Op-EdOpinion

A Bright Light for Early-Childhood Education Passes

Cassandra Pinkney, one of the pioneers of Washington’s public charter school movement and a determined advocate for early childhood education, passed away last month. Pinkney was the executive director of Eagle Academy Public Charter School, which she and her co-founder Joe Smith opened in the Southeast quadrant of the District of Columbia in 2003.

Eagle Academy first opened its doors to 114 preschool students. Today, it educates 920 students from preschool through third grade on two campuses and is a firm fixture in the District’s public educational landscape.

With strong roots in the District from birth in 1948 to the end of her life, the then-Cassandra Smith attended Springarn High School in the District before graduating in 1967. This would take her to Howard University and, after graduating Howard, to George Washington University, where she earned a master’s degree in early childhood, special education and human development.

No mere theorist, Pinkney placed her time, energy and focus at the heart of the causes to which she was committed. From the very beginning after graduating college, she worked at Howard University Hospital, supporting and educating parents and working with infants suffering from the tragic impact of withdrawal from drug addiction acquired in the womb.

A tireless crusader for compassion, she worked to rehabilitate youth who had emerged from the juvenile-justice system. And again, stepping up to the plate for the needs of the most vulnerable, she became D.C. Public Schools’ early-childhood special-education coordinator before founding Eagle Academy.

In this difficult but rewarding endeavor, Pinkney was ably assisted by her co-founder. Formerly a professor of education, Joe Smith shared — and still shares — a passion for helping those in society with the fewest resources to succeed and thrive.

This central passion extended far beyond what many would consider to be formal education to include what many educators simply do not provide. Extending the hand of compassion with the understanding that it is necessary to care about every aspect of children’s lives and to be a helpful resource, Pinkney worked with parents with the same characteristic diligence, belief and thoughtfulness she displayed in every aspect of her career.

As part of her vocation, she reached out to parents about everything from establishing routines at home to healthy meals. This was about more than ensuring that children were ready to learn, and reflected Pinkney’s understanding that so much is learned at home.

Today, it is commonplace in education circles that what happens early in life — even before birth — has a huge influence later in life. However, when Pinkney recognized this and took it up as a calling, there were very few such voices and even fewer practitioners like her.

There is perhaps no finer testament to Pinkney’s commitment to education than Eagle Academy. As a public charter school, Eagle Academy has enjoyed the autonomy to create a rich learning, caring and safe environment — educationally and in so many other ways — connecting with families and communities in some of the most underserved neighborhoods in the District.

Eagle Academy, like all D.C. charter schools, which now educate 45 percent of all District children enrolled in public school, is publicly funded and tuition-free. It is held accountable for high-quality results by the city’s independent Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

Not so long ago, early childhood education was neglected as much as public education for children of all ages. But now, thanks to reform, innovation and the passion as well as delivery that Pinkney demonstrated through the success of Eagle Academy, the picture is brighter, clearer and better.

A year before Pinkney and Smith founded Eagle Academy, research out of the University of Kansas by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that, by age 3, children growing up in economically disadvantaged homes hear on average 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.

If unaddressed, this word gap can cast a tragic shadow over a lifetime as substandard schooling, so long the norm in our urban areas, ensures that the gap is never closed and children who are subject to it never catch up. This heartbreaking waste of potential is too often the final, tragic outcome of our public education system in urban America.

Exceptional educators like Pinkney, who want to do and not simply talk, are all too rare. As a society, we must embrace and empower their determined capacity to change our world for the better.

Cassandra Pinkney leaves us a legacy and an example — a shining light for us all.

Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.

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