President and Co-CEO
Achievement First Public Charter Schools
For those of us really interested in eliminating poverty, the question is: What are the best strategies to do that? The most powerful lever we have is to equip kids with a great education, which will allow them to access all kinds of opportunities in life.
In a middle school gymnasium filled with 300 young people, a front-office employee is serving as deejay as the dean of students picks up the microphone to pump up the crowd. Suddenly, the gym doors fly open and two teachers enter, wearing black suits and pretending to whisper into security earpieces. They clear a path for a red carpet to be unrolled along the length of the gym floor. The students look around in awe, trying to spot the VIP at the root of the ruckus.
The dean bellows, “Standing five-foot-one, from the Amani class, let’s hear it for Allllllberrrrt Maldonaaaaaaadooo!”
As Albert enters the gym, the dean asks the students, “What do you think Albert got in science?”
The kids respond, “A!”
Teachers frantically snap pictures of Albert like paparazzi as he walks the red carpet to a cordoned-off section of the gym.
“What do you think Albert got in math?”
Albert is an Ace. Several times a year, Amistad Academy Middle School in New Haven, Connecticut, holds school-wide assemblies to celebrate academic excellence. Dacia Toll, Amistad’s co-founder and the co-CEO and president of Achievement First Public Charter Schools, says, “In most schools, ‘A’ students are treated like nerds, not like the cool ones. Our Aces feel like a million bucks.”
Grand celebrations for good grades are a small part of what Toll calls the school’s “j-factor,” or joy factor. At Achievement First, that j-factor is combined with dogged pursuit of excellence and attention to detail. “We sweat the small stuff,” Dacia says. “But it’s matched by warmth and love and joy.”
Five years after opening in 1996, Amistad Academy was receiving seven applications for every available seat. Dacia and her team’s initial goal — to create a great school — was soon replaced by a desire
to give even more students the same opportunity. She remembers, in particular, a conversation with a prospective student’s grandmother during an enrollment lottery. “She said to me, ‘You mean, whether my grandson gets a good education depends on luck?’ Unfortunately, the answer was yes.”
As a result, that single school has grown into a network of more than two dozen campuses in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island that are among the highest performing schools in their respective states.
Dacia credits her team’s “incredible willingness to learn” as key to maintaining their exemplary standard of excellence as Achievement First expanded. “We had a vision of what might be possible for students,” she says. “But we didn’t rely on what we knew. We visited great schools and learned a lot from them. From New York to California — and even in Canada — we learned that a truly great public school could serve the exact same students [as schools that persistently struggle] and help them achieve dramatically different results.”
That collected wisdom is passed on to every newly hired Achievement First teacher during a month-long training before they begin. Each teacher is assigned a coach who provides him or her with detailed feedback and help planning lessons. Once in the classroom, teachers are observed regularly by their coaches and participate in weekly professional development sessions. Dacia explains, “As obsessed as we are with maximizing instructional time, we end school early every Friday so we can do two hours of professional development. Every Friday afternoon. It’s a huge investment.”
The team at Achievement First is so passionate about ensuring that the adults working in schools are well prepared that it shares its teacher coaching model with Hartford Public Schools and worked with the school districts of Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut, to create a training program for aspiring principals and assistant principals. In the year-long Residency Program for School Leadership, participants receive one-on-one coaching and engage in workshops to develop them into strong, effective school leaders. “It’s bolstered our sense of shared purpose with the local school districts,” Dacia says. “There’s an understanding that we are stronger together. This work is hard, and it takes a lot people working together to make sure every child receives a great public education.”
Founding director of Amistad Academy
President and co-chief executive officer of Achievement First Public Charter Schools
Achievement First Public Charter Schools
Serve 11,500 students on 32 campuses in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island
100 percent of Achievement First graduates are accepted to four-year colleges; 85 percent are first-generation college students
Amistad High School ranked among top U.S. High Schools by Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report since 2014