12/10/2013 10:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Character Counts: Observations From the Classroom

By Julia King

I committed myself to working for social justice after reading Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities. As a college student I was deeply moved by his depiction of the second-class education inflicted upon our country's poorest children. While the causes of poverty are multi-faceted, ensuring fairness in our classrooms is a prerequisite for equality. I truly believe that the way the most disadvantaged among us are treated is a measure of our society's character. And character counts.


Roman Cho

After a two-year commitment with Teach For America, I joined the faculty of DC Prep, a charter school whose mission to bridge the educational divide in the nation's capital rests on a dual foundation of academic excellence and character development. At DC Prep we believe that academics alone do not ensure success. They must be paired with personal responsibility, self-control, and focus. And, like geometry formulas, these tools can be taught.

In two of the city's most disadvantaged Wards, DC Prep has developed a curriculum that weds academics with a tireless focus on developing integrity in our students. Our emphasis on social skills is woven into the very fabric of school culture. Starting in our preschool classes, we teach the importance of good citizenship, embedding lessons throughout the day (Be a Good Friend, Use Your Words, Try Your Hardest) in our daily instruction. By the time our students are in 7th and 8th grade these habits, or Prep Skills, have evolved into self-discipline, perseverance, and compassion.

DC Prep's results show that this approach is working:
• For the second consecutive year, DC Prep is the highest-performing network of public charter schools in the nation's capital.
• The Edgewood Middle Campus where I taught is the top charter school in the city.
• DC Prep's Edgewood Elementary Campus is a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School.
• And, 100 percent of DC Prep's 230 8th grade graduates enroll in college-prep high schools.

It is my fervent hope that my students will go on to help lead our country. They understand that decency is fundamental to true success.

With greater autonomy (and greater accountability) charter schools like DC Prep are showing what is possible in urban education. Ninety-eight percent of DC Prep's students are African American; over 80 percent are low-income. Here in the nation's capital only 45 percent of students are on grade level, while 100 percent of students in my classroom are on or above grade level. And they are great people. Once you see what is possible, it becomes unacceptable to have anything less.

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Julia King is the 2013 DC Teacher of the Year and a featured educator in American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom, by Katrina Fried and published by Welcome Books. Julia is also the Founding Assistant Principal at DC Prep's Benning Middle Campus. Founded in 2003 by a native Washingtonian, DC Prep is the highest-performing network of public charter schools in the nation's capital serving preschool through 8th grade students on four campuses and growing. For more information, visit