Maisha Riddlesprigger: What it really means to be a DCPS principal

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Many people will tell you that the role of school principal in DC is hard. Well, it’s actually exhausting and sometimes it’s thankless. While all of those statements may be true, what often doesn’t make headlines is the tremendous joy and satisfaction you experience everyday knowing that you are preparing young people in DC to positively influence society and thrive in life.

During my nine years as a DC Public Schools administrator, I have seen new initiatives, senior-leadership changes, curriculum adoptions, shifting goals and implementation of various plans. The one thing that has remained constant is the amount of love and dedication that school principals, and district and city leaders, pour into our schools and our communities.

“Our students. Our future. Our responsibility.” That’s our motto at Ketcham Elementary School. It’s more than just a succinct way to capture our commitment to our families; it’s our promise to the families that we serve and a daily reminder of how we view our work in the community.  

A principal’s role is not easy, and I’m proud to have support from DCPS and my talented principal colleagues. I have served as the principal of Ketcham Elementary School in Ward 8’s historic Anacostia neighborhood for five years, and the increase in students who have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has made the role of principal and educator even more complex.

(Photo courtesy of DC Public Schools)

According to data from the New York-based nonprofit Turnaround for Children on trauma-informed practices, students who experience four or more ACEs are 32 times more likely to have learning and behavioral challenges, 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, and 10 times more likely to use intravenous drugs. These staggering statistics are why we must be committed to changing and expanding the opportunities that our students have after graduation.

During my time at Ketcham, my team has made significant progress with students who are considered furthest from opportunity. Since 2015, the number of Ketcham students who are proficient in math has nearly tripled and the number of students who are proficient in English language arts has doubled on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Over the past five years:

  • The number of students scoring a 1 or 2 (out of a possible 5) on PARCC decreased by 40 percent in math and 17 percent in reading.
  • Math proficiency rates at our school in Southeast DC are now similar to more affluent schools located in Northwest.
  • Student satisfaction rates increased from 73 percent to 96 percent.
  • Ketcham was recognized by EmpowerK12 as a Bold Performance and Improvement School for exceeding annual growth and performance expectations.

These data points illustrate that we at Ketcham are on the path to ensuring that more students in our Anacostia community can reach their full potential. Empower K12 predicts that if we continue our current rate of growth and performance, we will be able to close the opportunity gap for our students at a faster rate than expected.

In early fall, Ketcham will open a child-care center for children up to 3 years old, giving us the opportunity to expand our success to include the youngest learners in our community. As we begin a new year, I am excited about the possibilities and encouraged by our continued success. With our community, staff, families and city supporting us, we know that we can continue to change outcomes and opportunities for our students.

Data points are important, but they only tell a single story. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, the danger of a single story is not that it is untrue; it’s that it is incomplete. The work that educators like myself commit to daily around our city cannot be captured in a chart or graph. Each time I have an opportunity to engage with my principal colleagues, I remind myself of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by a group of talented individuals who are truly dedicated to urban education.

Someone will inevitably comb through our accomplishments and attempt to diminish the work that we have done at Ketcham to ensure that all of our students have the option to choose the life or academic path that they want upon leaving our school system. The reason I love my role as a DCPS principal is that for everyone who doubts our accomplishments, there are exponentially more people cheering us on and supporting the work we do each day. My principal colleagues, other educators, community leaders and families are all there to offer support, advice and guidance to ensure that we strengthen our schools and our communities together.  

I’m proud to be a member of DCPS for three main reasons: my commitment to our Ketcham community and what we have achieved together; the relationships that I have built with my principal colleagues; and the support systems DCPS has put in place. No data point will capture all of that.

Maisha Riddlesprigger is principal of Ketcham Elementary School in Ward 8.

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