Nurturing a school where it's cool to be smart: Q&A with DECA's Judy Hennessey

There is no harder job than running a successful school building for high-poverty students; nor a more important job. Yet, there are school leaders across the state and the nation who do it day-in and day-out, and too few get recognized for their great work. We are fortunate that some of these leaders work in the charter schools that Fordham sponsors and it is our privilege to tell a little bit of their stories and the impact they are having on students in Ohio. This Q&A with Judy Hennessey, the superintendent of Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) and DECA Prep, is the third of our seven-part series on school leadership. (Please see our previous Q&As with Dr. Glenda Brown and Andy Boy.) Hennessey leads two high-performing charter schools in Dayton, one a high school, the other an elementary school. Together, these schools serve over 600 inner-city students from Dayton. We featured DECA in our high school edition of Needles in a Haystack, released earlier this month.

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There isn’t much Judy Hennessey hasn’t done at Dayton Early College Academy or the newly created DECA Prep elementary school. She is the superintendent and CEO of the two schools, but, in addition, Hennessey currently is the acting principal at DECA Prep. There was no one to step in when the school’s first principal resigned for medical reasons.

On a recent weekend, Hennessey, 60, and husband Mark were at DECA Prep cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming because the custodian was out. “We have to be a full-service operation,” she joked. The Dayton Early College Academy – known just as DECA to its army of local admirers – was Ohio’s first early college high school and the tenth to open in the country. It began in 2003 as a Dayton Public School, but after disagreements about how layoffs would occur in a fiscal crisis, DECA severed its ties with the district and became a charter school in 2007.

In an effort to create a feeder school and start earlier to improve the academic success of at-risk students, this fall DECA Prep opened its doors to 244 children in grades kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades.

A Dayton native, an alum of Dayton Public Schools and the first in her Appalachian family to graduate from college, Hennessey is the former superintendent of Oakwood City Schools, a wealthy suburb of Dayton.

For the second time, DECA won a bronze medal in 2012 from U.S. News and World Report for being among the country’s best high schools. The school is not eligible for gold or silver medals because it does not offer Advanced Placement classes. Instead, students are required to successfully complete three college courses, most often at Sinclair Community College.

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Hennessey.

Q: Is DECA Prep really the first early college elementary school in the country?

A: Nowhere have we found a K-12 early college school – that is, a school where the intentional focus is around going to college from the time students come to kindergarten.

Q: What inspires your kids?

A: We appeal to students’ intrinsic desire to be successful, to have people be proud of them. They want to have a better life than their parents. If you have lived with a family member who is abusing alcohol or drugs or who is going to prison, it’s a huge motivator. I credit the teachers with creating a culture where it’s cool to be smart. We celebrate improvement. We celebrate achievement. The status that comes with being in a high-performing school spurs even the reluctant learner.

Q: DECA demands a lot of its teachers. Are you worried that teaching is only for the young?

A: We do have people who have young children, but I think it’s very stressful for them. These jobs are labor-intensive. We’re asking teachers to take on many roles. We’re almost asking them to increase the size of their own families. You live all the ups and downs of our students. The work is more appealing to young folks who are entrepreneurial. I think it becomes somewhat more manageable over time, though.

Q: Can a DECA-like school be replicated in a traditional public school system? Isn’t it hard for “systems” to turn over so much autonomy and latitude?

A: It would be much more difficult. I think it’s better to build it from the ground up rather than to convert a school. Can DECA be replicated? Absolutely. But not without a champion, not without relief from traditional public school contractual obligations, not without being able to go out and get philanthropic support.

Q: What would you say to those who say that DECA has not figured out how to work with the most difficult of difficult students?

A: I would agree them. We are not a comprehensive high school. We are an early college academy. There are kids we’ve not been successful with – homeless children, for example. When they’re moving from shelter to shelter, our work becomes too overwhelming.

There are many challenges yet to figure out.

Q: How many students leave DECA each year?

A: It depends on the cohort group. We’re seeing huge gains in our retention rate. We think it’s because we’re starting earlier, taking students in the seventh and eighth grade. There was a point when we were losing 50 percent. We will always lose some eighth and ninth graders who want to move to a more typical high-school culture.

Q: How are you following up on your students to know that 84 percent have graduated from college or are on track to get a college degree?

A:  We have tracked every graduate to the best of our ability, and we’re especially using social media to keep up with them.

Q: What do your grads tell you that you should do differently to help them succeed at college?

A: The pace of college academics is a struggle. And their grades depend on a mid-term and a final. Moving into a dorm and having that kind of freedom can almost be intoxicating. So they struggle with time management, which is typical. But too much freedom can be devastating for our students because their scholarship may be at risk. They’re also not ready for the rigor of college science and math courses in some majors. Engineering majors, for instance, really struggle with the math that’s required.

Q: Have you ever thought about quitting?

A: A couple weeks into working at DECA, I thought, “What have I done?” The environment was too chaotic for the kids to be successful. Also, when the legislature was doing an overhaul of charter school laws, and when we lost our supplemental funding for early college high schools, that was a tough time.

Q: What do you do to recharge?

A: I have to give a lot of credit to my family. I like to do yoga. I like to shop. I like to cook.

When I step away, I really try to put school out of my mind. My husband Mark calls it my Scarlett O’Hara side. I can worry about some things tomorrow. But I have all the symptoms of a workaholic.

Q: What don’t you want your students to know about you?

A: How much I want to be able to dance like them. But it’s hopeless.

Q: Talk about DECA’s drop on the state report card last year from “Excellent with Distinction” to “Effective.”  You effectively went from an “A+” to a “B.” What happened?

A: There were two factors.

We decided the only way for our students to improve their ACT scores was to get further along in the math curriculum. We want the kids to take algebra in 8th grade. As a result, we did not have time to review some of the more elementary math operations that come up on the Ohio Achievement Assessment. We anticipated they would not do as well as a result.

We’ve had to run two teaching tracks – one addressing the Ohio Achievement Assessment standards, and one addressing the new Common Core standards. The Common Core standards are a whole different level of difficulty. I expect all districts are going to be wrestling with their grade on the report card over the next couple years.

The second factor was our graduation rate. I don’t know if we will ever pick up that indicator. We are a small school. Every year we have a handful of students who stay a fifth year at DECA.

We have some savvy parents, and they want their kids to stay at DECA and get as many college credits as possible while the students are still in high school. The state counts them as drop-outs.

Q: You took a more than a 50-percent pay cut when you accepted the job at DECA. Have you caught back up?

A: I’m not close to where I was as superintendent in Oakwood nine years go. I have no regrets. I’m not driven by money.

Q: There’s been a lot written about the kids at DECA. Tell me about a parent whom you won’t forget.

A: We had a young man who graduated in 2011 from the University of Dayton in engineering technology. He was in our second DECA class. He was bright and ahead of his peers in elementary school, but he had gotten lazy. When he was starting high school at DECA, his mother had just a lost a child, I think, in a car accident. She never wavered in her support. At one point, she was working three jobs, literally getting by only on a few hours of sleep each night. I didn’t know how it was humanly possible to do what she was doing. When you tire, and then you see that kind of tenacity, how can you give anything less?

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