How One Charter Network Leader is Managing Virtual Schooling

How one New Leaders alum and charter leader is creating a space where leaders can be vulnerable and develop empathy to coach their staff through more virtual schooling.
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Faced with the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C. will provide fully virtual instruction through January. Dr. Demetria Gartrell, a New Leaders alum and Managing Director at Center City, is rethinking how best to support her principals in all-virtual schools. “I want to create a space where leaders can be vulnerable about their challenges and frustrations… and develop the empathy to coach people as they rise and fall along the way.”

Like educators across the country, many principals and teachers at Center City’s six campuses will have to manage their child(ren)’s remote learning alongside their students. Mindful that a new virtual reality presents a need for greater support, Dr. Gartrell is shifting her leadership development and coaching practices to focus more intently on empathy and stamina: empathy for how individual principals, teachers, and staff will experience this fall; stamina given how long remote learning will last.

Center City’s back-to-school professional development is shifting as well. Based on input from multiple stakeholders—the curriculum team, campus leaders, teacher leaders—Dr. Gartrell and her team will devote four weeks to training before school starts as opposed to the usual one week. For the first two weeks, synchronous and asynchronous sessions will prepare staff for a new digital platform and virtual instruction. The latter two weeks will focus on building a virtual school culture and community engagement.

Listen as Dr. Gartrell discusses practices that need to start, stop, or shift in all-virtual schooling, including redefining professional development, student attendance, and family engagement. “We have to stop making assumptions that we know what is best for our families… and bring them to the table… allow them to speak up and out about what they will need during this first semester to be successful.”

Currently participating in New Leaders’ freeDr. Gartrell is gaining a window into how other principal managers are rethinking schooling and professional development. She shares her learning and VLA tools with her principals. Best-practice tools, weekly check-in and meeting templates, and COVID-19 resources are proving to be useful. “On our weekly call,” she adds, “we talk about how they can modify any given tool to support their context.”

Committed to her own professional learning, Dr. Gartrell is also examining her leadership style. As part of the VLA, she is reflecting on her own mission, what she values most, and how she shows up in the work as she engages her principals in transforming students’ learning experiences. “In order for me to lead others,” she reflects, “I have to do my own self-work.”

Her advice to leaders across the country: Lean in no matter how hard or unknown or scary. “Just lean in and keep applying great effort and pressure to get through to the other side.”

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Demetria Gartrell

Demetria Gartrell

Dr. Demetria Gartrell serves as the Managing Director of Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. A former principal and classroom teacher, Dr. Gartrell coaches principals and emerging leaders across Center City’s six campuses. She is committed to ensuring educational equity and creating a safe learning environment for all students.

Demetria Gartrell

Demetria Gartrell

Demetria Gartrell

Demetria Gartrell


From New Leaders, this is our Leadership Changes Everything series. We are elevating leader voices from across the country. Today I am delighted to speak with Dr. Demetria Gartrell. She is the Managing Director at Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C. Dr. Gartrell is also a New Leaders alum.

So amid your busy schedule you decided to take some time and additional learning with us by being part of our Virtual Leadership Academy. That is huge for investing in your learning so that you might be an even greater resource or impact for the leaders and students that you serve.

What excites you most about the coming school year? And what concerns you?

Wow, that's something I've actually been thinking about a lot lately. Given our current state, I think it's easy to experience your own version of heavy. When I think about what excites me, I get excited about the idea and the possibility to reimagine school. I think we are primed for innovation. This presents us with the time and the space to stretch our thinking and practices so that we really show up differently for students.

On the flip side of all of this innovation and the opportunity to reimagine school, there are some fears that come along with that. I think the thing that keeps me up at night, or concerns me, is: are we able to coach people through this learning curve? Like, do we have the stamina to do that on both sides, right? Do teachers have the stamina to dig in and complete the process? Do leaders have the stamina to support teachers because we know that this process will look different for every teacher and every student?

There are so many things that we have to consider that we didn't have to consider before. Teachers will be managing remote learning for their children, possibly, as well as their students. I just hope that we can develop the empathy to coach people as they rise and fall along the way.

Can you describe your plans? What is starting, stopping and shifting for you all this school year?

In terms of teaching and learning, one of the things we realized was that this is a new space for teachers and leaders. And so we really wanted to create a robust professional development plan. We had to look at how we were developing them, which is very different. So this year teachers will be coming back earlier. We have four weeks of professional development for teachers. Had we not been in this space, we would have just provided the normal one week of development that we offer teachers. But this year they're getting four weeks.

We adopted a digital platform so we will be using a digital classroom. We have to train teachers on how to navigate that system. Teachers will be getting content sessions that are asynchronous and synchronous as well as two weeks of campus development. That's the time that the leader has set aside to support teachers on their culture and expectations in this virtual space, how they should engage with families, and all of those things.

With no in person contact with families and students, that has called us to rework a lot of policies and practices. So the first one I can think of is around attendance. We are grappling with whether just like showing up on a zoom lesson is that attendance or enough evidence to mark a child present versus a child submitting work for any particular class. We're still going through that process to finalize our attendance policy.

The other thing that we have been thinking about in terms of start, stop and shifting is family engagement. We've had to redefine family engagement. Our current state has afforded us an opportunity to partner with families in a different way. We've been pushed to shift our thinking around how we engage families. So, it's like, let’s stop making assumptions that we know was best for them in the way that we did when they're in the building.

We've had to come to our parents and say: What do you need? For some, it's that we don't have WiFi. We don't have the equipment that we will need to successfully engage in remote learning. And so we really had to bring them to the table and allow them to speak up and out about what they will need during this first quarter to be successful.

What is the most important takeaway from the virtual Leadership Academy?

Just this space of collaboration with other leaders I think is key, so you can see what people are thinking and doing you know in different places. This focus on reflection is also key for me. That it was really pushing the leader to figure out who you are and how you show up in the work.

In order for me to lead others, I have to do my own self work. I really value that thinking about who you are. What's your mission? What do you value? What are your priorities? And then being able to lead people through the process of joining you in this work to transform the experience for students.  

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