News & Politics

2008’s Washingtonians of the Year: Susan Schaeffler

Photograph by Matthew Worden

At KEY Academy, college banners adorn the halls. Students wear uniforms, play in the orchestra, and take pride in attending the District’s highest-performing middle school. Alumni have gone to Deerfield, Andover, Sidwell Friends, and St. Albans. That would be pretty good for a selective private school.

Except KEY is neither selective nor private. The District’s four KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) public charter schools take students by lottery. Eighty percent qualify for free or discounted lunch.

Susan Schaeffler oversees KIPP’s successes from shared offices. The Teach for America veteran taught for nine years in area public schools. Frustrated by bureaucracy and inertia, she jumped when KIPP asked her to open a DC branch. She recruited 80 students door to door in Wards 7 and 8, rented a church basement, got relatives to assemble furniture, and opened KEY in 2001.

Students learn music, practice yoga, and travel to Williamsburg, Boston, New York. Teachers visit the homes of all new students. The school year starts in July and runs 51⁄2 days a week; KIPP students have almost 50 percent more class time than public-school students. They leave at 5 pm with one to two hours of homework and teachers’ phone numbers.

Demands on school leaders are equally high. Schaeffler has added three new KIPP schools and will open three more this year. By 2012, nine schools—some starting at age three—should feed into one high school, though many students will go elsewhere.

Schaeffler is big on best practices and sustainability; she has a succession plan for all school leaders, including herself. Teachers at each level meet weekly to maintain consistency and share solutions. Schaeffler’s work has impressed both DC public-school officials and the donors who’ve given KIPP DC millions of dollars.

Schaeffler is passionate about giving inner-city kids every advantage, from sports to interview skills to foreign languages. Part of what makes her proud: “KIPP DC will double the college-graduation rate in the District’s most underserved communities.”

See all of the 2008 Washingtonians of the Year