Recently, we sat down with Debra Sullivan, founder Washington’s newest charter school – Ashé Prep – which is set to open in 2019. Here’s what we learned about this visionary leader.
What is your personal ‘why’ – why you are passionate about innovative school design, and why do you want to start a charter public school in the greater Seattle area?
I grew up in Seattle, I went to Seattle Public Schools, and I had decided by fourth grade that teachers didn’t care what you learned – that they just wanted you to tell them what they told you the day before: Either filling in the blanks, doing multiple choice, or whatever it was.
Early on, I got in trouble for doing in school what I thought you were in school to do: learning and growing. I got in trouble for reading in kindergarten because I wasn’t reading Dick and Jane. I wanted to read more advanced books, and I read a different book to the class when it was my turn to read. The teacher told me that I was making the other students feel bad by reading more advanced books, and I could read Dick and Jane or read nothing at all.
In fourth grade we had color-coded reading, so you could advance through the series at your own pace. I thought, “Finally!” But by mid-October, the teacher told me I was too far ahead of the class, and I was going to make the other children feel bad about themselves. I even got in trouble sitting in a library when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and I was reading some book I had pulled off the shelves. The librarian pulled the book out of my hands saying, “Why are you reading this, you don’t need to know this!”
During my schooling, I experienced only one or two spaces where I could go at my own pace. In high school, my Spanish teacher allowed me to move at my own pace, and I completed four years of Spanish in two. It was very freeing! That’s when I started thinking, “What if we let kids have some say in their own education? What if they told the adults what THEY wanted to learn?”
So since fifth grade, I’ve wondered, “How could school be different?” Literally, I have spent 50 years thinking about how school could be different – student-led and empowering, rather than disempowering and restraining.
What school design principles are core to Ashé Prep?
In my 30s, I reflected that I was often the only Black kid in my class throughout my school career. I didn’t think that being the only Black kid in my class made a difference – but looking back I realize it did. School integration between Black and White students wasn’t fully implemented and wasn’t fully accepted. As a kindergarten student in early 60s in the Northwest, I didn’t know that and couldn’t have known that.
I tell you that because Ashé Prep is all about cultivating the genius of children. When I thought about schools, I wanted a school where everyone can learn about everyone’s history, and every child gets to develop and share their passion and can be and feel smart. I went on to get a Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and a Doctorate in educational leadership because I knew, someday, I wanted to start this school.
Ashé Prep is a culmination of my experiences. It’s a culmination of wanting students to strengthen challenges and challenge strengths. And if you do both those things, you’ll get a child who can grow and bloom and blossom. It’s also based on decades of research into what works for Black children.
There are three major design elements that Ashé Prep is based on:
- First is projects and studies at every grade level, so that content can be more integrated and students can have more opportunity to bring more of themselves into the learning process.
- Second is cultural and community responsiveness because I did a lot of research around what works for different populations of students, including students with special needs, and critical to knowing what works is asking kids: What would make school better for you now? And asking adults: what would have made school better for you then?
- Third is student leadership development, which means really encouraging students to take ownership over their learning, starting with the youngest of kids. Student leadership is giving ownership and letting students know they have an impact.
I know you’ve written a book called ‘Cultivating the Genius of Black Children.’ Can you give me a quick tour through major themes in what educational approaches research shows works for Black children?
If you don’t understand your own culture and the values and priorities around teaching and learning in your own culture, you won’t be able to understand anyone else’s. As Dean of a culturally responsive teacher professional development organization – called the Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education – I would observe classes and often hear teachers say “I know we’re supposed to be culturally responsive, but we have so many cultures in our classroom – I don’t even know how to begin!” I’d say, “Pick one, go deep, and learn as much as you can about what works. The best one to start one is your own.”
For the book, I modeled what it meant to pick one, go deep, and start with your own. I did research on what works well and is effective for Black children, starting in 1902 with W.E.B. DuBois, going on to learning styles, multiple intelligences, adult-child interactions, etc. When I saw similar themes come up over and over, I thought, “we should try that!”
Some themes my book uncovered included active engagement with learning, creative expression, interactive discourse, and a healthy balance of collaboration and competition.
In practice, active engagement and interactive discourse look like teachers and students reading something, having a rich student-owned and student-led discussion that includes lots of outside material and making non-linear connections.
You can’t cultivate genius if you don’t allow it to have a place – creative expression means creating opportunities for students to shine. Every kid should have the opportunity to teach or show the class something they’re really good at. We don’t let students do self-expression right now.
We also need a combination of collaboration and competition: Black students can be very collaborative, but they’re also very competitive. That’s why team sports work really well, and we gravitate towards them. We want to be on a team, and we want to show we’re good at what we do.
Finally, why did you choose to open a charter public school rather than a private school, or through leading a traditional public school?
What attracted me to it was the opportunity to have the freedom to create and design something that is based on what works, rather than based on fixing what doesn’t work. I was drawn to the opportunity to give intentional thought to creating something for kids who didn’t have access to this opportunity. It wasn’t going to be a private school or a gifted program, or a summer enhancement program; it was just going to be student-owned education.
I thought if I was the principal in the school district, then maybe I could have the school I wanted. But when I looked at principals, they didn’t always look very happy and fulfilled, and they spent a lot of time in district meetings, not working on cultivating the genius of students and their teachers. It didn’t seem like they were allowed to be flexible in their approach. Another reason I haven’t done this work in the school district is because I tried to – with at least three superintendents – between 2000 and 2011. The Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education offered to work with the (then) African American Academy for free, but no one accepted the offer so we stopped asking.
That’s when I started thinking about how to do it and what it would take to keep it affordable for families I wanted to serve.
There had to be another alternative for those who wanted to open a school that really responded to the needs of the families that was free and open to all students, regardless of ability. I was really interested in charter public schools because I knew they would be free. I knew I wanted to attract children of color, children learning English, and children from low-income families to be able to come to school and think “this is the best place to be!”