I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently for an interview with Martha Cutts, the head of school at Washington Latin Public Charter School. Ms. Cutts sent a shock wave across the Washington, D.C. education community a couple of months ago when she announced that she is planning to step down making the 2015-2016 school year her last at the helm.
Ms. Cutts explained to me that she has been working in the field of education for the last 46 years. Most people already are familiar with the fact that she served as assistant head and head of upper school at National Cathedral School for 14 years. I asked her how she became involved in education.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Ms. Cutts replied. “My parents pulled me out of an extremely crowded fourth grade class in a public school in New Jersey. This was when the first wave of baby boomers was entering the public schools. They enrolled me in an extremely small girls’ private school at the beginning of the fifth grade. There were 22 students in my graduating class. I had wonderful teachers who influenced my decision to enter this profession. I ended up majoring in German in college and eventually teaching English in Germany for a year.” After that year abroad, Ms. Cutts attended Yale University in order to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching the German language and literature.
Over her long career and before joining Washington Latin, Ms. Cutts served as a teacher, coach, department head, director of admissions, division director, and head of school in the independent school sector. I inquired as to what her biggest takeaway was from these experiences. Ms. Cutts answered almost before the words came out of my mouth.
“The importance of small class size,” Ms. Cutts eagerly informed me. “Small classes, and I’m referring to ones not larger than 15 to 18 children, are important because they allow the teacher to give feedback to students and to spend quality time with them to an extent which is impossible in a room full of 30 kids.” But there were other lessons learned from her decades spent in her profession.
“Beyond just reasonably small class sizes, small schools are also crucial. When you have a small school it really becomes its own community,” Ms. Cutts related. “I loved my years working in girls’ schools. In my classroom would be the captain of an athletic team, the student government president, or the editor of the yearbook. Girls assumed they could lead as a result. The institution became a place for enabling the potential of these young women.”
The final lesson that Ms. Cutts wanted to make sure I made note of is the importance of hiring, respecting, supporting, and retaining strong faculty. “A great teacher can make a big difference in the life of a child,” the Washington Latin head of school asserted, “and having leaders who support them is critical to their ability to succeed.”
I then asked Ms. Cutts how she came to her present position. “In the fall of 2007 I had just completed a project for a school in South Africa and was asked if I would be interested in serving as the interim head of Washington Latin. I went to meet the staff at the original site of Washington Latin in Christ Church on Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. The fellowship hall that contained classrooms for all the seventh graders was referred to as the Thunderdome. It was pretty chaotic. Although the instructors were exhausted from having to practice their profession in this environment, I could immediately tell that these were some great teachers. I agreed to be the interim head of school for six months, and that was seven and a half years ago.”
Ms. Cutts recalled how difficult the struggle was at the beginning to stabilize both the finances and the hiring. Much of the growth became somewhat easier when in July 2008 she hired Diana Smith as head of the upper school. Dr. Smith came to Washington Latin with a similar independent school background, and, most importantly, the same philosophy of pedagogy.
Now that Washington Latin is regarded as one of the top charter schools in the nation’s capital, I asked Ms. Cutts for the secret of her success.
“There is no secret sauce,” she responded. “Everyone talks about good teachers as being the key. But you must have leaders who recognize how important the faculty is, who know how to select strong teachers, how to retain these instructors, and support them in their work and see them grow.”
Another key component to Washington Latin’s top tier ranking, according to the head of school, has been the development of a culture that supports the academics. “Everyone likes to talk about closing the achievement gap, but often they don’t talk about the culture that will allow this to occur,” Ms. Cutts emphasized. “We are tremendously proud of the education provided at Latin, including the culture shared between the students and adults. If you were to ask the first ten 10 kids you met on campus what was so great about this school, I bet 10 out of 10 would say the faculty. It is the time that the teachers spend with these pupils that makes the difference, the caring that they demonstrate, together with the support. These adults consistently go the extra mile. The school is small enough that they know all the kids. The class sizes are small enough that the faculty can interact with students in meaningful ways.”
Ms. Cutts continued, “It is the culture that invariably catches these kids before they fall. The teachers show the pupils that they want them to do well. The result is that the students almost naturally desire to help each other such as the high school students helping the middle school kids.
The head of Washington Latin also pointed to the charter’s diversity as a crucial and important part of the school. “Our public schools should reflect the racial and socio-economic integration of this city,” stated Ms. Cutts. All students benefit from the wonderful mix we have. It really is true that a rising tide lifts all boats. If more children of different races, cultures, and classes were learning together in the same classrooms, some of the problems we see in our society could be ameliorated. ”
Finally, Ms. Cutts listed the setting of high expectations as a key to high academic achievement. “We establish high goals both academically and behaviorally. We have a saying here that ‘words matter,’ and they really do. If we hear kids speaking inappropriately, we call them on it. Of course, the classical curriculum also contributes to discussions around moral questions that are embedded in the curriculum.”
With a student body of about 670 students in grades five through twelve, Washington Latin claims these impressive accomplishments: a high school which has been in Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework since the tool was first administered four years ago; a re-enrollment rate of 98 percent; a wait-list of 750 students; and one of the highest graduation rates in the city. The 62 members of the Class of 2015 earned over $4.5 million in merit-based scholarships, and the four graduating classes have included five POSSE and two Trachtenberg Scholars.
Given the school’s development since its opening just nine years ago, I wanted to know from Ms. Cutts how she felt about her decision to step down. “It is the right time for me,” Ms. Cutts replied. “It was an extremely difficult decision. I really hate to break up the team. We never could have predicted we would come so far. I’m tremendously proud of what we have built. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve met many tremendous individuals, and I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of this extremely special charter school movement.”