Stacy Kane: Charter School Innovator

Bringing an innovative approach—both high-tech and high-touch—Washington Leadership Academy co-founder Stacy Kane 10L gave the D.C.-based high school a big advantage in weathering COVID-19 and pivoting to remote learning.

Portrait of Stacey Kane

Stacy Kane 10L, co-founder and executive director of Washington Leadership Academy

When COVID-19 forced schools to shut down in-person classes in March 2020, the Washington Leadership Academy (WLA) found itself ahead of the curve in meeting the challenge of remote learning. The Washington, D.C.-based charter high school—which won the $10 million XQ: The Super School Project prize in 2016—was able to pivot more quickly than most, thanks to its high-tech and high-touch approach to education.

Led by co-founder and executive director Stacy Kane 10L, WLA had the expertise and bandwidth to innovate and care for a student body whose population—all students of color and many with financial hardships—was disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Emory Magazine caught up with Kane to ask her about how the school not only rose to the occasion of teaching from a distance but also found ways to reach out and support its students during this trying time.

How did your tech focus uniquely benefit WLA to weather the pandemic?

Stacy Kane: Working with the country's best technologists during my time in the federal government taught me that technology has the potential to change the world for the better—when it is created by people who represent the broad perspectives and experiences of the population, including diverse racial representation. Today, WLA serves as a launchpad for tomorrow’s creative, entrepreneurial, computer scientists who make the world better with the combination of their unique personal perspective combined with their unique skill set.

All of our 400 students get four years of computer science and coding. They use technology the whole time they’re in our school. As ninth graders, students are issued a laptop they can take home every night for homework. For the pandemic, we were well positioned because so much of our curriculum was already online and our students and staff are pretty tech-savvy. The fact they were already able to navigate the technology for remote learning was a huge benefit.

WLA prides itself on being both high-tech and high-touch. How did you address the emotional needs of your staff and students?

Kane: Almost immediately, we got an employee assistance program, which offers counseling to all of our staff. We very freely offered staff time off for COVID-19–related issues and worked with our teachers who have children at home to be as flexible with their schedule as we could.  

For families, we provided emergency relief funding for those facing extreme pandemic-related challenges. We connected students with grief counselors because a lot of them lost family members to COVID-19. There are also some virtual-group sessions where kids can support each other. Our students have an advisory period every day where one teacher meets with 10 students and they can discuss what’s going on, and they can always meet one-on-one online with teachers as well.    

How have you drawn on external collaborations throughout the pandemic?

Kane: We’ve joined group discussions with the national Charter School Growth Fund, the local Alliance for Charter Schools, and an informal D.C. group we call Education Leaders for Sanity. We’re all in crisis mode, so there’s a lot more sharing of best practices in terms of opening back up in-person, communicating with families, grading, etc.

Right now, we’re collaborating on how to make this summer the most impactful we can. We’re working with D.C.’s summer youth-employment program to pay students to come to class this summer, so they can recover some class credits and not have to forgo a job. It will be a mini-stimulus; these kids will take home more than $1,000 for themselves and their family.

What lessons learned during the pandemic will you build on going forward?

Kane: There’s much more opportunity for online collaboration among schools, whether it’s sharing online curriculum or having the best AP biology instructor in the city teach remotely across multiple campuses.

It would be cool to figure out ways to make schedules more flexible, so that both teachers and students might be able to have class from home, say, one day a week. Everyone now has this remote learning infrastructure they can build on.

Also, students have a lot more agency over their bodies with remote learning. They can get up and move around when they need to. So, we’ve been talking about how to build that flexibility into the in-person classroom experience, to allow for more independence and honor the ownership that kids had to take when learning from home.

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