She Refused To Start a Charter School Unless It Was For D.C. Kids

ByJay Mathews
Susan Schaeffler

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the day I found Susan Schaeffler, then 31 years old, working in an Anacostia church basement where she was about to open a public charter middle school for mostly impoverished students. She and her father were developing blisters as they assembled student desks and chairs.

She said she was starting with just fifth-graders. She would call them “The Class of 2009.” “Oh, I get it,” her father said. “That’s the year they will graduate from high school.”

“No, Dad,” she said. “That’s the year they are going to college.”

Such big plans seemed to me bound to fail. But when I checked in 2009, Schaeffler was not far from her goal. Fifty-eight of the 62 children who made it through eighth grade at what is still called the KIPP DC KEY Academy middle school had completed high school and were going to college.

By that time Schaeffler had opened many more schools. As the chief executive of KIPP DC, she now leads 20 schools with 7,300 students from preschool through high school. That is 7 percent of the D.C. public school population. Her team has established high standards for learning that have drawn strong support from D.C. families while evolving from a focus on just college to a promise to help students achieve successful careers — what KIPP calls “choice-filled lives”— by whatever paths they select.

Schaeffler has overseen the education of more than 20,000 children in two decades. She is the longest-serving regional director among KIPP’s 28 regions, 270 schools and 120,000 students. KIPP is the largest network in the country of tax-supported but privately run charter schools.

“It’s pretty simple,” Schaeffler said. “I love the work.” She and her team have deepened the recruitment and training of teachers. They have made adjustments to the teaching of children with learning disabilities and provided mental health support. KIPP students returned to classrooms last week, except for those enrolled in an online program, created by Schaeffler’s team, for up to 280 students who for now would do better learning at home.

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Image credit: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post