Queen City Academy Charter School's Danielle West Talks Direction and Determination
When Chief Academic Officer of Queen City Academy Charter School Danielle West was growing up in Newark’s Weequahic section the area was praised for its stately homes and scenic golf courses. What it was not praised for was the quality of its public school system.
“Even in the 80s and early 90s when I was in school my parents weren’t as comfortable with the school system” says West “So I attended parochial school.”
Careful not to disparage the community they loved West’s parents never discussed the basis of their decision with her but their choice had a lasting effect on her perceptions about education’s place in society. “I think that is so unjust that someone can be paying taxes in a particular neighborhood and yet you don't feel safe enough to send your children to that local public school.”
Attending private school didn’t cause West to seek isolation from the neighborhood where she spent her formative years. “I grew up in Newark, in the Weequahic section, born and raised. And I actually bought a house around the corner from where I grew up so I am certainly, most definitely, a product of the city.”
After studying at a historically black Lincoln University, she returned to that city as an educator in 2002 spending seven consecutive years in Newark classrooms. This contributes to her refusal to write off the potential of traditional public education citing her first hand experience. “There are some great local public schools as well, and classrooms that have educators that work hard everyday.”
Still she says the approach to education reform needs to be changed in districts large and small. “What I begin to see more and more is that the things that in theory districts try to do, because of the massive amount of bureaucracy, it never trickles down to the classroom setting. And so those techniques or those initiatives they’re not followed out with fidelity because it starts at this hierarchy of administrative theoretical practice and support. So by the time it gets to the classroom many of the tics and the pieces that should be worked out are not worked out because the person who initiated it is so removed from the implementation of it. I think it applies not just to urban centers but to boroughs and townships as well but I think it's more pervasive within larger districts.”
West was advocating for policy change and adequate resources long before she was an educator.
During her time as a high school student at Caldwell’s Mount Saint Dominic Academy she didn’t allow her position as just one of five black girls in the institution to instill fear in her. “I was definitely the minority there were 5 black girls in my graduating class of 45 girls. 4 of us to this day are still very close. When we look back on those experiences today [we think it was] it was a great experience because it prepared us to have a voice, not just because of the lack of other minorities present but also just because it was an all girls school. So just being in an all girls educational environment and setting it makes you not scared. You’re not scared to speak up and to advocate for yourself.”
West and her classmates advocated for themselves fiercely throughout their time at the school considering it important “when we have a seat at the table to make sure that we let our voice be heard”. They even formed a grassroots organization to voice concerns to the administration (including the school’s refusal to observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day) “Because we were the minority in that setting it taught us to fight when we saw injustices .” An example of the lasting legacy they left? “They now have MLK day home.”
As an educator West observes children’s hesitation to show the same initiative she and her friends did when affirming their right to ask questions and express beliefs.
“I’ve always tried to cultivate a classroom climate and environment where kids would feel safe to speak up but I would still see it with my young ladies and sometimes even with my young men. Because they were in environments with the opposite sex they too felt like ‘oh my god I don't wanna say this’ ‘I don’t wanna look stupid’.” She combats that by “trying to assure them that in this space it's a safe space and no matter what you say, what question you ask, there's no question thats dumb.”
Her goals are about “culture building and creating that kind of feel where children feel loved appreciated and valued to share their thoughts.” She tries to work with parents who are present to support them inside and outside of the home setting. “Sometimes parents are present but they still have not taken the time to really develop for their scholar a real sense of self and affirm that they’re great and that they can do all things. I think that goes across racial lines, socio-economic lines, it crosses all spectrums. We see that now even with social media because we have so many kids no matter where you're from beginning to harm themselves because they don't live up to the post thats on Instagram or you know they look at a magazine and they cant see themselves.”
Young adult novels like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and television shows like Grown-ish seek to provide young people with a stylized glimpse of themselves. But in today’s mainstream media landscape West feels examples like these are too few and far between.
“I think far too often our kids are missing that. They’re already bombarded with images through social media. So if they come into a school or if they come into a classroom where they’re not celebrated and they’re not looking at images of who they are, or they’re not seeing the images of who they are through the novels that they read, or what they’re learning about, they don't get a chance to see self and have some conversations with adults who affirm and instill in them a value of self.” She is grim about the potential negative effects of this. “They’re not going to prosper. It’s going to be harder. They’re going to turn into robots that have that low self esteem because nobody is building them up.”
She knows from experience how important the role of parenting is in building self-esteem never having seen herself reflected in the women who graced the covers of the Teen Magazine issues that floated around her high school campus. “I was fortunate enough that my mom subscribed to Essence . So I had a sense of who I was because of what I saw in my house and the conversations that I was having with my family so that I would know who I was and what I came from.”
She believes those who don’t have children can participate in building children up like this as well. “The kid that lives next door to you ask him his name, ask him what does he like, find out things about him or her. I think those are very key things because you don't realize how those small conversations will then open up the door for larger conversations and you can have an opportunity to drop precious jewels on a child.”
West encourages busy parents who don’t have the ability to spend as much quality time with their children as they would like to make the most of the time they do have together. “Don’t just stick a video game in front of their face. Expose them to museums. Take them out. There are so many local things that are free. Just spend time and have conversations to find out who they are what's happening in their life.” She suggests sticking with this even if the child is resistant to the added attention. “They may not appreciate it now, but they’ll appreciate it later.”
Advice like this reflects her belief that the key to scholar success is about educating not just students but their parents as well. She demonstrates when it comes to a student’s self-esteem and other success criteria like diet and proper sleep habits. She credits her school’s impressive test scores to seeing the student body as individuals and disseminating critical information to each and every stakeholder in student success.
“For example we have a health fair coming up, our health fair is for scholars and also the entire community. One of the things that we have determined is if we want our kids to come to school ready and be able to perform we have to make sure that they are eating the right things and that they are getting the proper rest and that most importantly our parents understand the need for this and why these things are essential to building a healthy child.”
She makes it clear that her actions aren’t about policing parents but helping them to make well-informed choices for their children. “You can’t tell someone how to run their household” she says “but you can offer them information.”
To hear more from Danielle West check here.
To learn more about the Queen City Academy Charter School check here.