By Saraya Wintersmith
For Cedar Tree Academy Executive Director, Dr. LaTonya Henderson, being the leader is almost as natural as breathing. When young friends gathered to play school in her old neighborhood, she always assumed the role of the teacher. Now, at 44, Dr. Henderson holds three degrees and heads an early learning institution that shines a beam of hope into an area of the city that many others have neglected.
Though Dr. Henderson originally hails from Marked Tree, Arkansas, she’s lived and taught in the District for nearly 20 years. She decided to head Cedar Tree Academy after a major restructuring effort of the school formally known as Howard Road. As the academy’s Executive Director, she oversees each and every aspect of its operation from budget to personnel down to curriculum. “It’s an all-encompassing position,” she says with a bright smile “And I love it.” She says her job as an administrator at Cedar Tree allows her to reach both teachers and student and have a greater positive impact.
Located in Southeast D.C., Cedar Tree Academy takes its name from local hero Frederick Douglass’ estate Cedar Hill. The school provides Pre-kindergarten 3, Pre-kindergarten 4 and Kindergarten education to 320 children. Whereas most schools are simply trying to educate students, Dr. Henderson and her staff are also confronting the challenge of meeting basic social, emotional and environmental needs. “On an ideal school day, all the children would come to school in uniform, well-rested and ready for class. Everyone would go into classrooms and be actively engaged in the learning process…but that’s not reality,” Henderson says.
More than half the population at Cedar Tree is at or below the poverty line and third of the school’s population is homeless. “When you don’t know what you’ll eat, or where you’re going to stay at night, functioning during the day becomes a challenge,” says Henderson. “We understand you can’t really focus on school if you don’t know where you’re going to stay or what you’re going to eat.” To address these issues, the school features a unique parent resource center that assists families with some of the common, yet hard to address problems that plague families in an impoverished neighborhood. Dr. Henderson says they’ve already been able to help families get access to housing and furniture through coordination with other groups and agencies. Helping families this way is big part of the reason Henderson decided to stay in the District’s east of the river community.
As the youngest of 11 children in a single-parent home, Dr. Henderson is intimately familiar with the challenges facing her students and their families. She believes that by creating a loving environment with high expectations, Cedar Tree is pushing its students to change things like generational poverty and illiteracy. “I believe with 3, 4, and 5 year olds, you lay the foundation,” she says. “When you leave kindergarten reading, no one can take that away from you and I know that you build better houses on a solid foundation.”
Henderson’s advice to up and coming education professionals: This job represents a renewed commitment every single day. Bring your “A” game because these kids deserve it.