It’s almost time for your much-deserved holiday break. This time of year is an opportunity to reflect on what we’re grateful for, what’s going well, and what goals we have for the region’s future. We took a few moments to sit down with our CEO Natasha Trivers, Chief Schools Officer Duncan Scherer, and New York Regional Superintendent Emmanuel George right before the holidays to ask them a few questions about these topics. We hope you’ll read their reflections below.
What brought you to Democracy Prep?
EMMANUEL: Democracy Prep was the first charter school I interviewed with where kids actually had a play. I still remember seeing it, it was Little Shop of Horrors. I watched the performance, and I thought “Wow, this is a school with rules and where kids can be kids!” I always measure schools with one basic question: would this be good enough for my child? I was not a parent when I came to Democracy Prep. However, I was keenly aware of the education I would want my child to receive. Every child should go to a school with strong academics, a firm but fair culture, and an opportunity to express their talents outside of the classroom. Seeing Democracy Prep scholars have these opportunities made me want to come here and work. It was an easy choice.
NATASHA: I was really mesmerized by the Global Citizens program. I was floored when I learned that we send kids to England, Italy, Ecuador, South Africa, and Korea and that we do it all on public dollars. I was also really attracted to the civics part of our mission. Finally, I was really blown away by the way teachers use time in the classroom and how they really respected the brilliance of the students in front of them.
What do you find yourself doing most on the weekends?
DUNCAN: Catching up with family. The weeks are really full, so I try to prioritize spending time with my wife and my daughters on the weekends. I take my older daughter to her Saturday morning classes, go to the park, try to spend time cooking with my family, and have meals together. I really cherish being able to sit together on the weekends. The other thing I really enjoy is being able to get outside on a run or a hike, enjoy some fresh air, and get away from the weekly commute of driving or flying somewhere.
NATASHA: Right now trying to hack away at this Christmas shopping list. I have a big family, and all of my siblings have multiple children, so there are a lot of people to think about when gift-giving. I divide my time between that and seeing my dad and taking care of him. I lost my mom in 2020, so I feel like I find the time with my dad even more precious than I did before she passed. I also spend time with my two youngest children Kate and Lucas and my eldest son Kofi. We go out to restaurants and go roller skating.
What is a lesson you learned in your own life over the past couple of years, especially reflecting on the pandemic?
NATASHA: I think I come back to this idea that as human beings, we have this real need for connection. My dad is a scientist, so he talks about all different kinds of species, and we are one that HAS to have connection. You see how mental health issues have mushroomed during the pandemic because people are isolated. You see in the more positive examples, we still found ways to connect with each other, run school virtually, run town halls virtually, and show a musical production virtually. But it’s our deep need to still connect. I think early on in the pandemic, I was really really angry that I wasn’t with my mom when she needed me to be. So that was a lesson: that you have to be there for your people and family and put them first.
I think another lesson is that we want connection in our lives- professional and personal- and the landscape is changing. I am deeply committed to strong outcomes for our kids in their education. That is what I will do for the rest of my life. But we have to find new ways of making sure all of our educators feel deeply connected to the work and who they are working with and that they are deeply satisfied with that work. We also need to give them space to be moms, dads, sons, and daughters too so that the work is sustainable and they can deeply connect on the personal front too. So I’m thinking a lot about connection and how to make sure that we’re always fostering that and that even as we evolve as an organization, we’re evolving in a way that is prioritizing connection in all that we do.
What are the three major priorities you want to see for Democracy Prep this year?
NATASHA: Number one: to create a strong cultural floor in all of our schools. There has been a lot of disruption from the pandemic, but also we know that the cultural floor must be present for rigor and academic excellence to flourish. There has been an uptick in violence during the pandemic, and students have also come back to school with significant social emotional needs. We have to attend to all of those things, but we also have to be a place that is safe and predictable. We have to use predictable systems. It’s something that adults appreciate, and it’s something that students appreciate and need. That is a top priority for us to get back to that strong cultural floor across all of our schools.
Number two: to have a laser-focus on excellent academic outcomes and doing consistent data analysis in service of that goal. We know the pandemic has also exacerbated academic gaps, and our job is to get to those excellent academic outcomes on behalf of our students and their families. There is a lot of work to do, and we are really excited to provide more tools that support folks on the ground in schools in service of that goal.
Number three: to center the voices of educators when it comes to school design, sustainability, and anything that would improve their work life. We want them in front of kids in our classrooms for years and years to come. When I say educators, I mean every single person on the ground in our schools making magic happen for our scholars.
For this question, we’d like to focus on the New York region. What do you think it will take for us to reach those aspirations?
EMMANUEL: My focus for this region is centering children in everything we do, whether it’s in the classroom, from an operational perspective, while coaching leaders, or maintaining organizational structures at the CMO. Our children come to our doors in search of a transformational educational experience. Our job is to ensure that these experiences are commonplace. In order to make this happen, the spirit of rigor and collaboration needs to permeate our work. Collaboration within schools, between schools, between schools and the CMO, and within the CMO itself is needed to ensure that we are equipped to provide the transformational experiences that our scholars deserve.
What makes the NY region special?
DUNCAN: The New York region is where DP got its start. There is a real history of excellence, teaching, learning, and student opportunity within this region. There have been places to grow too, but I think this region has always been a place of excellence and innovation with people who are committed to growth, looking to build things, and to create new opportunities for students like offering new courses, extracurricular programs, or special education programs to serve more students. This has been the epicenter of our Network and of so many of our innovations.
It is the hope for all of our other regions to have a whole community of schools like the one that exists in New York. There is an opportunity for collaboration and connection with a shared identity within this region. We have an amazing Regional Superintendent in Emmanuel, and in partnership with his team and with our incredible principals, we have an opportunity to see a resurgence in community and collaboration within the region that’s really powerful.
There is also something special about New York students who grow up here, the parents who raise students in the city, and the educators who choose to work here in the city. There is a hustle, there is a heart, there is a level of creativity, commitment, resilience and community that exists in New York because of what the environment asks of everybody as an individual that is really special and unique.
Natasha, we’ve heard you talk about the idea of “Hearts Touched with Fire” a lot this year – it’s even part of the holiday gift – what does that mean to you?
NATASHA: For me, it refers to the education we provide at DP. It’s the excitement, the lightbulb moment, or that moment where connections happen and you can see it on a child’s face where they’re like, “Oh I get it! I’m connecting that social movement to this other social movement!” Or “I understand what division means and how it’s connected to multiplication!”
When I think about our civics DNA and who we are as a civics-minded organization and an equity-driven organization, I think about hearts touched with fire in terms of this: if we can educate students in a way where we provide experiences to them and teach them about enough systems of oppression that they truly understand, then they will be struck with fire in terms of wanting to fight for something themselves and wanting to stand up and impact the community around them and wanting to make the world better for us all.
What do you want for the future of DP?
EMMANUEL: I want DP to be an example of a network that has strong academics, strong cultural systems, and takes active measures to educate the whole child. I want DP to be a place where employees can confidently make this statement: “I work in a network that has schools good enough for my own children.”
DUNCAN: Many things. Top of the list is that DP has to be a place where students can feel like they can grow and succeed and actualize their dreams. That is our number one responsibility. We are a school system and need to be made up of individual schools that are growing and developing young people every day and where families feel confident that this is a place they can send their kids and they will show dramatic development and growth both academically and socially. Also on the list is that this is a place where people love to work. For adults, they feel like they can come here everyday and feel excited and committed and connected to the work and feel like they have the opportunity to grow and develop over time. We want to be able to do both of those things: amazing outcomes for young people AND being the best place to work if you are an educator. I think if we are holding both of those things as our floor, DP can go to amazing heights.
Lastly, what are your plans for the holidays? Any family traditions you want to share?
EMMANUEL: I host Christmas dinner for my family, and I cook. I make everything from scratch, except cranberry sauce. This is a bit of a surprise to folks, but yes, I do love to cook! My plans are to spend time with my family, go home to Long Island and spend time with my “first and best” friends, relax, watch a lot of sports (Go Knicks! Go Giants!), and watch my son play with all of his toys. Holidays are a time for relaxation, reflection, and goal setting. Holidays are also a time to pour into the people you loved first and the most. The holidays are a special time for me. I want to make new memories and reflect on the memories of years’ past.
DUNCAN: My wife, Tiffany, just delivered our second daughter, Shea. The holidays center around two things for me– food and family. The holidays allow us to be together in a way no other time of the year allows because the world pauses for a bit. I think the idea of centering ourselves in the fellowship of food and family together is a big part of my tradition.
NATASHA: I have a twin sister and our birthday is on December 22nd, and when we were young we would always go to the mall to get our nails done together. Now that we are grown, we go to brunch along with our younger sister. We fancy now! Also, my mom always let us open one present on Christmas Eve, so I have that tradition with my kids as well. It allows us to contain the excitement of our little ones a bit and sort of extend the excitement from Christmas Eve to Christmas day.