In any endeavor, great leadership can make all the difference. In public education, that’s been getting some renewed attention lately. The Washington, D.C. Public Schools recently honored the leadership team of Arthur Mola—principal of the dual-language Bancroft Elementary School—for making a difference in the lives of the D.C. children and families they serve.
We all know the principal’s day starts very early. Does that mean lots of coffee or tea for you? A favorite spot in D.C.?
Oh man, I’m Cuban! It is in my blood, and it’s my cultural responsibility to consume mucho cafe! If it’s not coming out of my own coffee maker—I’m a native New Yorker—it’s got to be Dunkin!
Talk about your education and background and how it shaped your career path.
I’m from the Bronx and attended New York City Public Schools my whole life, and I’m proud of it. While the times were difficult growing up in New York during the 1980s, it shaped who I am today, and created the level of accountability I feel every day for providing inner-city youth with a quality education and an opportunity to pursue their dreams.
As an adult, I traded coasts and cultures by moving to California, where I studied in San Diego, San Jose, and Santa Cruz, at Bethany University, and then began teaching in Oakland Public Schools. In Oakland, I witnessed severe challenges for children growing up in parts of East and West Oakland. I worked specifically with kids impacted by gang violence and drug abuse, and eventually created a nationally recognized class for middle and high school students called “The History of Street Gangs in the U.S.” Year after year, students who were at risk for dropping out and becoming incarcerated, were starting to challenge their communities and systems, and eventually became college students with a difference to make in life.
After I left and handed the program over to my successors, nothing was more gratifying than receiving letters and texts from former students telling me, “Mr. Mola, thank you for not giving up on me. I’m on my way to college!”
Your school was recognized for having an outstanding leadership team. The “team” part of that comes through clearly when you watch this. What’s the key to building a successful team at a school and overcoming the challenge of a schedule that mostly has teachers working individually in their own classrooms?
Who are we kidding? This is hard work! In my acceptance speech I said, “We thrive in the company of like-minded colleagues who take this work seriously.” Our team exemplifies this mindset, and it’s contagious. Our teacher leaders are highly motivated and highly dedicated educators who have a passion to see children succeed, especially our most vulnerable students. Just as much as they enjoy the opportunity to lead colleagues, they enjoy teaching.
As their principal, I work hard to protect their schedules…and their sanity. We meet weekly, and sometimes more often, to discuss scheduling, coaching and student achievement. Mutual collaboration and professional communication is a non-negotiable key to success. Most times I feel that they are leading me and making sure I stay in line with our commitments.
Talk about the dual-language program and what your parents and students like most about it.
We are among the few schools that are departmentalized from kindergarten to fifth-grade, and teach math exclusively in Spanish from first through fifth-grades. We have a high population of Latino students, English-language learners, and children of immigrants, who value the preservation of their native language and the multicultural experience that Bancroft Elementary offers.
As a member of the Latino community myself, nothing brings me more pride than being at a school where so many staff are bilingual and able to support the needs of all our families. I remember the days of being in a school in Oakland where I was the only bilingual staff member, and was called upon to translate meeting after meeting and documents galore. At Bancroft Elementary School, I feel like our whole school is committed to honoring our dual-language culture.
When you think about what you want your school to be for your families, what’s at the top of the list?
An institution of learning and development for the entire family: children and adults. In a way, we are doing some of that now through the Community Schools Initiative with Briya Public Charter School and Mary’s Center. Several parents from Bancroft, Briya and Mary’s come to our school to learn English, obtain job skills and learn how to become even more effective parents. They also attend our Saturday Academy program, too. If we can grow out these programs such that all nationalities, cultures and professionals can come together to form one large family of learners, Bancroft Elementary will stand out for being one of the most sought-after professional learning communities.
If you could go out for coffee with any fellow D.C. resident (past or present), who would it be and what would you talk about?
Frederick Douglass, without blinking. He makes me think of my grandfather: a man of dignity, class, honor, and above all, a man of education. I was fortunate enough to attend the commemoration and unveiling of his statue at the U.S. Capitol a few years back, and it was inspiring to see him honored in one of our most important institutions.
I would ask Mr. Douglass specifically about his famous speech, “The Race Problem,” and the emotions running through him when he recited those words. I would ask him to give it again, today, and have people hear his words when referring to the nation that had failed his people, “I, for one, have gone through all this. I have had 50 years of it, and yet I have not lost either heart or hope”.
But now that President Obama has decided to stay a resident of D.C.—at least for a few more years—I would invite him along too.