Want to Build Student Power? Just Ask Washington Leadership Academy

High School senior De’Von is nothing if not confident. As he led visitors on a tour…

By Carri Schneider

High School senior De’Von is nothing if not confident. As he led visitors on a tour of Washington Leadership Academy (WLA)—an XQ school in Washington, D.C.—he proudly announced through a smile that he’s “probably more prepared than any other kid in America” as he looks ahead to college. 

WLA opened in 2016 with a student-centered, “our kids, our goals” approach. The original mission of WLA is still there. The school ensures that all students take four years of computer science and that educators prepare all students to be leaders and social justice champions. The school’s unique emphasis leads to impressive results. WLA set records in the District for exponentially increasing the percentage of girls and students of color taking and passing the AP Computer Science exam. This accomplishment even earned them a diversity award from the College Board. 

In a few weeks, WLA will have its first “normal” graduation ceremony since its founding. Due to the pandemic, the school honored its first graduating class virtually in 2020 and its second graduating class—the class of 2021—with a limited, socially distant ceremony with masked guests. When the class of 2022 walks the stage in June, they’ll have much to celebrate. This graduating class is persistent and resillient. They spend the majority of their time in high school living—and learning—through a pandemic. 

Despite navigating an unprecedented educational process, 76 percent of WLA’s class of 2022 applied to and were accepted into college. This number is even more remarkable considering 30 percent of WLA students will be first-generation college students. 

I met De’Von and two other graduating seniors, Dream and Alona, at WLA’s first College Decision Day—a new tradition initiated this year to build a stronger a “college-going culture” among students. The XQ team was there to celebrate alongside the students and larger school community. As we walked the halls lined with college pennants, we shouted out the names of college mascots on the alma mater T-shirts worn by staff and popped into a classroom to watch the premiere of the school’s College Decision Day video, where students ceremoniously announced their plans for the fall and teachers offered advice for how to make the most of their time in college. Later that afternoon, the school held a pep rally and college fair that included younger classmen.

De’Von is off to Morehouse College this fall where he’ll double major in Computer Science and Criminal Justice with a minor in American Sign Language. With five years of coding and four years of computer science under his belt, including computational art and computational music, it’s no wonder De’Von stands so confidently at the juncture between high school and college. 24 other WLA students indicated their interest in majoring in or studying Computer Science in undergrad.

Dream attends senior leadership meetings alongside the executive director, principal, and staff to offer the student perspective on everything from curricular decisions to the school calendar, staffing, and what types of professional development teachers may need. She will double major in Mass Communications and Journalism with a minor in Music History at Towson University in Maryland. Alona, another senior who led a tour, will also major in Journalism, beginning her college journey in a study abroad program in Costa Rica later this summer. Despite only being at WLA for her last two years of high school after transferring from an art-focused high school in the district, Alona credits WLA with helping her to become “the best version of herself.” She said she just wasn’t “the person she could be” in her last school. 

WLA has a way of bringing out the best in learners, and that’s not an accident; it’s a purposeful part of high school design built around the research-backed XQ Learner Outcomes. These outcomes represent an expanded and deeper articulation of what all young people need to know, be able to do, and understand when they graduate high school. They emphasize generous collaboration, original thinking for an uncertain world, holders of foundational knowledge, masters of fundamental literacies, and learners for life. XQ schools like WLA apply XQ Design Principles like meaningful, engaged learning and the prioritization of caring, trusting relationships to design powerful learning experiences that create XQ Learners. 

When these elements are present, high schools have a sense of mission and purpose that comes alive, even during a short visit. During our tour, WLA students casually walked us through the school’s state-of-the-art makerspace and mentioned the latest coding language they’d mastered—all without realizing just how different their time in high school looks from the vast majority of others. In touring the school, XQ’s co-founder and CEO Russlynn Ali, joked with students, “You do know things like ‘computational art and music’ aren’t typically found in the list of things high school students experience, right?” 

De’Von, Dream, Alona, and other students I have met at WLA over the years can each share something unique and powerful about their experience that illustrates just what it means to “rethink high school” in practice, even if they don’t realize just how unique that experience is. Some point to their internships and others to the leadership opportunities or the focus on social justice and student voice. It’s the reason schools like WLA and all the XQ schools and partnerships exist—to ensure every student gets what they need in high school to take full advantage of all the future has to offer.

“Everything over the years, all we’ve been through from the beginning, led us to this realization that students actually need to own, lead, and run everything,” said co-founder and executive director Stacy Kane. “We’ve really underestimated as a society what teenagers are capable of, but letting students lead has to be the new norm and not the exception. It’s the only way to get to a truly liberatory, powerful learning environment for all our young people.”  

Ashley Jeffrey, WLA Director of Special Projects, added, “So much of what our kids—our Black youth specifically—experience out in the world tells them that they aren’t enough. Here, we are doing the work of changing that.” When a school is organized around a mission to “prepare students to thrive in the world and to change it for the better,” it’s not enough to be student-centered; it must be student-owned, and student-led. 

What does student-led, liberatory education look like in practice, according to WLA? 

  • Students authentically have power and are extraordinarily empowered. 
  • Students own and lead their academic growth and mastery in liberatory classrooms where they think critically, utilize choice and agency, and engage in authentic collaborative relationships.
  • Students own and lead an empowering and supportive school culture. They develop and lead the structures that build community and create and implement restorative practices. 
  • Students own and lead meaningful operational activities of the schools. They inform and are involved in operational tasks like budget discussions and decision-making. They manage many facets of day-to-day operation from running the front desk to providing technical support and hosting school tours. 

Students aren’t the only ones thriving at WLA. For teachers like Sadaf Shahid, WLA offers affirmation of her profession. It’s the balance of “creative freedom and professional support” that helped her to “find her teaching voice” as an educator at WLA. She’s committed to sharing what she’s learning as a professional with others to ultimately impact more students inside WLA and beyond. For example, Shahid is an instructional coach who is part of a team of English teachers who played a core role in the development and implementation of the CommonLit curriculum that’s now available to any high school that wants to use it. (Read more from principal Eric Collazo on WLA’s decision to partner with CommonLit to create a free, culturally-relevant ELA digital curriculum.) 

M. Darden-Smith, a Special Education math teacher, says it’s the high expectations for all students that make her job feel different from teaching in a more traditional setting. She points to WLA’s co-teaching inclusion model as an example of the school’s commitment to providing the support that every student needs without “othering” them in a way that can feel stigmatizing. At WLA, the special education teachers and general education teachers work together and co-teach in such a way that they are often indistinguishable from one another. Everyone in the classroom benefits from the individualized support from teachers who work together to understand their needs. 

Principal Eric Collazo believes the whole school shares this commitment. “When it comes to high school redesign, if you empathize with the most marginalized in mind, you’re likely to take care of the needs of everyone else, too,” he explained. This work of purposeful design and redesign is core to WLA’s culture and ethos. 

Stacy Kane was only half-joking when she commented that everyone at WLA is “part of the most challenging group project in America—creating and running an innovative public high school.” She’s right; the work of high school redesign is an iterative long-term process that takes deep collaboration and a tireless commitment to learning, growing, and evolving alongside everyone involved. It’s challenging work that’s “never done” in her words, but it is necessary, possible, and underway

Learn more about WLA and all of the XQ schools and partners who are rethinking high school for all learners at xqstaging.wpengine.com and join the conversation on social media using #RethinkHighSchool.