Uplift: A Conversation with Latisha Chisholm, LICSW

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February 17th, 2021  |  Uplift, a series: Conversations to raise awareness, lift voices, inspire

Latisha Chisholm is the Dean of Students and Assistant Principal at Bard High School Early College DC in Washington, D.C. She’s the former manager of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Connected Schools Program at Anacostia High School, where we first met Latisha and jointly explored an out-of-school youth development program called #AnacostiaConnected to enhance high school students’ self-esteem, decision-making skills, relationship management and academic engagement (see more details below).

A Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), Latisha has served as a special education coordinator, blended and individualized learning instructional coach, and English and special education teacher. She has experience working in self-contained classrooms with students labeled Emotionally Disturbed and others with Specific Learning Disabilities.

Latisha is a social worker with experience in individual and group therapy, in addition to crisis counseling services for children and adolescents. She is trained in Narrative Therapy practices with high school and elementary-aged youth in individual and group settings, including drug and alcohol prevention group counseling. In addition, she has experience as a mobile psychiatric crisis intervention specialist for children and adolescents.

Recently, we caught up with Latisha for an interview.

Latisha, thanks for joining today. You’ve been the Dean of Students and Assistant Principal at Bard High School Early College  in Washington, D.C. since August 2020. Congratulations on the new role! Could you tell us what you are currently working on at Bard?

LATISHA: I love the Assistant Principal and Dean of Students role at a high school early college because it deals with every aspect of student life. I feel like I’m a mini version of my own college Dean of Freshmen and Transfer Students. I love her; shoutout to Julie Lythcott-Haims! So, I’m proud to play a similar role.  

The student support team and I have been guiding our faculty through deep dives into social emotional learning.  Social emotional learning includes the emotional welfare of students and adults.  We have weekly professional development for staff that focuses on relationship building among staff, with students, and with families.  Each of our academic classes begins with check-ins because we prioritize connecting before content. We also start our days off with 30 minutes of advisory every Monday and Friday. I have helped ensure we prioritize social emotional learning and relationship building in our language, professional development, and master schedule.

Pictured (from left to right): ICRW President Sarah Degnan Kambou, Latisha Chisholm and Christian, a current Anacostia High School senior. Credit: Joe Shaffner, ICRW.

A huge part of the high school educational experience is athletics and clubs. Our team and faculty have focused on ensuring we get those off the ground in the virtual setting.  We have a robotics club, debate team, GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) club, a girls affinity group, student government, a literary magazine, and a student newspaper, among others.  Additionally, even though our athletes are not competing right now, all of our athletic teams have at least weekly virtual meetups with interested students, provide students with workouts, and are still developing the camaraderie and mentoring relationships that are so important.

In addition to those more foundational things, I now spend a lot of time helping us pivot to meet student needs. As we get more data – qualitative, quantitative, and anecdotal – we learn more about what they need. As a result, I’ve been working on our student support center, where we bring in targeted groups of 10-20 students for a few hours to get additional support.  I’ve also been working with the student government association to support the student initiatives they want to put in place.  They are committed to ensuring Bard DC is the school they want and need it to be.

You’ve been working for nearly 10 years with the District of Columbia Public School system east of the Anacostia River. What progress have you seen in your time working with DCPS? What have been the greatest challenges?

LATISHA: You’re right.  I’ve worked at 3 of the 5 DCPS high schools East of the River!  Anacostia and Ballou High Schools’ becoming community schools with the DCPS Connected Schools program is a game-changer for both the Anacostia and Congress Heights communities.  There’s a reason why the community school model is an approved transformational intervention under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  That model provides a quality integration of student supports, community partnerships, and academics – to ensure a full wrap-around model for students.  I think it is an amazing investment from the Mayor and DCPS, and a marker of exciting progress.

Bard DC is also an example of great progress. It is the first East of the River application school that is open to any student (Ron Brown is another and is an all boys school). Bard is also the first wall-to-wall early college campus in D.C.  Each of our students has the opportunity to earn 60 college credits and an Associates Degree from Bard College in New York.  Our admissions process is inclusive and prioritizes non-quantitative metrics such as an interview, recommendations, and an essay.  Bard DC represents DCPS’ strong commitment to equity in college access.  

Distance Learning has highlighted the fact that our schools are also often the touchpad for basic social services. Our communities (I live in Anacostia) have struggled to meet their basic needs, such as affordable housing, food security, and access to healthcare.  These concerns impact a student’s ability to engage in education.  As a result, at the high school level, some of the greatest challenges are students who enter with huge gaps in their learning experiences.  Neighborhood schools struggle to help fill those gaps, while ensuring that students continue to get rigorous and exciting education.  This is why I think the Connected School’s programs are such an awesome investment.

You have a history of taking a holistic, transformative approach to your work? Can you tell us more about that approach and why it’s so important to you?

Credit: Joe Shaffner, ICRW.

LATISHA: Such a big question!  I am a social worker by training.  I switched careers and became an English teacher and special educator. I then circled back into social work before becoming an administrator.  My approach to education is holistic and transformational because I am a social worker at heart.  Social workers provide direct services to individuals and families. We work with communities, and we work at the systems and policy level.  We also exist to change the world.  

My philosophy is informed by the concentric circles of social work, where we think about the impact different levels of social systems have on the individual.  Also, I believe in the transformational opportunities a quality education can provide students because my education did that for me.  I was raised under the poverty line, in communities like where I work and live.  Education was a game-changer for me, and it allows me to be a game-changer for others.  Our children and families deserve educators who are committed to meeting the needs of the Whole Child and helping education be transformative for each one of them.  In our communities, disengagement from school can be a matter of life and death.  I don’t think education is a game.

Do you think there are lessons learned or best practices that could be taken from your work in Wards 7 and 8 in Washington, D.C. that could serve as a model for other parts of the United States or other communities around the world?

LATISHA: The holistic model and approach I described previously, combined with a strong commitment to hyper-local solutions, is transferable.  The solutions to problems of practice are found closest to where the concern lies. So, there is no way to create quality educational models without deep partnership with the local community and investment in what the local community says is the solution.  

Inequity in education is a common theme worldwide – whether those inequities are based on race, gender, affluence, funding, geographic location, etc. What do you think is at the roots of this inequity, and what do you think we can do to tip the scales?

LATISHA: Our world has been shaped by centuries of colonialism, xenophobia, racism, classism, and sexism.  As a result, inequities exist.  Unfortunately, educational institutions often serve to reproduce inequities rather than disrupt them.  To tip the scales, we have to commit to schools that address inequities and empower our young people to disrupt systems of oppression. In order to begin unraveling such entrenched injustices, we have to direct more resources and opportunities to the protected groups who have been disenfranchised.  That’s probably why we haven’t tipped the scales yet.  People who have privilege are not usually excited about giving up their privilege or using their privilege to serve and ensure that others have more equitable opportunities.  How do we create citizens of the world who understand that privilege must be used to empower others?

You can listen in to Latisha’s response below. And be sure to follow her on Twitter (@MsLChisholm) and LinkedIn (Latisha Chisholm, LICSW, MSW). 


More about #AnacostiaConnected:

For the past year, ICRW and Anacostia High School have been collaborating with PAVE (Parents Amplifying Voices in Education) and several youth services organizations, as part of the Connected Schools program, to design #AnacostiaConnected, intended to serve rising juniors and seniors. As envisioned, the program was going to provide students with holistic healing sessions, practical life skills development, employment readiness and experiential learning to enhance self-esteem, decision-making skills, relationship management and academic engagement. We were excited to work directly with Latisha to start our research on best practices of the Connected Schools program. Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a stop to our plans – and further exacerbated the social and economic conditions in the wards around Anacostia High. Shifting gears, ICRW instead conducted a rapid appraisal of the lived experience and impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on parents, guardians and students enrolled at Anacostia High School. The “Understanding the Impact of the COVID-19 ‘Lockdown’ on Parents/Guardians & Youth in Washington, D.C.” research is a collaborative effort between ICRW and the Connected Schools Program. Through online surveys and focus group discussions, this research aims to assess the impact of COVID-19 on academic engagement, mental well-being, family functioning and sense of safety for the students and parents at the school. Latisha, the former Connected Schools Manager at Anacostia High School, has been involved in the research design and associated activities – ensuring the research questions adequately complement the program. Our hope is the findings of the study will support the Connected Schools Program and inform programming that will address the emerging needs of the students, as Anacostia High School reopens for in-person learning.