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Listening & Learning: How a Computer Science School in D.C. Thrives on Family Feedback

August 11, 2020
Digital Pioneers Academy founder Mashea Ashton is teaching 'the next generation of innovators'

“No one is born smart,” says Mashea Ashton, founder and director of Digital Pioneers Academy. “You get smart by putting in effort.”

That’s the message Mashea has delivered every day to the 240 middle school students she has served at DPA, the first computer science-focused middle school in Washington, D.C.

Mashea founded Digital Pioneers Academy to give students in Southeast Washington D.C., an area that has an immense talent pool but also includes several of the city’s highest-poverty ZIP codes, the type of school usually found in affluent communities.

If students believe in themselves, Mashea says, there is no goal beyond their reach.

“If more kids had that understanding about their ability, then the sky is the limit,” she says.

Mashea Ashton is founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy in Washington, D.C.

Mashea has spent more than two decades investing her time and talent to improve urban education across the country, most recently as CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund.

When Mashea moved to Washington, D.C., to launch DPA in 2018, it was a homecoming. She began her education career as a special education teacher in Southeast D.C. Her husband’s family has had roots in the city for six generations.

I spoke to Mashea about the importance of great schools, and her future hopes for her scholars and her school, which in 2020-2021 is expanding to serve 360 students.

Why did you decide to start Digital Pioneers Academy?

When my family moved back to D.C. four years ago, the timing just seemed right. Not enough leaders of color are given the opportunity and resources to do this work at scale. I thought, if I don’t do this work for our communities, who will? I have the resources. I have the connections. I have the experience. My first job was as a special education teacher at Anne Beers Elementary in Southeast D.C., where my husband went to school. I wanted to leverage my professional experiences and give back to a community that means a lot to me. I had also read an article that said there will be 1 million high-paying, high-demand jobs in computer science. I thought, who is doing something about that? We clearly have a supply of talent. There’s an unmet demand. Let’s close the gap. That was the inspiration for the school.

Mashea Ashton welcomes a student to school on Digital Pioneers Academy's first day of classes in 2018.

How would you describe the Southeast D.C. community and the students at Digital Pioneers Academy?

It is one of the most under-resourced communities with the most potential. Our students are resilient and creative and thoughtful. They manage circumstances most adults don’t have to manage.

What has been the biggest surprise or challenge since opening the school?

Early on, the thing that surprised me most was that middle school kids were taking care of their younger siblings. I was a latch-key kid when I grew up. When I came home from middle school, I locked myself in the house and waited until my mom got home. I have kids at Digital Pioneers Academy – 11-year-old and 12-year-old kids – who are taking care of younger siblings. We say, ‘Kids are kids.’ But a lot of our kids have the responsibilities of adults. We tell them that, when they are at our school, they can be a kid. We take care to meet their social and emotional needs. This means being safe to learn, being safe physically, mentally and socially. We also tell them that, because of their experience, they will be more independent and responsible than most of their peers when they get to college or their career.

You work in partnership with communities ... You have to listen when it's difficult, not when it's easy.
Mashea Ashton

How do you engage and get feedback from the community? How does that impact how you operate the school?

You work in partnership with communities. It means not just listening, but really listening to families and scholars about what they want and need. We started by saying, ‘Do you even want a school focused on computer science?’ We surveyed 200 parents, and 91% said yes. We value growth. We value feedback. You have to listen when it's difficult, not when it's easy. I had a clear vision for a computer science school and how to make sure our school was college and career ready. How we achieve that is by listening to our families. That has made all the difference.

One consistent feedback from our founding families was wanting more data and more feedback on their scholar's progress. Oftentimes at middle school, there can be an assumption that scholars are more independent and need less guidance and support than in elementary school. While we initially offered regular parent-teacher conferences, quarterly report cards and access to teachers' cell phones, our parents wanted more information. They wanted to know how to support and hold their scholars accountable to complete their work. So we adopted a platform called School Runner, where parents can access their scholar's data in real time. They can see attendance, homework, quizzes, tests and behavior progress on a daily basis. This has improved communication and enabled our parents to really be partners in educating our scholars.

Mashea Ashton

What do you want students to learn about themselves so they succeed at school and in life?

At the core of the school is a belief around efficacy. It’s this idea that you are not born smart, you get smart by putting in effort. When I was young, I failed kindergarten. I had this ‘You’re not smart’ idea of myself growing up. But then I went through efficacy training and learned being smart is about effective effort. That changed my whole trajectory. If you set your mind to something, even if you face obstacles, you can get smarter. You can achieve. I want students who look like me to know that with the right effort, they can be the next generation of innovators.

What’s next for Digital Pioneers Academy?

I really want to open 25 Digital Pioneers Academies across the country, including another middle school in D.C. that would feed into a high school. If we could support 2,000 kids in Southeast Washington, D.C., who know computer science, who think critically and creatively about solving complex problems, we will close the education and opportunity gap for this and future generations.

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