When Stacey Scott got involved with charter schools they were in their infancy nearly 12 years ago. Since then, the concept has grown and seems to be taking over the District of Columbia. In five short years after partnering with Imagine Schools, Inc. to open a charter school in Ward 8, she has a Utopian learning facility called Imagine Southeast Public Charter School that is on the cutting edge of education.
This is a school in Ward 8 that has built a playground on its premises with Michelle Obama, literally, lending a hand to build it. This is school that has planted Cherry Blossoms to beautify its campus. Where else could one find Cherry Blossoms in Southeast?
In a community set in chaos, high crime and low income, one could only imagine a school like Imagine Southeast.
As you approach Imagine Southeast, one notices how it is set apart from everything around. It almost looks like a castle with the outline of two towers atop the building. It’s gorgeously modern in a neighborhood where everything looks old. Once inside, my delight continued in its vibrant colors, sparks of technology and sunlight drenched hallways. Within a few minutes, I noticed kids skipping to class, lots of smiles and multiple faculty greeting students that by name. On a brisk fall day, Imagine warmed me right up.
“Interaction with the kids is very important,” explains Scott. “They need to know we care and are concerned because for some if might be the only place they get that feeling all day.”
Scott is the founding principal of Imagine Southeast. Originally from Pittsburgh, she is a Howard University alumnus that has called Washington, DC home since graduating. She worked in Private schools and various charter schools, including turning a troubled North Philly charter school into the apple of that community’s eye, before helping establish Imagine Southeast.
Imagine Southeast goes from Pre-K to 7th Grade and is apart of the Imagine Schools network, which includes 72 schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Imagine Schools revolve around three shared values: integrity, justice, and fun. “Joy at Work,” is the organizational structure it employs placing teachers and school leaders in charge of the decisions affecting the schools and students they serve.
By the end of year one, Imagine Southeast achieved the highest learning gains within the entire network of Imagine Schools.
“Charter schools are the wave of the future,” rallies Scott. Centralized decision making helps to create a targeted learning environment for the students in Southeast.”
“Charter schools offer a great opportunity for students because we are allowed to structure a school that meets the needs of the community and students without the bureaucracy tied to the structure of a school system.”
Scott feels one of the cons to a charter schools is that, unlike public school, it doesn’t have a vast system of support. District of Columbia Public Schools, for example, have departments to help support the structure. However, the good thing about Imagine Southeast is that it is not a single agency, so it has Imagine Schools to look to for some resources and structural support.
The biggest problem facing Imagine Southeast is not structural support or resource; it’s lack of space. They have to figure out how to expand the school upward to accommodate the 8th grade in building nearing capacity. Every year Imagine Southeast has set an enrollment target, they have surpassed it. This year’s target was 599 and currently they have 609 students.
Parents and the community love that Imagine provides a safe learning environment for kids to let down their guard and learn. This is evident by its enrollment and its interaction with the community.
The “Cafetorium,” which is the school’s cafeteria/auditorium, is available so anyone from the community can rent it out and use it. The school’s library has over 5000 books for its students to check out. On any given day you might see a parent in the computer lab with their child, as I did this day. The school welcomes the community.
“There is a state of emergency in education,” Scott says. “The days of a school being a fixture in the community, and not active, are over. The days of a teacher being a teacher only, are dead. Imagine teachers are psychologists, nurses and therapists. You must have a passion for teaching youth and our teachers are committed to their craft.”
According to Scott, the kids in these communities are carrying a lot more baggage these days, so in order to get them to a place to learn, teachers have to first break though social and emotional walls.
“Behavior can get in the way of educators so mental health is just as important as academics to us,” says Scott.
One of Scott’s key ideals is that everyone should higher their expectations in urban communities, and Imagine Southeast is making huge strides in changing the way schools can impact our youth and community in Ward 8. Imagine if all schools followed the blueprint of Imagine.