Briya Public Charter School is pleased to announce that 100% of staff are fully vaccinated for Covid-19. Briya began vaccinating staff in January 2021 through the school’s partnership with Mary’s Center. As essential workers in a school that had partial in-person instruction throughout the 2020-2021 school year, Briya staff were one of the first groups eligible to receive the vaccine. Most staff agreed to be vaccinated immediately. In fact, 92% of Briya staff had received shots by spring 2021.
Staff member Silvia Arias said at the time, “We are in a moment of crisis, and we have to make use of every possible tool to help stop the pandemic. For me, getting vaccinated is making a small contribution and at the same time it is an act of love to help protect myself, my loved ones, and my community.”
For staff who were hesitant, Briya leadership held individual meetings to hear their concerns and arranged for Mary’s Center doctors and nurses to be available to provide additional information or answer questions. In addition, Briya staff could conveniently get vaccinated through Mary’s Center, which is co-located at three of Briya’s four sites. To ensure that staff was not worried about missing work after getting the vaccine, everyone was granted additional PTO if they were experiencing side effects.
In July 2021, Briya officially mandated that staff get vaccinated to ensure an added layer of mitigation for the 2021-2022 school year. Within a few weeks, all staff were compliant ahead of Currently, 82% of enrolled adult students are also fully vaccinated with an additional 2% in the process of scheduling their vaccine appointment. However, not all Briya students are old enough to be inoculated. Since Briya is a two-generation school, it has infant, toddler, and prekindergarten students are not yet eligible. This is a key reason Briya has committed to getting as many staff and adult students vaccinated as possible. While there is no mandate that students be vaccinated, the school set an initial goal of 70% of students vaccinated by the end of August but was able to surpass this target six weeks ahead of schedule.
“I have always been proud of how our community supports one another through challenging times—that has been even more true during the pandemic,” stated Christie McKay, Briya’s Executive Director. “Having all of our staff vaccinated shows that we care about keeping one another healthy and safe.” There will likely be new challenges this school year as the pandemic continues to present unforeseen obstacles, but Briya is confident that its staff and students will continue to work together to persevere.
In fall 2020, Briya student Alma participated in the National Parent Leader Institute, a month-long workshop about community organizing hosted by Innovate Public Schools. Alma joined parents from across the country to build leadership skills. As a parent, Alma sees the importance of advocacy and community organizing, not just for herself but for her daughter.
Parents at the workshop learned about their rights, what they should expect from their child’s school and educational environment, and that parents have the power to advocate for themselves and their child. The workshop taught Alma to push back and not just accept what she is told. “If someone tells you something you’re not OK with, push until you get a clear answer.”
Among other activities, workshop leaders conducted mock interviews with participants and observed how they advocated for themselves in certain situations. Alma learned about body language, tone, and how to keep conversations professional, succinct, and assertive without being rude.
She also learned about the concept of a power coat: a regular jacket or coat that you put on in specific situations. “If you are not OK with how your child is being treated, you have the option to put the power coat on and say, ‘This is not OK, and this is what I expect from you.’”
Alma’s experience and interest in advocacy began when she joined the Briya student advocates group last school year. When Alma joined, group members were advocating for extending the renewal period of DC Healthcare Alliance insurance from six months to one year.
During a student advocates meeting about Alliance, Alma began thinking about how she could apply her advocacy skills to other areas of her life. “A light bulb went off,” she said, as she realized that she did not have to accept whatever she was told. “I thought, can I do that for my family too? Not just for Alliance insurance, but for my child?”
Alma’s daughter has a speech delay, and last school year, Alma was struggling to get her daughter the speech therapy she needed at her former school. Her daughter’s school would not give her a clear answer on how they would help. “I thought, maybe I’m asking for too much,” Alma said. She looked into paying for speech therapists out of pocket, but sessions were extremely expensive. After months of waiting, help never came.
One day her daughter’s teacher gave Alma a DC school lottery pamphlet and told Alma that she should try to get her daughter into a different school. “She told me, when a child needs something, those needs should be met. I am very grateful for that teacher that was honest with me.” Alma took the teacher’s words to heart and enrolled her daughter at Briya. After a few months, Alma noticed her daughter was improving. “She is speaking a lot faster now compared to the whole year she was at the other school and never got help.” Her daughter will start speech therapy this month.
Alma’s experience with her daughter’s school furthered her interest in advocacy and eventually led her to join the National Parent Leader Institute. “That was the spark that made me actually want to learn more about your basic rights and what your child deserves. And what we as people can fight for, not just take whatever, but we can actually get something decent.”
Alma believes everyone has the ability to advocate for themselves. “It’s the best tool you have. Find a reason to organize—you can do it. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your child. Whether you have status or not, you still pay taxes, you still work, so you still have a choice. Put on your power coat!”
Yizel Romero and her daughter, Daniella, attend school together at Briya – Yizel is studying for her Child Development Associate credential and Daniella is in prekindergarten. Together they participate in Family Time and benefit from our school’s extensive wraparound supports. This two- or dual-generation approach to working with families is foundational to Briya’s success and to improving families’ educational outcomes and social and economic mobility.
Briya is DC’s only two-generation school chartered to serve young children and their parents together. Briya’s unique model often means that citywide policies do not take into account the context of families attending the same school. In 2020, Briya successfully advocated to change one such piece of legislation — the DC School Reform Act of 1995 (SRA) — to be more inclusive of families learning together. This law established the processes for opening and operating charter schools in the District and allowed for charters to serve students as young as three years old through adults. The SRA also establishes the criteria for school lotteries.
Prior to 2020, lottery preferences could be given to siblings of an attending or admitted student, children of founding board members, children of staff, children with special needs, and/or children of active-duty service members. In July 2020, DC City Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Education Committee Chair David Grosso co-introduced a bill that would add a child lottery preference to the SRA. On July 31, 2020, Briya students, staff, board members, and supporters of the school testified at a joint hearing of the Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education (Briya testimony begins at 1:52:00).
One highlight of the hearing was the testimony of 10-year-old Adenia Tesfalidet, the daughter of Briya student Zaid Gebrekidan. Although Adenia never attended Briya, she talked about how the school has impacted her family and how expansion and replication of two-generation programming could benefit many more families in DC.
Adenia said, “I am proud to say that I am a good student who speaks Spanish, English, Amharic, and Tigrinya. I have many achievements including principal awards and honor rolls. I also participate in many different activities such as sports, clubs, and student council. I wouldn’t have been able to do all this without my mom learning English at Briya and being an example for me. It makes it much easier for her to support me. Briya’s two-generation program has been so helpful for me and my family, and I know that there are many other families in DC who can benefit from this model either at Briya or at another school. If this bill is passed, more two-generation schools can open, or existing schools could create adult education programs for parents while their children are in school.”
On October 2, 2020, the DC City Council unanimously passed the bill establishing a child lottery preference. In December, the SRA was amended and now states, “a preference in admission may be given to an applicant who is a sibling or child of a student already attending or selected for admission to the public charter school in which the applicant is seeking enrollment” (Section 38–1802.06(c)(1)).
While the addition of these two words — “or child” — may seem small, it will have a substantial impact on parents and children who want to enroll in school together. It allows for parents like Yizel and Zaid to study alongside their children and for their families to reap the benefits of two-generation education. In her testimony in July, Yizel noted, “These classes have let me grow as a parent and enjoy spending quality time with my daughter in the same place as well as educate my children with positive discipline.” While Briya is currently the only DC charter school with a two-generation model, this preference could also be applied to a PK-12 school where a teen parent and child wish to enroll together or to an existing school that would like to start complementary programming for children or adults.
“Our immediate goal may be to train people to be medical assistants, but our ultimate aim is to help people achieve their big dreams, no matter what those dreams may be,” said Reena Gadhia, manager of Briya’s Medical Assistant (MA) Program, as she reflected upon the first MA College and Career Panel Briya hosted.
During the panel, three speakers presented information about health care career pathways, college admissions, and scholarships, with the goal of helping attendees understand and envision possibilities for their future. The panel’s audience included current students and alumni from Briya’s MA Program, as well as medical assistants from Mary’s Center and additional interested Briya students.
The first speaker was Michelle Dorsey, an educational counselor at the College Board, who detailed how her organization helps students access higher education through scholarships and admissions processes. Tiffany Solis, from Trinity Nursing School, and Jason Williams, of the Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning Division at University of District of Columbia, presented on the opportunities offered by their respective institutions.
“I think the panel had a great impact on the students,” said Beth Kushner, Briya’s Transitions Coordinator. “It’s easy to talk about college and write it down as a goal, but to actually meet those who are involved in the everyday college process brings a necessary realness.”
At the end of their presentations, each speaker engaged with the audience for a question-and-answer session. The event concluded with students having one-on-one time with panelists, allowing them to get answers to their specific questions and concerns.
Gadhia hopes that information from the panel will help Briya’s students achieve their goals and, ultimately, have a positive effect on the health care field. “The diversity these students can bring as well-trained, bilingual, and ethnically and culturally diverse health care workers is enormous,” she said. “Their success can be a powerful change agent!”
Judy Kittleson, one of Briya’s English teachers, was awarded the 2017 TIERific Teacher Excellence Award by the Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), which oversees all charter schools in the District. She was honored at a ceremony on December 11, 2017.
This award recognizes an outstanding DC public charter school teacher who demonstrates dedication, excellence, and care to their students and school.
Kittleson has been teaching ESL to adults for 25 years, and 12 of those years have been at Briya. In addition to teaching English, she teaches parenting classes, mentors new teachers, and works one-on-one with students in Briya’s National External Diploma Program, which she was instrumental in bringing to the school.
“I went into teaching because it uses my whole self—my intellect, my creativity, my personality, my sense of humor—and teaching English language learners feeds my curiosity about cultures, my love of language, and my desire to work for social justice,” she said.
During the ceremony, Kittleson gave a speech in which she mentioned her experiences teaching at Briya, described how she connects with her students, and offered advice to school administrators. “By knowing our students’ experiences, we connect new information with what matters to them,” she said.
Kittleson is a committed, extraordinary, and creative teacher. Judy is one of the best teachers I have ever had,” said Rebeca, one of her students. “I can ask her anything, whether it has to do with academics or something personal. If there is a vocabulary word that we don’t know, she acts out the word until we understand what it means.”
Kittleson also supports her students in expanding their goals. “I wanted to learn English but I never thought of going beyond that,” said Anabel, another of her students. With her help, I have been able to have a more ample vision, including going to college.”
“It is a privilege to be standing here tonight with you all celebrating our successes,” Enwet Abebe said, addressing her 19 fellow Medical Assistant Program graduates at a ceremony this December.
“Our class was full of intensive work and fun,” Abebe, the class valedictorian, continued. “Do you remember what we felt during the practice sessions when we began giving injections, drawing blood or even taking vitals and patient histories? There were all kinds of feelings including excitement, nervousness, frustration and more, but we did it well and now it is our daily job.”
Briya’s program, which was begun in 2013 and is offered in partnership with Mary’s Center, prepares students to pass the nationally recognized medical assistant exam and go on to stable careers in doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals.
At the time of the graduation, 12 of the 20 graduates, including Abebe, had already been offered jobs as medical assistants.
“It makes a difference when you apply for jobs and say you are from Briya,” Abebe said. “I have found that everywhere I go, they like the Briya students, which makes me feel like I am from a wonderful school.”
During the ceremony, students were recognized for their outstanding achievements—including those who graduated with high honors and those who had perfect attendance.
Abebe left her classmates with words of encouragement as she concluded her speech.
“Fellow graduates, we should feel proud of ourselves for being successful and passing all those challenges,” she said. “This is the starting point of our dreams, and I wish you all the best in achieving them. It is challenging, but we don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be willing to learn.”
The DC PCSB oversees all public charter schools in the District and evaluates them annually based on common standards. Schools are then ranked in tiers according to their performance.
This is the third consecutive year Briya has been ranked Tier 1 in adult education, ever since the rankings for adult education schools first began. This is the first year that early education charter schools in DC received tiered rankings.
Briya was honored alongside other Tier 1 schools at a ceremony, during which Jennie Niles, DC’s Deputy Mayor for Education, addressed the group.
“As education leaders, our job is to ensure that all students, in all schools, across all neighborhoods, have access to a high-quality education,” Niles said. “I’m proud that the number of top-performing charter schools in the District continues to grow, from early childhood to adult education, and that our schools continue to work together to give every student the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
“It is something I wanted to do and I’m finally doing it. I am helping and making a difference,” Shenell Williams, 2014 Medical Assistant Program graduate, reflected on her MA experience during a celebration on Wednesday, August 23.
Proud family and friends gathered together to celebrate the induction of the fifth class of students into Briya’s Medical Assistant Program. Christie McKay, Briya’s Executive Director, welcomed the 28 students and spoke about how proud she is of this program, its students, and its growth.
Dara Koppelman, Chief Nursing Officer at Mary’s Center, also addressed guests, sharing how much she values Briya MA students. She announced that Mary’s Center has hired a total of 17 Briya MA graduates.
Koppelman praised the work of those graduates, stating, “They are hard-working, intelligent, empathetic, and just all-around wonderful staff members.”
Stressing the importance of the students’ work, Koppelman highlighted their career path. “You are all about to start, or perhaps continue on, a journey to be in the most important career path there is, healthcare,” she said. Further highlighting the significance, she went on to share that healthcare “touches everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic, immigration, or insurance status.”
Williams, the first MA from Briya’s program to be hired by Mary’s Center, then enthusiastically addressed the new students and shared her story of her journey through the program.
Williams shared that for her, Briya’s MA program provided a second chance, and when she found out she was accepted into the program, “it brought tears to [her] eyes and joy to [her] heart.” She continued to tell students to prepare to work hard, as she often found herself staying late for tutoring.
Williams’ dedication and respect for the program was clear. “I am proud to say that I am currently employed at Mary’s Center as a Medical Assistant,” she said. “I love working at Mary’s Center. I have grown a lot while in the Briya program and at Mary’s Center.”
She expressed her gratitude for the staff who supported her every step of the way and happily laughed as she admitted that when she finally took the national Registered Medical Assistant exam, it was much easier than she had expected.
After all three speakers, students were then handed certificates of scholarship and received their MA pins. Instructors and former students pinned them on as family and community members cheered in support.
In the past three years of Briya’s Medical Assistant program, every student who has taken the nationally recognized exam to become a registered MA has passed. This statistic truly captures the strength of this exceptional program, made possible through Briya’s longstanding partnership with Mary’s Center and the dedication of students and staff.