7 Questions for Rick Cruz, DC Prep

Image credit: DC Prep

Meet Rick Cruz, who starts this week as the new Chief Executive Officer of DC Prep, the city’s highest-performing network of charter schools (three campuses in Wards 5 and 7 with students from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade). A longtime manager and leader with nonprofit and for-profit experience, Cruz will oversee 180 people organization-wide, including school leaders, teachers, and staff at the DC Prep main office. He takes over from CEO Emily Lawson, who founded DC Prep in 2002 as a single charter school and oversaw its expansion. (Lawson will stay on through December to assist with the transition and then serve as a consultant and member of the Board of Directors.)

Cruz answered PCSB's 7 Questions on why he took the job, his favorite baseball teams (he has two!), and what kind of leader he hopes to be.

When did you know you wanted to work in education?
I grew up in the Bronx, NY, graduating from New York City public schools. My father, originally from Peru, worked for nearly 40 years as a machinist for a small engineering and electrical contracting business that did system maintenance for New York City buildings and property managers. He came to the United States with a fierce immigrant work ethic and belief in education as the way to move ahead. He has amazing technical skills and an intellectual curiosity that would have been well served by higher education, but he didn’t have the opportunity to attend college – he gained much of his formal schooling while in the Navy in Peru. So the issue of educational access and opportunity has always been a conversation in our family. It’s the reason I’m so keenly aware of the educational divide in our community in DC – where I’ve lived and worked for the last 17 years – and so passionate about the mission of DC Prep.

Why choose charter?
I wanted to have the greatest impact on young people in DC in the short- and long-term. As I looked for where that might be, it became clear that the charter sector, and in particular DC Prep, would be a place where my personal and professional values could come together.

Describe DC Prep -- what makes it stand out?
DC Prep is a mission-driven organization where every staff member is dedicated to bridging the educational divide that impacts young people in the District. The organization was founded by a native Washingtonian to address the need in DC for schools that work. Now almost ten years later, DC Prep has a demonstrated track record of success. Based on the 2012 DC CAS results, we’re the top charter network in Washington with the highest-performing public charter middle school and highest-performing elementary school east of Rock Creek Park. If you walk into any DC Prep campus, you’ll see not only a pervasive joy of learning but also an unapologetic focus on rigorous academics and character education. We value both learning and the nurturing of students who are good citizens in their community. And our talented teachers partner with students’ families to accomplish these goals, tracking student progress over the course of the school year. In addition, DC Prep follows its graduates and supports their progress at top-tier high schools, in their college careers, and beyond.

What's a typical workday for you?
Since I’m just starting in my role at DC Prep I anticipate that no day will feel typical. These first few weeks and months will be spent getting to know our community – spending time at each of our campuses, visiting classrooms and meeting our teachers, leaders, parents and, of course, our young scholars. DC Prep is a dynamic community dedicated to continuous reflection and refinement, so I’ll be working with folks across the organization on a real mix of strategic and operational issues. DC Prep at all levels “sweats the small stuff,” so I know I’ll have my hands full learning the organization and helping address all the critical details that make us the high-performing network of public charter schools that we are.

Who is the educator you admire the most?
My high school English teacher, Ms. Altschul. She made literature, poetry and the arts relevant to a teenage boy’s life in the Bronx – no small feat, given that my academic interests at the time were science and math. Most importantly, she encouraged and nurtured my love of learning as a good unto itself. I think about her every time I think about what our best teachers do each day and the lasting impact they have on students.

There are a lot of funny words and acronyms in education. Tell me,what word would you like to do away with the most?
You should probably ask me that question six months from now! Every organization develops its own shorthand and I know that DC Prep is no exception (for example, we call our students “Preppies”). Having worked for many years as a consultant to corporations, I think I’ve seen the worst that the business world has to offer when it comes to acronyms and tortured uses of the English language. Nothing I’ve come across in education has surprised me yet.

So what do you do when you're not in school?
My wife, Leslie, and I are parents to a 5 year-old son and a 3 1/2 year-old daughter. They’re very active so a lot of our spare time is spent outside and at various kid-friendly activities. We’re both foodies, so we try to make time for lots of meals with family and friends, exploring new dishes, cuisines, and restaurants. I also try to stay in good physical shape to keep up with the demands of work and family;getting to the gym a few times each week is a priority. And as a big baseball fan, I like to keep up with our family’s home team, the Nationals, as well as my hometown team growing up, the New York Yankees.

Have an idea for someone we should feature in a 7 Questions Interview?
Email us at dcpublic@dcpcsb.org
Rick Cruz

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