Eagle Academy: Soaring to New Heights

Eagle students pose with the Academy's Founder, Cassandra Pinkney. Photo: Eagle Academy

To get the attention of Ms. Zapatka’s third graders at Eagle Academy Public Charter School, instructor Nancy Meyers asks the students, “If I call out, ‘Ago,’ how would you respond?” The students reply with a lively chorus of “Ame!” To begin an integrated STEAM lesson, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, Meyers uses a call and response familiar to the students. Of course, the students don’t realize they’re starting a math lesson; they’re just excited Meyers has given them permission to shout.

By the end of the 20-minute lesson, Meyers, a master artist from Wolf Trap and the director of the STEAM program at Eagle Academy, has taught this class how to rewrite the lyrics of a song to reinforce a math lesson. Through “modeling, team-teaching and passing the torch” to classroom teachers, she hopes to give “every teacher one to five strategies for teaching math and science” by using the arts as a vehicle for those lessons. She hopes teachers “will feel comfortable with these strategies,” and plans “to visit every classroom at least four times this school year.”

The School’s Mission

Eagle Academy’s journey began in 2003, when Cassandra Pinkney founded the district’s first exclusively early childhood public charter school. Over the past nine years, the school has expanded from 110 students, ages 3 through 5, to its current enrollment of 740 students from pre-kindergarten to third grade. The school now occupies two campuses: the newly built main campus in Ward 8 and a satellite campus in Ward 6. Ronald Hasty, principal of Eagle Academy for past seven years, feels that “everything the school does is focused on fulfilling the school’s mission,” which emphasizes children’s “cognitive, social and emotional growth,” to help them become “productive citizens.”

Using Technology to Differentiate Learning

To foster students’ growth, Eagle Academy has Promethean or SmartBoards in every classroom; these interactive whiteboards allow students and teachers to save their work. This technology, as well as video cameras in each classroom, also enables teachers to share ideas with their colleagues and to review their work with the school’s instructional coaches; therefore, teachers can provide individualized lessons based on each student’s needs. Kathy McKeon, director of instruction and curriculum, works with five instructional coaches to provide teachers with, “meaningful, purposeful training that is a direct correlation to student learning.” While Principal Hasty “does a walk-through of each classroom two times per week,” and reviews each teacher’s performance before renewing their yearly contract, the instructional coaches do not evaluate the teachers. Instead, McKeon and her team offer another perspective with a goal to “provide teachers with the resources that make it possible for teachers to do their job and for children to have opportunities to explore their curiosity and to develop a joyful disposition toward learning.”

The prevalence of technology in each classroom, including iPads for each kindergartener and third grader, means Eagle Academy students have access to computer programs such as Lexia, which “will level to where each student’s learning point is” and “track how much time each student has spent on each task and at each level,” according to McKeon. With programs such as Lexia, “teachers can differentiate learning by grouping students according to their individual skill level and can track students’ progress,” she said. This individualized instruction enables Eagle Academy to have a strong special education program. In order to “make sure students get what they need, the school serves its own students,” by having support personnel on staff, including an occupational therapist, a speech pathologists, and a psychologist, according to Principal Hasty.

Building a Strong Community

The STEAM program is so critical because it can be a vehicle that enables students to build a bright future. Programs such as “Let’s Go STEM,” and partnerships with corporations, including Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, are enabling schools such as Eagle Academy to create age-appropriate experiments, capitalize on children’s love of hands-on learning, and engage in science-related programs like robotics. At last year’s science fair, for example, engineers from the Navy Yard judged students’ “going green” projects, which encouraged them to “figure out how to recycle things like newspapers and old toys” and then “make connections [using these lessons] when they go home,” according to McKeon.

Part of the school’s vision is to become “a community center, used 24 hours per day,” according to Principal Hasty, who mentioned that in the coming years the school will add a pool, a gymnasium and a medical center to “bring the community together” and in an effort “to be good neighbors to the community.” Once the swimming pool is built, the school will teach every student how to swim, an important skill that unfortunately many African-Americans lack. In addition to bringing the community together by offering services, the school hopes to welcome area teachers to attend workshops, and to serve the city as a professional development school.

Getting Parents Involved

A critical part of any school community is the parent body, and Eagle Academy’s program fosters parental involvement. Parents are expected to drop off and to pick up their children daily at school and talk with their child’s teacher. According to a study from the National Association for Education of Young Children, “regular updates on children’s growth can encourage families to engage in more learning-related activities at home.” In fact, parental involvement is mandatory at Eagle. All parents must “attend two events and put in 20 hours of volunteer time doing things such as listening to kids read in the classroom,” which, according to McKeon, allows parents to “see how their children spend their days and build trust with the school.” Bonita Ward, President of Eagle’s PTO, loves the school’s “supportive environment,” which makes her children “feel safe and secure.” She praised the school’s “holistic approach to teaching” which has helped both of her children “develop self-esteem.”

Eagle Academy is committed to supporting the parent group and to fostering a cooperative relationship with parents. To that end, it plans to include a parent center that will make “technology available to the parents,” will “provide a network of support, including a social worker and a counselor,” and will offer various classes, according to McKeon. Joe Smith, Eagle’s CFO, knows that with “more engaged parents and a more engaged community, more kids will improve and perform academically.” If Eagle can be a resource for the community, Smith believes “DC can lead the country in birth to age three research through collaboration with the various graduate schools” in the metro area.

Looking Ahead

With two campuses in two different wards, Eagle is faced with the challenge of staying true to its roots. Principal Hasty noted that “the school started small” and hopes to maintain “the homey atmosphere for parents, teachers and staff.” Because both campuses include pre-kindergarten through third grade classrooms, the faculty and staff will need to “make sure communication is effective,” though McKeon feels confident that “technology will support that endeavor.” Another challenge is maintaining consistent parental involvement, either because of child-care issues or even disinterest. To combat these issues, knowing that parental involvement is key to any child’s success, Ward would like to create a “parent mentoring” program and to have “a parent liaison for each class.” If parents respond to this call to action as enthusiastically as their children do, Eagle Academy will certainly soar.

Ellen Boomer is an Eastern Market resident, former teacher, current tutor, and aspiring freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, cooking and playing a competitive game of bocce in Yards Park. She can be reached at emboomer@gmail.com. \

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