The entrance to Boone Elementary School in southeast D.C. is shown here. (Courtesy photo)
The entrance to Boone Elementary School in southeast D.C. is shown here. (Courtesy photo)

For the students, teachers and parents of Boone Elementary School, the end of the academic year has been bittersweet, not only because the coronavirus pandemic relegating young people to their homes, but because Carolyn Jackson-King, Boone’s principal of five years, would be wrapping up her last year.

Jackson-King’s March 23 announcement of what’s called a non-reappointment has incited cries of foul play among Boone administrators and teachers who contend that the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) central office punished their leader for rejecting what had criticized as racist, militaristic classroom management practices.

Some Boone employees, like Marlon Ray, said the writing had been on the wall from the beginning of the school year, when Jackson-King expressed reservations about aspects of the Relay instructional model and sought ways to avoid implementing it.

“Principal Jackson-King was appalled at the things she saw — our Black children being militarized and racist practices being forced upon them,” said Ray, Boone’s director of strategy and logistics. He described watching instructional videos showing teachers cajoling students into a straight line and elicit responses devoid of emotion.

“That doesn’t work for children,” Ray said. “Relay’s practices don’t welcome students with differentiated learning styles.”

During Jackson-King’s tenure at Boone, she garnered a reputation as a leader who cared about children and the community. Within a few years, the school’s STAR rating rose from two to three, and students experienced gains on ANET, Insight Survey, Affirm, Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), iReady and other assessments.

Upon learning of her termination, parents and staff launched an online petition and website in an attempt to galvanize support for Jackson-King’s reinstatement. The efforts gained the attention of D.C. Council member Trayon White (Ward 8), who has since sent a letter to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee questioning the personnel decision and requesting consideration of Jackson-King’s reinstatement.

“These superstar principals are doing what’s right for our children,” said Ray, a Boone staff member of 13 years. “The part of Relay that’s teaching children to respond to hand signals is not part of our culture. The Cluster Two instructional superintendent gave Principal Jackson-King a poor rating because of that pushback.”

A Partnership, Three Years and Counting

DCPS declined to comment on the circumstances of Jackson-King’s termination and of Principal Johann Lee at Kimball Elementary School. However, an official confirmed that officials knew of the belief among some people that the Relay instructional model further marginalized Black students from low-income communities.

Even so, DCPS, citing principals’ interest in staying the course, said it will carry its relationship with Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE) into the 2020-2021 school year.

Records from the Office of Contracting and Procurement show that, over the last three years, DCPS, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the mayor’s office have doled out at least $700,000 to RGSE, for whom the Relay instructional model is named.

By the end of the 2017-2018 school year, all DCPS elementary school principals, and some principals from secondary schools, attended RGSE training sessions preparing them to facilitate weekly data meetings where teachers analyze student data and develop improvement plans. Over the next couple of years, the program would eventually include schools organized into Clusters 2 and 3.

The data-driven instruction aspect of the Relay instructional model continues to serve as a mainstay in public schools across the District, despite some speculation among Boone employees that the Cluster 2 DCPS instructional superintendent — to whom Boone and Kimball report — place a greater emphasis on executing Relay’s classroom management techniques.

This year, Boone counted among 22 elementary schools where teachers received RGSE instructional coaching and professional development. Though teachers and administrators carried out data-driven instruction, some recounted Jackson-King not showing similar regard for the Relay classroom management strategies, choosing instead to maintain a community-centered campus culture.

Through the bevy of personnel changes and the school building’s transition from Orr Elementary to Boone Elementary, Principal Jackson-King had been a welcome retreat from the business-as-usual mindset that some parents, like Tammy Givens, said they often disliked about administrators in years past.

Givens, a Southeast resident and mother of four, enrolled all of her children in Boone Elementary over the last two decades. Her youngest son, currently a fifth grader, entered a new stage in his scholastic development when Jackson-King started her tenure at Boone.

Givens told The Informer that the woman she and others affectionately call “Principal JK” often addressed concerns Givens had about her son’s progress.

“Living in our area, you have to be good with people,” Givens said. “If you can’t relate, then it’s not going to work. Principal Jackson-King broke it down to students, even my children. I think that what’s happening with her is wrong, and I pray that DCPS reverses it.

“Principal Jackson-King fights for the rights of these Black kids,” she said. “A lot of these administrators aren’t going to do it, but she’s one of the people who cares.”

The Clash of Instructional Practices

As a principal, Jackson-King garnered a reputation as someone dedicated to helping teachers improve their craft, and in turn the quality of instruction and the overall atmosphere. Over the past few years, she encouraged teachers to apply for fellowships that would allow them to travel across the country and learn about innovative instructional practices in various communities.

Jamila Thompson, a third grade teacher at Boone Elementary and a recipient of such opportunities, told The Informer that she and other colleagues often, and successfully, suggested to Jackson-King that they increase student laptop access, reconfigure classrooms, and coordinate project-based learning projects to immerse young people in real-world issues.

For Thompson and other teachers who attended Relay-sponsored professional development sessions throughout the year, the classroom-management strategy couldn’t produce similar results for young people who’ve been marginalized in every facet of their life.

She said that Jackson-King, sharing that sentiment, curbed Relay’s execution as much as possible, even as other schools in Wards 7 and 8 had been in the thick of the movement.

“We understood Relay to be militaristic and controlling of Black and brown bodies. Principal Jackson-King didn’t want to do that, and that was her attitude,” said Thompson, who, with Jackson-King’s blessing, also coordinated study-abroad tours to the African continent with Boone students and parents.

“She shielded us [from Relay], and we were sheltered from having to implement [the classroom management aspect of] the program,” she said. “We did get pressure from the instructional superintendent and the Relay office. They did walk-throughs and observations, which were stressful. What they wanted us to do didn’t fit who we are.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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