“Excited for the future of Capital City”

Karen Dresden

Since Capital City’s opening in 2000, one name that has been synonymous with the school has been co-founder and Head of School — Karen Dresden.

Though she started her career in education policy, Karen ultimately found teaching was her passion. After working at Hearst Elementary, a DC public school, for close to a decade, she and a group of other staff and parents worked to establish Capital City Public Charter School, the first parent founded public charter school in DC.

After 23 years as the leader at Capital City, Karen has decided to step aside. Her successor is founding Middle School Principal Laina Cox who will step into the Head of School role July 2023. 

Before her departure, we caught up with Karen to reflect on the past and look towards the future of Capital City. Read on to see what she had to say.

How was your interest in education sparked?

I feel like I have always been interested in education. From when I was a kid, I remember babysitting for everybody in town and then I was really involved in teaching swimming. I always found the best meaning and purpose when I was doing work with kids. 

When I was in college, my school didn’t have an education major. I ran a Big Brothers Big Sisters program and I loved that. I was a public policy studies major and decided to focus on education policy when I was in school. I thought that might be the direction I wanted to go. 

My first job out of college I worked on Capitol Hill and I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to ultimately do. I realized that all of the things I was doing in my free time — running a children’s program at a local shelter, teaching swimming to kids at the Y, being really involved with the kids in our community — are the things I really like, and that I needed to go into education. I went back to school to become a teacher and started working at DC Public Schools in the early 90s. 

Teaching to this day is the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had. When I got into teaching, I was focused on being the best teacher I could be. I can honestly say that I loved every minute of teaching — from the creativity and connections to just knowing every day that you're making a difference. I thought I would probably teach for my whole career. 

What really pushed me was seeing how so many things impact what’s done in the classroom. The school where I was teaching was a small school, part of DCPS, and I was seeing how so many decisions critically impacted our school. Despite being fully enrolled, we were threatened with closure because our school was small. Then there was a leadership change that the school community was not very involved in, which made it hard to maintain initiatives we had started. It was more challenging to make the difference I wanted to make. That is when I left teaching to pursue school administration and I worked with a group of parents from the school where I taught to help start Capital City. The rest is Capital City history.

Capital City early years
Karen Dresden

Why do you think Capital City is special?

I feel like there are a lot of things that make Capital City special, but what stands out most to me is that it’s built on a set of ideals that are deeply held about what education can be  for students. That really is what our mission statement is centered on and it has provided a guide for the past 23 years. Our mission talks about diversity, creativity, deeper learning, community, and character.  Every few years, we review our mission statement and are like, “Yes, this is what we still believe.” Even though we have changed and grown and continually try to do things better, I feel like having those grounding principles has been a real strength. 

Another thing is that we are focused on always innovating. We don’t just say, “Oh, we do it this way,” but we are continually trying to figure out how we can do things better to better serve students. That’s what I love about Capital City and it’s something that has kept me here for so long. 

I love that Capital City, from its beginning and as part of its mission, recognizes the social emotional lives of kids and that the social emotional education that kids get is just as important as academic education. In many ways it’s what makes academic learning possible. This is talked about much more in education recently but this is something we’ve always known to be true and we’ve really built our program around that. 

Fieldwork at Capital City

Also, our focus on the whole child. We believe that kids need opportunities and experiences to be their whole self. We have invested in that by creating incredible programs in the arts, fitness, adventure, gardening, and more. I think it became even more important as we grew to be a PreK-12 school because kids will spend their entire educational careers at Capital City and the opportunities they get here really matter in their lives. 

Another strength is our commitment to being an inclusive school and always striving to be equitable. I think that’s been a growth process that has been one of the more exciting things for me is seeing how we continue to evolve in that. Starting from recognizing the importance of our school being diverse, to realizing the incredible responsibility that comes to ensure that we are providing an equitable opportunity and experience for every student. 

One thing I sometimes take for granted about Capital City is the commitment to families and family engagement. We were the first family founded charter school here. I think that has been such a part of our core — that we believe families are partners in their children’s education. There’s always a grappling of how we do that  best and what it can look like, but it’s still always a deeply held belief that engaging our families really matters. 

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your tenure as an educator? 

I’m proud of the fact that we have stayed true to our mission. Capital City is a place that really encourages innovation and doing new things. I think that people who work at Capital City see that, and hopefully families feel this as well. 

I am really proud of the educators and leaders that we’ve developed. A big part of me feeling really good about stepping aside is knowing what an amazing team we have at Capital City. I know that has come through really trusting people and giving them  opportunities to learn and grow in their roles while at Capital City. Not everybody stays at Capital City forever, but it also gives me pride when educators come back and say, “Wow, I learned so much working at  Capital City,” and then they’ve gone on to be leaders in the field in other ways — college professors, school leaders, experts — all around the country.

I would say there is nothing that gives me greater pride than our alum. I love that so many of them stay connected, they come back to Capital City, they sometimes work at Capital City, and send their own children to Capital City.  I’m also proud of what they’ve accomplished; many are first generation students graduating college and doing great things in their careers.  I’m even more proud of the people they’ve become. They are really good people, and I hope their experiences at Capital City and the opportunities they were provided contributed to this. 

What has been one of the greatest challenges you faced during your time as Head of School? What did you learn from facing that challenge?

It’s hard for me not to say the pandemic. I don’t even think it’s because it’s so recent. There have been other things that have been challenging over the years, but the pandemic  was hard in so many different ways. With it there was this fear that was just paramount.  We were talking about people’s lives. We were having to figure everything out with sometimes limited and changing information. 

Group shot during Zoom

I think about my work as a school leader and educator for over 30 years and all that I have learned and come to know. Having to make decisions about things I knew so little about was really challenging. I felt like those decisions were incredibly high stakes as well.

Big decisions at Capital City are almost always collaborative, but with the pandemic, there were many times that big decisions just had to be made. It was a time where, more than ever, people were looking to me as a leader to make the hard decisions and know what to do, I needed to figure it out pretty quickly and confidently. 

Did I learn a lot? Yes, I absolutely learned a lot. I’m also really proud of how things were managed during that time. I think we can look back now and think we could have done things differently, but I’m proud of how we made decisions in the moment. We set guiding principles for making decisions early and used them when considering options. We said we were going to prioritize the health and safety, maximize learning for students, center equity in decisions, and consider the needs of our teachers and staff. We really used these principles to guide our decisions. 

The other thing I think I have learned over the years is the importance of transparent communication. People don’t just need to know what the decision is, but they need to know what the thinking was behind the decision. Lots of communication, lots of transparency, lots of opportunity to hear what questions people had, and what was on their minds. These were all things we tried to provide. That’s why we did a lot of virtual coffee chats, both with families and staff. 

Another thing was the need to keep equity at the core. That pushed in some different ways during the pandemic. The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on our most marginalized students and families. But every family was struggling and every kid had needs. I think that’s why it made it a lot harder to sometimes say that we’re going to work to really center the needs of our most vulnerable students when we knew all kids were struggling. That sometimes led to some tough decisions that maybe everybody didn’t agree with, but at the end of the day I hope that at least people understood where we were coming from and why we were making these decisions. 

The other thing we really sought to do that I think proved to be really important was to gather as much feedback as possible. We did a lot of pulse checks and surveys, which were so incredibly insightful because we got a really large response to those surveys that we did and learned a lot. 

What are your hopes for the future of Capital City? What makes you excited about its next chapter?

I feel really excited for the future of Capital City! As I’ve been planning to leave, people keep asking me how I’m feeling, and I realized “excited” was how I was feeling. I think initially people thought that meant I was excited for all of the things I was going to do, but to be honest I haven’t really thought that much about what I’m going to do next. My excitement is about the future of Capital City. It feels like the right moment to step aside. I am grateful that I’ve been able to do it in what feels like the right way for me. 

Laina Cox and Karen Dresden on the first day of school.

I definitely feel like I’m passing the torch to the right person, Laina Cox, who will be our next Head of School. Laina was selected by our board, but through a process that involved a lot of stakeholders. Laina is someone who I have known for over a decade through our work together at Capital City. I deeply value how deeply she thinks about issues of educational equity, her incredible knowledge about education, and her unwavering commitment to the students of Capital City. 

I think everybody wants to feel, when they’re leaving, like they’re  leaving everything in a good place and that it’s all wrapped up, but for me I had to realize that I was always going to feel like there was more to do especially because we are always so focused on improvement. But I also know that I am not the only one who can lead this work. It’s important to pass the work on to people with new ideas and energy and excitement for what Capital City becomes. 

I started this discussion talking about how we’ve had these beliefs and principles that have guided us since the very beginning that are part of our mission statement, and I am so confident that will continue and that there is a tremendous commitment to that. I am also really confident that with Laina and her team — through their collaborative efforts — there will be innovation and growth. I would be really sad to leave Capital City and see things stay the same. The testament to our school is that we are always innovating, changing, and growing to provide a better educational experience for students, and striving for our goal of excellence and equitable outcomes for all students. You don’t do that by continuing to do things the same way. 

I’m excited for the future and to watch from the sidelines. I will be stepping down as Head of School at the end of June, but I will continue to be an advisor to Laina, and she knows I am there to support her and be a resource for her. I also will forever be connected to Capital City as somebody who cares deeply about the community, and I will continue to be a parent at Capital City. My son Darian is entering high school next year and I am so excited for him to have that experience. 

Do you have anything to add?

Just that I am incredibly grateful to the Capital City community and all the students, families, staff members, and volunteers I have interacted with over the years. Capital City is the place that it is because of the community. And my life and my family has been enriched as a result.