Demographics Are Not Destiny: An Interview with the Founder of Achievement First

Amistad_Charter_School

Dacia Toll, a Yale Law School graduate, is a trailblazer in the growing efforts to address the flaws in our country’s public education system. Shortly after graduating from Yale, she founded Amistad Academy, a successful charter middle school in New Haven, Connecticut. Charter schools are an incredible option for students who are not receiving the education they deserve in traditional public schools. They are tuition-free, but also run independently of the public school infrastructure, which gives their administrators more flexibility in developing curricula and programs to close the achievement gap between students from high-income and low-income districts. After Amistad students demonstrated outstanding performance results, Toll decided to collaborate with colleagues to establish Achievement First, a network of charter schools in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, with the aim of providing more students with the education and guidance that will empower them to achieve their potential.  

Last week, I spoke with Dacia to learn more about her goals and achievements since founding Amistad, as well as the various ways in which a charter school resembles a startup. 

What was your motivation in starting Amistad Academy?

I went to Yale Law School with the intention of working on economic development, anti-poverty, and Civil Rights issues. However, the more I looked at those issues, and the inequities that then played out in employment, health care, and a whole set of other community and individual outcomes, the more clear it became to me that many of these were really downstream effects of unequal investments we were making in kids. Specifically, it became clear that the public education system that is supposed to provide access to opportunities in life, unfortunately, was not working for too many students and communities. We actually have less social mobility today in this country than we did in the 1950s. I’m a huge believer in the American Dream and the land of opportunity that our great country aspires to be. It is deeply troubling when you realize that so many students who are not getting the education they need to access that dream, and they often won’t realize this until it’s almost too late. This wasn’t a hypothetical problem in another place.  At the time I was in law school, approximately 25% of New Haven students were reading at grade level in the city with one of the greatest universities in the world. We pulled together 32 community leaders and together we founded Amistad Academy, which opened in 1999.  As a charter school, we knew we would have total control over program and budget and hiring, as well as accountability for doing right by kids and the community.

Why did you think it was important to start a charter school instead of just focusing on improving the traditional public school system?

We actually approached the school district and asked to be able to help within the traditional system. They didn’t know entirely what to make of a group of social entrepreneurs and enthusiasts from outside the system and were not able to identify a way that we could help. We had an opportunity to visit several great schools, including KIPP Academy in the South Bronx (one of the two original KIPP Schools), and it was really inspirational to see what was possible for kids and how a truly great school could show very clearly that demographics are not destiny.

What do you think is in store for the future of the public education system in the US? 

Unfortunately there isn’t any one thing that is going to result in the dramatic, across-the-board improvement we need. There are several important aspects to this work. First, we have to make sure we are using the right yardstick to evaluate all schools, and, in particular, we need stay the course with implementing the Common Core, the truly rigorous college prep internationally benchmarked standards that are now being rolled out across the country.  In the past, we have not been honest with students, families, or ourselves about how well-prepared our students are for college and career.  If we don’t have the right yardstick, we could be measuring the wrong thing. I really do think that Common Core is a foundational question that we have to get right. There is some political controversy associated with it, but most states are still moving forward with implementing Common Core. Second, once we have Common Core, I think we need a robust system of public school options and choice. Charter schools and other kinds of new, small schools should be looked to as replacements for our lowest-performing schools.  Third, we need a strong talent strategy–we need extraordinarily effective teachers and leaders.

Can you talk about your collaboration with the design firm IDEO? What was your motivation behind this decision, and what is your goal?

We are proud of the work that Achievement First schools and students have accomplished, although we are constantly looking to get better. As we do that, we have decided to pursue two complementary paths. The first is to continue improvement on our existing, high-performing model. Second, we also want to carve out time and capacity to do more systematic research and development and “greenfield” thinking—in other words, imagine a green field with no structure built on it yet. We’ve been at this for 15 years, and the world as we know it is rapidly changing, both current reality and the future we’re preparing students for. We wanted to pick our heads up and look around the country and the world and see what the most promising practices are, both within and outside education in terms of maximizing learning, building powerful communities, inspiring people to reach high expectations. We’re now at the very beginning of what will be a five-month R&D project that will result in a blueprint for a new school model. It will be a charter school, but I think it will be different in meaningful ways from the current Achievement First model, though it is hard to know how different and in what ways because we’re just at the beginning of this process.

How is running the school similar to running a startup? Do you think it is useful or harmful or something in-between to think of a school as a business?

Those are two separate questions. When I hear “startup”, I don’t automatically think it has to be a business. You could have a startup nonprofit, you could have a startup school, you could have a startup bike shop or a startup hedge fund or a startup art gallery. I think a new school that is starting from scratch is appropriately a startup, and you have to figure out a whole set of core functions from your core program to your talent strategy to your finance and data systems. You’re building it all from scratch. And there are cultural elements to it – there is a sort of roll-up-your-sleeve, entrepreneurial, somewhat risky, late-night labor to all of it. In terms of running schools like a business, I think that there’s a lot to learn about running schools from other high-performing organizations, and I think these organizations could be found in any sector. But what’s incredibly important is to make sure that the “bottom line” is defined correctly. So the “bottom line” in schools is clearly not exclusively financial, although I do think there are financial realities that taxpayers and others care about.  The real “bottom line” is the success of your graduates. While we use test scores as a short-term indicator of how well prepared our students are, it is important to remember that is not actually the ultimate measure of success. The success of our students in college, career, and community life is what matters most.

Photo Credit: Consulting Engineering Services

Grace Gellman

Grace Gellman is a junior in Saybrook and a History major. Outside of the Yale Entrepreneur Magazine, Grace is the Human Resources Director for Kappa Alpha Theta and a member of Peace by P.E.A.C.E. She loves country music and all kinds of outdoor activities.

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