In today’s hypercompetitive job market, there are few things more desirable than a sterling education. Yet the American educational model is in trouble: public schools are woefully underfunded, graduation rates are falling, and nobody seems willing to agree on a solution. That might change when Deara joins the conversation in Washington one day. The 22 year-old South Los Angeles native has specialized in bringing enlivening learning opportunities to her community ever since starting her own nonprofit dance studio at age sixteen. Since then, Deara – who holds masters degree in Education from USC – has changed young lives at two South LA schools. She serves as the vice principal at Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists, and is the founder of Innovative Ways Academy, a private school for middle school-aged students.
Me: I want to start by talking about your dance studio, since it touches on this generation’s interest in entrepreneurial spirit. You got in touch with yours at an earlier age than most Millennials. Tell me the story.
Deara: Well, I’ve been dancing for most of my life. As a kid, it began with creative movements, and then as I got older, I started doing ballet and tap dance at the Kittsville Youth Foundation; this academy founded by Eartha Kitt, right here in South LA. The director of the program took notice and one day, she suggested to my mother that I audition for Debbie Allen Dance Academy. I tried out and was accepted with a scholarship. And through this whole process, my parents promised that one day they’d help me start a dance studio. The idea was I could use the studio as a way to give back.
So teaching dance had been a dream of yours for some time?
It was already happening. When I was at Debbie Allen, I started giving lessons in our backyard. I had a signup sheet on the front door of my house and we’d rotate between styles: Flamenco this day, Capoeira the next, and so. And I did all that because my friends and neighbors who were interested in dancing weren’t going to Debbie Allen with me, but they were interested in enhancing their techniques.
When and how did your parents acquire the space that would become DeDe Dance Studio?
It was mainly through my mother. She’s retired now, but at the time, she was the Executive Director at Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists. There was a building there, used mostly for storage, which my mother and my aunt Dolores helped to convert into a studio space. The part that I had a stake in was the wall-to-wall mirrors and ballet bars, which were paid for by fundraising events like dance performances that my team and I would perform.
Is it safe to say this early experience set you on a path towards education as a profession?
My interest was present from the beginning, but one event that transformed my idea of starting and running a school into a reality happened during the first year of my doctoral program at USC. I was enrolled in a leadership course with Dr. Rudy Castruita, and we had to design an outlook plan in which we hypothesized our own leadership evolving over ten years. And I remember noting that by Year Eight, I wanted to found a school. But it actually began happening much sooner than that.
When, exactly? What were the circumstances?
Shortly after finishing the leadership course, the executive director at Wisdom Academy introduced me to an individual from the Church of Scientology named Isaac Asberry. I wound up meeting him right in South LA, at this big, beautiful building that I soon learned was the church’s own community center. Only, it was abandoned. And I remember seeing it and thinking, “This is it. This is going to be the school.”
And when you say “the school”, you mean Innovative Ways Academy. What were the next steps? How does one pilot a new school?
First, you have to project the idea of the school to the surrounding community. I had a vision of this world-class, elite, college-oriented institution for students right here in South Central LA, in a building that was already steeped with history. And it was always intended to be a middle school, because that’s the age range when a lot of kids tend to drop out of school. I wanted to start a program that would engage students to a level where they’d manage to hang on through the toughest times.
So you have the dream, out in the open. What comes next?
Next, you need a budget, and that’s where my mother’s brains come in. I’m very fortunate to have a mother who supports everything I do, and she also happens to be a sound businesswoman. The two of us sat down and began by outlining all the necessary supplies we’d need to get the school up and running. Then we tackled operations and hiring faculty. Salaries are easily the biggest financial consideration behind getting a school up and running. My mother financed these setup costs, but we also conducted a lot of neighborhood fundraising to pay for things like student meals and field trips for the first year.
How many students were enrolled at Innovative Ways Academy during the first school year?
Only 13. I wanted to make sure that the curriculum worked before applying it to a larger group of students. But it did, and now that it’s been a success, I’ve been looking at trying to apply our learning model to a bigger public school environment. And right now, we’ve actually got one middle school nearby that’s interested in giving it a test run for the 2013-2014 school year. A lot of my recent time has been spent facilitating that.
Hearing about all of this, it’s easy to overlook the fact that you’re also working as the vice principal at Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists! What does a day in the life of a VP look like?
The whole day begins at 7 AM. The students have some time to eat breakfast as our staff and teachers roll in. Then at 7:50, we have a student-led assembly. And that really speaks to the type of leadership communication we employ at Wisdom.
A more communal approach?
Right. I like to avoid top-down school management where the principals just give commands. It’s better to communicate your expectations in a way that can be echoed by students and teachers. People buy that. It’s like…if I’m Marc Jacobs, and I have Beyonce model my clothes, they’re much more likely to sell than if Marc Jacobs simply appears on TV and urges everyone to try out his latest designs! I prefer being a humble leader because it gives the students more room to shine.
As the vice principal, do you also instruct students in the classroom?
Oh, definitely. At 8 AM on any given day, you might see me teaching a language arts class. And I’ll usually put a spin on the lesson by working dance into the presentation. For instance, I’ll use a pirouette to convey synonyms, and a jete for antonyms. It gets the kids excited about what they’re learning.
Is this outside-the-box instruction approach applied in most classes at Wisdom?
We use it in almost all classroom situations. One approach that’s been really popular is incorporating rap into math lessons. The students get to hear their favorite songs from their favorite rap artists, but the lyrics are reworked to teach concepts like multiplication. And it’s a lot of fun for them. They look forward to the next lesson, they get involved.
And it’s probably a more compelling incentive to ace their homework assignments than a standard review session the next morning.
Exactly. Not only that, but when our teachers eventually hold assessment tests to see how the students are retaining all this new information, we see very positive results. And that’s extremely important when you think about the standardized testing that these students are going to negotiate; testing that will affect their academic future.
What about the students whose career expectations aren’t reached by a four-year college education?
I think it’s really important to have a duel emphasis on college and career when you’re working with young students. Because, like you said, not every career is reached through college. Let’s say you want to be a policeman or a pilot. You’ll need advanced studies, but not the same as the majority of your classmates. I mean, not everyone can become the president of the United States! If a student says they like to help people, we’ll sit down with them and make a list of all the professions they could pursue that would allow them to help people. And from there, we help each student work towards a higher education that applies to their career interests.
Speaking of the future, where do you see yourself five to ten years down the road from right now?
Right now, I’m at a point where I’ve begun to think about starting a family and the joys that come with it. So that will definitely be a priority. Career-wise, I see myself working in politics or international education.
My ideal career goal – for a long time coming – has been to become the US Secretary of Education. And of course, there are many roads to that point. I could work in Sacramento for the state’s standardized testing program, or serve as a superintendent. But ultimately, there are some new ideas and policies I’d like incorporate into the American public education system.
Let’s hear some.
Foreign language. I’d like to see it become a mandatory subject in primary education curriculums. Another one, more of a fantasy, would be an extended school day. And when most people hear this, they go, “Ahh! No way!” But here’s the twist: you’d extend the school day, and then cut out Friday. That way, students could use that free day to participate in internships, community service, sports…you name it.
That would certainly give students an early leg up in today’s job market!
It would! You could almost look at Friday as an “application day.” Monday and Thursday can remain devoted to theory, but Friday would allow some real world practicum. Because otherwise, you’re likely to still have lots of students getting frustrated with school and dropping out early to go find a job somewhere.
In case any members of President Obama’s education department are reading this, are there any other ideas you’d like to throw out there?
Sure – I’d like to see our country increase the value and esteem of the teaching profession. If we impose qualification requirements for educators – and offer them much better salaries than we do right now, we’re likely to see a competitive pool of teaching applicants, who will in turn be better teachers for our students. Most of us want the best doctors presiding over us, or the best engineers designing our cities. Why shouldn’t we expect the same standard when it comes to the professionals educating our children?
What challenges do you see yourself facing as you move towards your professional goals?
I think relocating will be hard for me. My neighborhood, USC, and my family are very important to me, and while I know that eventually I’ll have to move…hopefully to Washington DC one day…it’s tough for me to just leave, start a new clique somewhere else, and adapt to an entirely new environment.
Blowing that question open, what challenges do you think Millennials are likely to face as they enter their 30s and 40s?
Of course, employment and healthcare will probably be two of the biggest challenges for most people. But there’s always a way to solve challenges, and that’s what I think we need to channel our energy into. If you can’t find a job that allows you to do something you enjoy and do well, maybe it’s time to start thinking about how you could create that job. If I didn’t have either of the opportunities I do have for teaching, I’d find like-minded individuals and create a charter school. Or a tutoring program. It’s possible to create an outlet for your skills: but it requires a lot of hustling, living within your means, and being very specific about your goals. Write them down or put them in a flow chart if you have to!
I’m especially curious to hear your take on this one: i’ve asked everyone involved with this project how they identify with the term Millennial and its mainstream connontations. (The entitled, lazy young adult.) What does the term mean to you?
Based on my experience and those of my colleagues…I think “Millennial” means a 21st century individual who’s very adaptable and open to new ideas and demands of the times we’re living in. It’s a very positive word to me. I think the popular, more unflattering definition comes from people our age being studied alongside the next generation of young adults, the ones who are in high school now. Because I’ve worked with a lot of these students, and some of them do tend to embody the negative Millennial stereotype: you know, sending unpolished resumes via their iPhones and expecting an interview.
Interesting. And troubling too. Why do you reckon that is?
Technology, maybe? Most Millennials didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, or smartphones until high school at the earliest. I sometimes wonder if all these devices are handicapping the next generation; weakening their initiative. And that’s part of my job as an educator – showing high school juniors how to finesse a cover letter with a nice, professional signature, or brainstorming ways that a student could hedge their bets on landing a job they want by networking with the company they want to join, or even doing some volunteer work there before applying.