In the aftermath of her death, friends, family and colleagues of Cornelia Vannessa Spinner continue to remember her as a pioneer in adult education who helped District adult learners strengthen their capacity for 21st-century employment and postsecondary education.
A decade ago, the beloved figure known to many as Connie Spinner launched Community College Preparatory Academy (CC Prep), the District’s first Southeast-based adult public charter school designed specifically for adult students who aged out of K-12 education without a high school diploma.
Since its inception, CC Prep has helped hundreds of adults acquire their high school diploma from its headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and more recently Wheeler Road in Southeast, in preparation for the rigor of college and career. For some people, like Shannon V. Webster, the program’s success and longevity highlights Spinner’s passion for helping adult learners reacclimate to a classroom environment that might not have been the most welcoming to them during their childhood.
“It was Connie Spinner’s vision to establish an institution that served people from Wards 5, 7 and 8. It was [located] east of the Anacostia River and we were the first. Ten years later, we’re still here,” said Webster, CC Prep’s wellness manager and Spinner’s niece.
In her role, Webster established student support services that addressed adult learners’ socioemotional needs as they reengaged an academic environment. She said the arrangement reflected Spinner’s insistence that adult learners be able to own their unique experiences while obtaining a high school diploma and career and technical credentials.
“You’re not pouring into adult learners like children. You’re extracting from their experiences and making [education] relatable to their lives,” Webster said as she explained Spinner’s philosophy. “Adults have a sense of immediacy when responding to their needs. Adults bring their former learning identity with them and if it isn’t positive you have to work with that.”
The Community Remembers a Legend
On July 7, Spinner died at the age of 77. At the time of her death, CC Prep had been approaching the end of its 10th year as an institution where adult learners could further prepare for postsecondary opportunities.
At the time of its 10-year charter review, CC Prep had an enrollment of more than 600 students. Adult learners who enroll in the program embark on pathways to college and career, or certifications in healthcare, information technology, construction, Google analytics and administration.
Another important element involved student support services, through which students developed life plans and strengthened their connection to CC Prep. Spinner, known to introduce adult learners to new words while conversing with them, often extended her advocacy to the courtroom where she spoke on behalf of students.
Thomas Gore, CC Prep’s former student support services director, said that Spinner took steps to ensure that students had collective ownership of the school community and could learn comfortably and confidently.
“The adult learner should have a clean, safe and welcoming environment that produces the ability to learn, “ Gore said. “Connie Spinner created spaces that were immaculate and well-lit. People [in the building] are respectful of students. She created an atmosphere for adult learners and provided them with resources to be successful in achieving their outcomes.”
Spinner, a lifelong D.C. resident, was born on May 25, 1946. She lived in the Deanwood community as the oldest of eight children. Upon her graduation from the now-shuttered Spingarn High School in Northeast, Spinner attended what was then D.C. Teachers College on Georgia Avenue in Northwest.
There, she earned an education degree and became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Years later, Spinner went on to learn various languages and earn a master’s degree in educational leadership.
Early on in her teaching career, Spinner served as an English teacher at the Franklin School for Adult Education in Northwest. She also established the Frederick Douglass Early Childhood Learning Center on Stanton Road in Southeast. That project would count among many on which she served as a consultant in organizational development.
In 2013, Spinner opened CC Prep in 2405 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, right in the heart of the Anacostia community. This endeavor followed her years of service as director of the D.C. State Education Office under D.C. Mayor Anthony Willliams. At the University of the District of Columbia – Community College, Spinner served as dean in the Division of Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning.
Over the past few weeks, CC Prep students, alumni, staff members and community members have honored Spinner’s memory. The most recent function took place at the pavilion of Sycamore & Oak in Congress Heights in Southeast. During the two-hour program, CC Prep board member Monica Ray offered reflections, as did business magnate Phinis Jones, CC Prep executive director Dr. Wallace Henry III, writer Elijah Moses, CC Prep student success specialist Norm Nixon, and Alicia Harris, along with several other community members.
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) also provided comments via his chief of staff Sheila Bunn.
“Connie dedicated her career to the pursuit of excellence in education; particularly adult education and lifelong learning. Countless people were uplifted and empowered by her commitment to delivering knowledge, skills and inspiration to students of all ages,” Gray’s statement read.
“Connie saw the need for, and therefore worked tirelessly to create the Community College Preparatory Academy, which has changed the lives of adult students for the past decade,” Gray continued. “Our beloved city and schools were made better by Connie.”
Serving as a Voice for Adult Public Charter Schools
CC Prep counts among nine adult public charter schools in D.C. It, along with Academy of Hope PCS and Maya Angelou PCS – Young Adult Learning Center, are located east of the Anacostia River. Adult learners who attend CC Prep attend classes at their own pace and during one of three four-hour increments allotted.
Earlier this year, the D.C. Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) voted to continue CC Prep’s charter.
CC Prep adopted DCPCSB’s Peformance Management Framework as its charter goals, which means that, in order to stay open, the school needed to score at least 50% in three out of four categories in the Adult Education Performance Management Framework. It also could not mismanage funds or be found in violation of the law or its charter.
To further support evaluation during the COVID-19 recovery period, DCPCSB also collected 2021-2022 school year transitional data, including adult basic education growth, attainment of career and technical education certification, attendance and persistence.
While at the helm of CC Prep, Spinner, along with her colleagues, developed close relationships with residents in the surrounding community. Prospective students, whose ages ranging from 18 to the 80s often walked into CC Prep after learning about it from those who stood along a strip of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue that was often saturated with police activity.
Another aspect of CC Prep’s progression as a premier adult public charter school, as explained by former CC Prep employee Monica Jones, was Spinner’s ability to articulate to DCPCSB the differences between adult public charter schools and conventional K-12 institutions.
Jones said that Spinner’s advocacy compelled DCPCSB to adopt the Adult Performance Management Framework for adult education public charter schools in 2018.
In 2013, Jones joined CC Prep as the director of operations. She served in that role until 2020 when she became CC Prep’s board liaison. Earlier this year, Jones once again became director of operations, a role she would serve until July 7.
As director of operations, Jones worked closely to ensure that CC Prep met benchmarks set by DCPCSB, reached its annual enrollment projections, and demonstrated fiscal sustainability. Even with slightly lower per-pupil funding allocated to CC Prep than what K-12 public charters received, CC Prep still fulfilled its mission due to what Jones described as Spinner’s insistence on heavily investing in student services, keeping a small administrative team, and surpassing yearly savings goals.
Jones said she and Spinner spent much of their time together. If they weren’t delving into finances and operations together, they traveled to other jurisdictions to check out other adult education programs, or crafted plans to ensure CC Prep’s longevity and that of other adult public charter schools.
“We did a lot of masterminding around a program that could be duplicated for any adult learner,” Jones said.
“What’s unique about any charter school, but specifically adult public charter schools, is that they give residents the same level of education that’s given west of the Anacostia River,” she continued. “It’s where students feel like we care [because] they don’t feel acknowledged and cared for like [students would be] in Ward 2 and 4.”
Some people, like Deborah Wells, echoed those sentiments, telling The Informer that CC Prep served as a launching pad for a new life.
In 2015, Wells stepped into CC Prep at the age of 58. Though she had already obtained her GED, Wells recounted wanting to reacclimate herself to the classroom environment in preparation for community college.
While at CC Prep, Wells took in Spinner’s messages about resilience while re-learning algebra and sharpening her essay writing skills. She went on to earn her associate degree from UDC – Community College in 2019. In May, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English from UDC.
These days, Wells serves as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in single-member district 8E01, which includes portions of Southern Avenue in Southeast. She credits CC Prep with preparing her to effectively write and speak to people. Wells also gave credence to Spinner, whose vision allowed her to fulfill her long-term education goals.
“Ms. Spinner had a love for education,” Wells said. “I’m grateful that she had a vision for CC Prep and I was able to attend there. When I get down and low and ready to quit, Ms. Spinner’s words come to mind. I remember her for how she told us to be resilient. That gives me the strength to carry on.”
CC Prep Looks Forward, With Spinner‘s Legacy as the Foundation
Staff members say that up until its move to the campus of KIPP Legacy Prep Academy on Wheeler Road in 2015, CC Prep staff members hadn’t reported any issues with members of the Anacostia community.
Dr. Wallace Henry III, CC Prep’s current CEO, credited this phenomenon to the ease with which Spinner connected with students.
Henry came into his role in the spring of 2022 after initially serving as CC Prep’s director of academics and training. Under Spinner’s direction, Henry attempted to strengthen CC Prep’s leadership structure and create situations where team members can collaborate. Henry said Spinner broke similar ground before the pandemic with leaders of other local adult public charter schools.
“I saw Connie Spinner’s impact with students and the tremendous amount of respect that each person had for her,” Henry said. “I’m glad that we got to celebrate here last year [while] going into our tenth year and doing several things to let her know her support and wisdom was appreciated.”