Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Citizens of the World Charter Schools
Kriste Dragon was better prepared than most parents are when she began looking for schools for her children — or so she thought.
As a former teacher, she was able to recognize programs that developed and enriched young minds. As a parent, she also wanted to expose her children to an environment that would prepare them for the world around them. But Kriste was surprised to find how “segregated our schools had become, even in the most naturally diverse neighborhoods.” Indeed, none of her local public schools reflected the multi-cultural Los Angeles community in which her family lives. “I felt as if I had to choose between excellence and diversity.”
Kriste learned at an early age that access to a strong education could radically affect a person’s life. “I come from an interracial family in the South, one in which we talked a lot about race, social justice and the importance of education,” she said. “My father grew up in the housing projects of Birmingham, Alabama, and he always reminded us that his ability to create the life he had was because of educational opportunities he found.”
That message resonated with Kriste into adulthood. While attending law school, she worked in the public defender’s office, focused on juvenile court. She once saw a black boy under the age of 10 brought into court for violating curfew, shackled at the wrists and ankles. And when she paid a visit to the school that all three of her young clients attended, “I literally saw the school-to-prison pipeline.” The collective experience was enraging.
It was a chance conversation with a fellow law student that introduced her to the idea of shifting her career to urban public education. In teaching, she saw the possibility to pursue her passion for social justice and educational equity in a way that might help prevent young people from ever entering the juvenile justice system.
But after more than a decade of working in public education, she remained frustrated by the still limited opportunities for so many young people, particularly low-income children of color. For Kriste, the problem lay in “our collective inability to work across lines of difference or entertain a new idea without accepting or rejecting it. We as adults struggle to work together because we have different opinions and approaches. When I talk about that, I usually see a glimmer of recognition in people’s eyes. So if we really want to solve the problems in our society, what can we do in school to lead to a better outcome for our children, the adults of tomorrow?”
Citizens of the World Charter School, which Kriste co-founded and where she now serves as chief executive officer, aims to answer that question. CWC seeks to impact and expand the conversation about what an excellent education contains, requires and accomplishes. “Education is more than test scores,” she said. “We have to develop young people’s sense of self, their ability to collaborate. Will our kids contribute to society in a way that makes the world a better place? Will they know how to collaborate across lines of difference? Will they develop compassion?”
The first national school network with a commitment to economic and racial diversity, CWC opened as a single campus and quickly grew to three schools in Los Angeles, which consistently outperform the district and the state in student achievement results and attract seven times more applications than available classroom seats. CWC recently opened two more schools in New York with another two launching in Kansas City, Mo., for the 2016-17 school year.
At CWC, rigorous academic lessons are imbued with principles of social-emotional learning. Teachers train students how to recognize emotions in themselves and in others, encouraging them to take others’ perspectives and work together to solve challenges. The interpersonal relationships fostered by the students help them achieve greater understanding and defuse conflicts that arise.
Additionally, CWC staff creates “social maps” to identify relationships among students. Students who have fewer connections to others are given extra attention to help draw them out or identify what might be prompting their isolation. The practice builds towards CWC’s greater goal: to forge diverse, cohesive communities in which all young people have the opportunity to realize their full potential.
“My hope is that we start to hear language about love and compassion and joy and persistence in education,” Kriste said, “all of the things that I think are actually required to navigate life’s path as true citizens of the world.”
Middle school math teacher
Vice president of regional operations, Teach for America
Founding board member, Larchmont Charter School
Founder and chief executive officer, Citizens of the World Charter Schools
Citizens of the World Charter Schools
Founded in 2010 with one school in Los Angeles
Expanded to three schools in Los Angeles and two in New York City, serving 1,800 students
Two schools opening in Kansas City, Mo., for 2016-2017 school year