Realized Potential: Raising Kids to be Citizens of the World

Q&A with Kriste Dragon

As a person of mixed racial and ethnic background who grew up in a deeply segregated South, Kriste Dragon wanted to create a better, more integrated tomorrow.

As the co-founder and CEO of Citizens of the World Charter Schools, an organization with intentionally racially and socioeconomically diverse public schools in Los Angeles, New York, and Kansas City, Kriste challenges students to realize their full potential and thrive in a diverse society.

Kriste believes that we need to broaden our definition of educational excellence to include cultivating dispositions that are empathetic, compassionate, and courageous. As a panelist at the #EP2016 National Conference, she will talk about how to do just that on the panel Today's Learners: Redefining How We Teach and Learn to Meet Student Needs .

1 | Tell us about your story. What in your life or career led you to advocate on behalf of others?

I grew up in the South in the 70s. At the time it was, and probably still is, a very segregated environment. I come from a mixed racial and ethnic background. I think early on the conversations in my household involved both race and class, and that probably started shaping who I am today and the work that I engage in directly.

I think another real driving factor in my current work is that in my first year teaching, which was in 1998 here in Los Angeles, I was expecting my first child. So, I had this gift of entering education both professionally and personally as a parent at the same time. Being able to hold front and center what I want for my own child as we shape and design Citizens of the World Schools was critical.

My middle child just started at Citizens of the World Middle School last week in seventh grade. Participating in our school system as a parent has been a real gift of both insight and understanding and is yet another way to build empathy and compassion for the families we serve.

2 | Tell us about your work. How do you work to serve underserved students?

Our model is one that really looks at the problems we are trying to solve in the world. We ask ourselves, “What are the things holding us back as adults from reaching our full potential or even our potential as a country or world?” So, we have infused into our schools, we believe, a very broad definition of educational excellence. Our goal is for student “success” to include mastery of both content and emotions, so that students can meaningfully connect with each other, be part of any community, and courageously decide who they are in the world and how they want the world to be. 

I believe a critical first step is making our schools effective working models of the society our students will one day join. When we designed our schools, we were really mindful about building intentionally diverse student bodies that reflect the surrounding community. Sixty percent of our students at Citizens of the World are of color and half of them qualify for free or reduced priced lunch. We believe that students in diverse, integrated learning environments develop strong critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills, and studies support that belief.

In the 2014-15 school year, our African-American, Latino, and economically disadvantaged students outperformed, on average, state and district students in the same subgroups in English Language Arts (ELA) and math in Los Angeles. Results that were just released show that all of our Los Angeles schools outperformed, by double digits, both the state and school district averages for the number of students meeting the ELA goals. We believe that we see what the research suggests.

3 | Your conference panel will focus on: Today's Learners: Redefining How We Teach and Learn to Meet Student Needs ? Why is this topic critical for understanding how to better serve students?

Going back to what we believe has to be necessary in schools, I think that we have to broaden our definition of an excellent education so that we are focusing on all of the aspects of what children need in order to reach what we call “graduate dispositions.” That’s a phrase we use to describe the habits of character or the readiness that kids need to actively participate and lead us through to a better version of tomorrow.

Some of those dispositions include empathy, courage, a world awareness, compassion—the things that that if you look at the problems we face as adults that we need to cultivate in our children so our world’s leaders will embody these characteristics. We really believe that when children learn not just to take tests, but are empowered—to think critically and develop their capacity to enter into and understand the lives of others—they will develop the compassion to relate to all people and the courage to solve chronic problems.

The question is: Have we really broadened our definition of educational success to match our understanding of the problems we face?

4 | Describe yourself in three words.

Dedicated. Determined. Compassionate.

5 | Describe your vision for K-12 education in three words.

I only have two: Realized potential.

6 | Finally, if you are forced to make a choice, what do you choose: coffee or tea; baseball or basketball; the beach or the mountains; Game of Thrones or House of Cards; Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat; Kindle or the real thing; Pokémon, Go or No?

Coffee.

Baseball, I’m from Atlanta, so the Braves.

The beach.

House of Cards.  I can’t stop with House of Cards. I’ve had to put myself on hiatus.

None of the above.

Recently Kindle, and I’ll qualify that because there are so many books on audio now. So, with the ability to adjust the speed to 1.5, I find it more efficient.

No. I don’t really understand it. I should ask my children.

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