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Straight Up Conversation: Digital Pioneers Academy CEO Mashea Ashton

Mashea Ashton is the founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy, a computer science-focused charter school that launched last fall in Washington, D.C. Mashea came to Digital Pioneers after a variegated career, which included serving as the CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund (where she oversaw a $48 million portfolio) and senior leadership roles with KIPP and at the New York City Department of Education. I recently talked with Mashea about the travails of launching a new school, how one creates a school centered on computer science, and related topics. Here's what she said.

Rick: So Mashea, what is Digital Pioneers Academy [DPA]?

Mashea: DPA is a new college-prep school that's working to provide a quality education with the aim that every student who comes in our doors will leave with the 21st-century skills they need to enter higher education and the workforce, and the passion to pursue their personal ambitions. We're finishing up our first school year at DPA with our first class of 120 sixth-grade students. We plan to scale the school by one grade-level each year, eventually expanding through high school. Our hope is that students and their families will see our school as a pipeline into top colleges and competitive career fields.

Rick: The school is focused on computer science, is that right? Why is that?

Mashea: Computer science has become the most vital skill for students to learn in the digital age, but public schools across the country have been slow to incorporate it into their curriculums. When I set out to start a college-prep school, I read about the incredible demand for high-skilled workers in the field and the high starting salaries. A large number of DPA's students come from low-income households. Our students need college prep, but they also need high-paying jobs.

Rick: As you know better than me, computer science is a pretty expansive field. Can you talk a bit about what students are studying?

Mashea: Every day our students spend an hour in a computer science class, which includes daily computer coding, and several additional periods of robotics class throughout the week. Our students are learning basic coding skills through programs like Scratch, and are beginning to write scripts in more advanced coding languages like HTML, CSS, and Javascript. By 10th grade, our students will have passed the AP Computer Science Principles exam and become fluent in at least two of these languages by graduation. Our scholars just finished their final project for the year in our web design unit, where they built websites featuring their own trivia games.

Rick: What brought you to this? You've had a long career as a senior leader at large organizations—what prompted you to take on the challenge of starting a school from scratch?

Mashea: It all comes back to this community. My husband's family has been here in Washington, D.C., for six generations, and I started my career as a special education teacher just up the road here from DPA. When I moved back here three years ago, I knew I could give back to Southeast D.C. by improving the quality of education here. After helping revamp Newark's public school system in my previous job, I knew the huge difference that quality schools can make in the lives of all students, especially those who have been underserved.

Rick: How do you recruit students for a school that's just starting up? Can you walk me through the process?

Mashea: Our recruiting has been driven mostly by developing deep relationships in the community through one-on-one conversations and neighborhood meetings. I was connected to several neighborhood elementary schools; I went to their principals and asked if I could do a computer science lesson with their 5th graders. I brought a robot with me and immediately had the scholars excited. So many told their parents, "You have to sign me up for DPA right now!" Additionally, we were out in the community handing out flyers and held a few open houses. This year, the work was a little easier because we had 120 new recruiters—our scholars and their families—who helped spread the word as they shared their positive experiences at DPA.

Rick: Another big part of launching a new school is getting it authorized. What advice would you offer people navigating the authorizing process?

Mashea: Listen. Write a strong application. Recruit a team that can help you execute the vision. Reach out to as many people as you can both to learn about the process and share your story. Build relationships with the people making the decisions and who will benefit from your model so they know what you and the school are all about. I did that with DPA and people knew how thoughtful and prepared I was in my conversations or when they saw the 300 page charter application that I spent countless hours creating. I made it as clear as possible that our school was different, important, and a value-add to the D.C. community.

Rick: Part of your model entails developing partnerships with local technology firms. How difficult has it been?

Mashea: We've done a lot of outreach to some major technology companies, and it's led to the start of some great relationships. Just the other week we had some of our students tour Google's headquarters here in D.C. We think this is an important step for us to take as a computer science-focused school. By going on "expeditions" to companies like Microsoft and Deloitte and creating relationships with these types of companies, our students will begin to picture themselves as, say, a Google employee.

Rick: I know several schools would love to build connections with companies like Google and Microsoft. How do you build these relationships?  

Mashea: Over the years, I have built an extensive network. I reach out to people I know and share the great things that we are doing at DPA. We invite people to come and see our school, to see the hard work our staff and scholars put in every day. In general, companies are very excited about the opportunities and access that schools like DPA are providing to our talented young people in the tech field. Our visits from Microsoft and to Google are hopefully just the beginning of what we have in store.

Rick: Looking back over your first year, what was the most challenging part of the process thus far?

Mashea: The hardest part is meeting the needs of a diversity of learners. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to preparing kids to be 21st-century college-ready. We believe that it's important to expose our kids to the most rigorous curriculum. As a public charter school, we have the autonomy to meet these needs. For example, halfway through the year we decided we needed an hour of physical activity for students each day, so we made it happen.

Rick: What's the biggest area for improvement? And what are you doing to address that?

Mashea: We've learned so much this year and have honestly made improvements in real-time as things weren't working. We are thinking really intentionally about our summer training to make sure that we have the systems and structures in place to allow our teachers to really maximize their time. We want to make sure our teachers are supported and energized in this work every day.

Rick: Drawing on your wealth of experience, but especially the process of launching Digital Pioneers, what advice would you offer to someone thinking about launching a new charter?

Mashea: Remember why we do this. If we don't, who will? It's not easy to get a new school up and running, and there are new challenges every day. We do this so that students can experience the joy and excitement of learning and exploring new ideas. Every student is a success story in the works. I have a favorite quote from Teddy Roosevelt that comes to mind: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds."  

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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