My Sister and I Failed Kindergarten

My sister and I failed kindergarten. 

That’s how I began my keynote address in front of 300 education and tech leaders leaders on September 21 at CSEdCon. 

I opened with this story because my journey to founding a computer science-focused school began the morning our principal delivered this news to my mom. Failing kindergarten impacted the direction of my entire life in two important ways: 

First, it exposed me to the idea of school choice. Once my mom learned they planned to hold my sister and I back, she researched and worked diligently until she found another school that would better meet our needs. Every family and every scholar deserves that. In Washington, DC, students have that choice.  More than half the students who attend public school are enrolled in a public charter school that they applied to and get into through a lottery. 

Second, it forever altered the perception I had of myself. At an early age, I was told that I was not smart. A school that creates that feeling in a child isn’t a school any child should have to attend. I would never want my own children, Dylan and Duke, who are twins starting middle school, to have this experience. And if it’s not acceptable for my kids, it’s not acceptable for anyone’s kids. 

Inspired to give students a school experience that empowered - not discouraged - learning, I became an elementary school teacher in Virginia. After teaching, I spent 15 years working in various leadership roles in education, including the CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund. My family and I moved back to DC in 2016 to be closer to family, but professionally, I was not exactly sure what I would do next. And here’s where computer science enters my life:  

One day, I read an article about how innovation is changing the world economy in ways that were unimaginable a decade before. In DC, I read, there were over 10,000 vacancies for high-tech jobs in the metro area that would pay an average salary over $100k per year. These aren’t just jobs. These are careers. And they are careers that can break the cycle of poverty and build generational wealth, an opportunity many Black and Brown families have not had due to years of systemic racism and oppression.

This realization fundamentally shifted my perspective about the importance of computer science education for students–especially students from low-income families. 

So there I was - it was January 2017 - and the idea for Digital Pioneers Academy was born. In the months after that, I developed a 500 page charter application that outlined a vision for a computer science immersion school, with every student taking computer science and adopting a curriculum that emphasized computational thinking skills like problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking. 

The rest, as they say, is history.   

Not bad for a girl who failed kindergarten.

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