, I had my first grandchild, who I understood was to live in the District of Columbia, and I began thinking about what his education was going to be. And I did what grandparents and parents do, I looked around at opportunities and alternatives. I knew what charter schools were from the education-policy work I had done, and I thought about starting a school. I thought about starting an independent school, but I thought I would spend all of my time fundraising if I did that. I wanted to be able to serve regular children, not just high-income children, and it seemed like a match. Charter schools seemed like a way to get it done, and frankly I was attracted to the whole idea of autonomy with accountability.
Accountability is what drives quality. And so I always thought accountability was a good thing, but I also had some really firm ideas about what children in the 21st-century should know and what they should be able to do, which varies considerably from what I was taught a number of years ago.
I didn’t see as much of what people are now calling 21st-century skills. [I wanted to place an] emphasis on being able to use technology and project-based learning, which I think contributes to higher-order thinking skills. [I wanted to create] opportunities for children to travel to other countries and understand different cultures. And I think it’s important for children to have those experiences at a young age so they can then build on them later rather than waiting until they get to college. So it was all of those things.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.