Chanavia Patterson always knew she would become a teacher, but she didn’t know she would become an outstanding mentor, coach and principal. In 2013, she arrived at a struggling charter school, the Detroit Enterprise Academy, and began a successful turnaround effort. By 2017, her work had drawn the attention of Michigan’s charter association, and she was named charter administrator of the year.
But perhaps the most important sign of success is Patterson’s willingness to send her own children to Detroit Enterprise. She talked with Education Post about the importance of holding herself accountable, building a shared mission and vision with teachers and the importance of having and being a mentor.
Are you a coffee drinker? How do you take it?
I am definitely a coffee drinker, mixed with a little caramel hazelnut.
What inspired you to become a teacher, and later, a principal?
The teaching interest sparked at an early age. Like most teachers I had that one teacher who sparked the feeling “Oh, I want to be like you when I grow up.” I played school as a child, I always had to be the teacher. Through college I never doubted teaching was for me.
The principalship part came later. I started mentoring my colleagues. I started to realize I could have more impact being a strong teacher, then mentoring other teachers, then it went into coaching other teachers, then it went into impacting other wings of the school.
I didn’t have principalship in my mind initially at DEA. I was happy to be assistant principal and focus on instruction. It was a challenge to be a first-year principal and come into a school that was in distress. My supervisor felt I was strong enough to handle it and it was her support that helped me get through. She held my hand through the whole process and she had turned schools around before so she knew what she was doing.
What was Detroit Enterprise like when you arrived?
The vibe was very dark and gloomy. It was an unhappy space for kids. It was no secret. That was the vibe from leadership all the way down to students and families. Teachers were not teaching, and students were not learning.
What was the key to turning the school around?
It started with the staff. I knew I could not create an excellent school without teachers being happy to be there. My initial focus was not on academics or student behavior. It was about teachers.
We started to get them engaged into the vision of what they could do.
Those who were ready to get on the bus are still there. The ones who weren’t, we had very transparent conversations and they are no longer here. From there, everything followed. We fixated on student culture. We didn’t touch academics until the end of the second year, when we were ready to make school improvement plans.
What sets Detroit Enterprise apart today?
It feels good.
In my eyes, DEA is the best school in the city of Detroit. Our mindset is: We are the best. What does that look like? We have highly engaged staff, we have students who want to be there, we have families who are engaged.
Unfortunately, Michigan has struggled to hold its charter sector accountable. How do you maintain excellence in a landscape where so many are not holding themselves to high standards?
I believe in self-accountability. As a leader, I hold myself accountable for the 734 children who walk into our building every day. I hold myself accountable to those parents. Before I look at the state, I have personal accountability. My own personal accountability trumps any state or city accountability.
When I went to DEA, I didn’t go with the goal of being Administrator of the Year in 2017. I was keeping my head above water. My goal was to create a school where I would be proud to send my children. I am now a proud parent; two of my children attend there. They did not attend DEA in the first or second year I was there, but by the third year they were walking into the building with me every day.
How did you know when DEA was ready for your children?
I knew DEA was ready when the climate and the academics were aligned. I didn’t wait until we reached the highest level of academic success. I did it when we I started seeing those jumps, those incremental gains.
My children were in private school. I pulled my children from private school because I felt DEA could match any private school education.
At first it definitely was a struggle just because of the environment. My children had never been in an urban environment. But DEA focuses so much on small-group instruction I knew it would help them. They’re getting small group instruction all day long and face time with teachers. Why wouldn’t I want that for my children?
They have been here two years now and they are doing wonderfully. When my older son arrived, he said, “Wow, the teachers want us to succeed. They’re calling, they’re texting—not just because I’m the principal’s son—but they do this for all the students.”