One Woman’s Lifetime Vision for Education Becomes a Community’s Gift

by Melia LaCour

At the tender age of 5, Dr. Debra Sullivan knew the education system was flawed. She vividly recalls receiving a stern reprimand from her teacher after reading an above-grade reading level book to her classmates.

“I don’t want you bringing books like this to school anymore,” the teacher said. “When you read that far ahead of the other children, you make them feel bad about themselves.”

In that moment, punctuated by many similar, dehumanizing experiences to follow, Sullivan began dreaming of designing a school that celebrates the gifts of multicultural children. After 50 years of incubating this dream, the school has become a reality. In August 2019, charter school Ashe Preparatory Academy will welcome kindergartners, first, second and sixth graders into its classrooms in Skyway.

“Ashe Prep is about cultivating the genius of all our children, our teachers and our families,” Sullivan shared. “People often say, ‘So is this a school just for Black kids?’ And I say no, it’s a public school open to everyone. We are locating it in Skyway because that is an area of need.”

The word “Ashe” a Yoruban, philosophical concept, spoke to Sullivan’s drive to create the school.

“It speaks to being able ‘to make it happen,’” she explained. “And that’s what I want for our school, to make it happen, because we believe it. Ashe.”

The academy’s design reflects Sullivan’s lifetime dedication to ensuring underserved students receive high-quality education. She intentionally pursued a career that would prepare her to meet this challenge. She earned a Bachelors in Cultural Anthropology and later went on to earn a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Seattle University. With more than 30 years in education, including a position as the first Dean of Pacific Oaks College Northwest, President of the Seattle Affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute, and author of three books on education, Sullivan has armed herself with the vast educational experience necessary to create a successful academy.

“The school is based on my book, ‘Cultivating the Genius of Black Children,’ and grew out of my work at Pacific Oaks College Northwest on research about what works for children from low-income families, children of color and children learning English. Vulnerable children have been studied for decades and a lot of the research keeps repeating itself. I decided to take what the researchers keep saying works.”

The curriculum is based on three primary educational components: culturally relevant continued learning, projects and studies at all grade levels, and student leadership development.

“The way these three things can come together are through community and civic engagement at every grade level,” she shared. “In kindergarten, the focus is ‘my neighborhood.’ First grade is ‘my city.’ Second grade ‘my state.’ Third grade ‘my region.’ Fourth grade ‘my country’, Fifth grade ‘my continent’, and middle school is ‘my world.’ And when we open the preschool, it will be ‘my classroom.’”

One of the hallmarks of the curriculum is the rich blend of researched-based, best practices for African American student success and time-honored Kwanzaa practices.

“The [school] day is going be based on HighScope. It was a preschool program that was offered at the Perry Preschool in 1962 by David Wiekart who wondered what would happen if he offered an actively engaged and stimulating preschool program for 124 black children living in a housing project in Detroit.”

Though the preschool opened only for six years, the HighScope Educational Research Foundation’s longitudinal study revealed graduates possessed higher IQs when starting kindergarten and were more likely to be academically on track in 8th grade, to graduate from high school on time, and to attend college.

Sullivan will incorporate HighScope’s principles: Plan, Do, and Review. Students will plan their lessons, implement the plan and then review lessons learned to decide how to engage the plan the following day. This form of personalized learning allows students to drive their own learning while teachers integrate lessons from various content areas.

“A student might say, ‘I want to make a paperchain,’” she shared as an example. “The teacher would then ask, ‘Ok, where do you go to learn how to make that? What kind of materials do you need to make that?’ The teacher’s job is to know what the students are learning when they make a paperchain, what math is involved in it, what fine motor schools are involved.”

In addition to designing the curriculum, Sullivan wrote a 32-page discipline policy that helped her clarify her philosophical approach to discipline.

“Our discipline policy begins with a Belonging Policy. In a family, parents would never say, ‘If you mess up your room one more time, you are suspended from the family for a week.’ That never happens. Parents know that kids are going to mess up, so they seek the kid’s cooperation. What needs to happen for a student to want to stay and what needs to happen for grown-ups to want to keep them there? This is a key feature of the school.”

To further reinforce this policy, every student will participate regularly with their Ujima Team. Comprised of a teacher, parent or caregiver, a community member and a peer, the purpose of the team is to support the child’s success.

“As a principle of Kwanza, it’s about the fact that we are all responsible for each other and that we need to engage in collective work. If a child is having a behavior problem, we would say ‘take it up with your team.’”

The belonging policy will also be strengthened by the language program which includes academic English and American Sign Language (ASL). The format was expressly chosen to facilitate communication between students who don’t share a common language.

Sullivan’s lifelong quest to create the academy keeps her grounded in the face of current charter school resistance.

“Families want options. At Ashe Prep, we don’t take children. Parents choose to put their kids into schools that they hope will better their kids’ chances of getting a good education. Every school should be a school parents want to choose.”

To this, we say, Ashe.

Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). She is a native Seattleite with a passion for writing and social justice. The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article