Denise Edwards, Founding Principal
Denise will begin her work as The Sojourner Truth School’s founding principal in August, 2019. Denise holds an AMI Montessori administrator’s certificate from the Whole School Leadership Institute, and has fifteen years of experience as a teacher and leader in both DC public charter schools and DC Public Schools. She was a founding teacher at Cesar Chavez PCS in 2004, and has since worked in DC Prep PCS, Paul PCS, and as an assistant principal at Columbia Heights Education Campus in DC Public Schools. Over her last five years, she has overseen initiatives in personalized, competency-based learning that have resulted in wide and holistic gains, including significant PARCC growth in both ELA and math.
Denise is a creative contributor, critical thinker, and problem-solver with an excellent track record of student achievement with competency-based and project-based education.
Ryan Abel, Founding Director of Operations
Ryan is the parent of two public Montessori students, and comes to The Sojourner Truth School with prior experience from his time as the Founding Director of Operations at Libertas Public Montessori School in Memphis, TN. Libertas was Tennessee’s first public, neighborhood Montessori school, and Ryan developed systems and provided operational leadership to manage all day-to-day non-academic support services. Community and family empowerment have been the focus of his nearly 20 year career in education, where he has worked from the neighborhood level to the international level to help bring people together.
Justin Lessek, Founding Executive Director
Justin Lessek wants to radically empower students to be the owners and drivers of their learning. Prior to his work as Truth’s Founding Executive Director, Justin served as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator in D.C., Santiago, Chile, and Chicago. Throughout his career he has led successful initiatives in competency based learning, personalization, blended learning, and biliteracy, and he is excited to bring these innovations to his work with Truth. Justin is passionate about creating inclusive, fluid learning environments that reimagine the relationships between students, teachers, and school itself.
Sarah Navarro, Board Chair
Sarah Navarro is the founding Deputy Chief of Graduation Excellence at DC Public Schools, where she leads district-wide efforts to implement equitable policies and ensure dynamic, high quality supports for all secondary students. The Graduation Excellence division, formed in spring 2018, develops and oversees programs and interventions such as school counseling, ninth grade academies, credit recovery, Pathways and re-engagement and manages master scheduling, grading and graduation for the district. Sarah joined DCPS in 2016 as the founding director of the Pathways. In this role she developed a program model to identify and support overage and under-credited students at fifteen DCPS high schools. She also led the redesign of the Opportunity Academies (formerly alternative schools) through the Breakthrough Schools process to focus on competency-based personalized learning, dynamic social emotional support and genuine opportunities to increase postsecondary readiness.
Prior to joining DCPS, Sarah served as the principal at the Maya Angelou Young Adult Learning Center (YALC). During her tenure, the YALC increased in enrollment from 80 students to 150 students, achieved a GED passing rate of 78%, exceeded student academic progress charter goals, expanded career and technical programming, incorporated restorative practices and developed a work and learn partnership with the Department of Public Works and the Department of Employment Services.
Atalie Jacobs, Board member
Atalie Jacobs is an Associate Partner at Promise54, an education focused non-profit consulting company. In this role, she leads client engagements with districts, charter management organizations, and other education non-profits to solve challenges at the intersection of talent and equity. Atalie credits her commitment to educational equity and racial justice to her roots growing up in Chicago, where she observed the staggering disparities between the resources and facilities of predominantly white versus predominantly black schools across the city.
Atalie holds an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Howard University in Washington D.C. She is the mom of two boys, and lives with her husband in the Metro D.C. area.
Caroline Hill, Board member
Caroline is a thought leader who lives, works, and designs at the intersection of education, innovation, and equity. Her work inspired the creation of equityXdesign, a powerful design framework that merges the values of equity work and innovation with the intentionality of design. Her latest venture, 228 Accelerator, catalyzes the redesign of the relationships that normalize mistreatment and oppression, builds bridges between the powerful and the powerless, and accelerates our journey to a more inclusive society.
Caroline empowers people with the creative authority to reimagine themselves as designers of human relationships. This challenge inspires her to explore innovative organizations and learning models that optimize the role of relationships, leverage technologies, and engage people as agents in their own transformation.
Caroline’s work is rooted in more than 20 years of experience in public education, education innovation, management consulting, and engineering. She has lived the life cycle of school creation and transformation as a teacher, mentor, coach, founding principal, and investor in innovative school models.
Jonathan O’Connell, Board member
Jonathan O'Connell is a DC parent, volunteer and reporter at The Washington Post.
Since joining the Post in 2010, Jonathan has spent most of his time covering urban and economic development in the Washington area, including redevelopment of the region’s waterfronts, the District's dramatic population growth and the crunch in local housing affordability. More recently he has been covering Amazon’s search for a second headquarters and President Trump’s real estate business, the Trump Organization. He is a two-time finalist for Gerald Loeb Awards for business journalism.
For almost 10 years, Jonathan has lived in the District's Petworth neighborhood with his wife and (now) three children. In his spare time, he has volunteered at D.C. schools. For three years he ran a newspaper and journalism club for fifth graders at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. Previously he was the volunteer coach of the Wilson High School ultimate frisbee team and co-founder of the Washington area’s high school frisbee league (WAFC Jr.)
Craig Robinson, Board member
Craig provides investment advisory and consulting services to clients throughout PFM’s South region. His responsibilities include marketing PFM products and services to the existing client base and prospects, modeling cash flows, assisting clients with identifying the development of portfolio strategies, reviewing portfolio performance and updating investment policies. He assists clients in identifying short- and long-term investment options and in structuring client’s portfolios for bond proceeds investing, operating and reserve funds, endowments and foundations, other post-employment benefit trust and contractual obligations. As a member and frequent instructor for the Virginia Government Finance Officers Association and Treasurers’ Association of Virginia, Craig taught classes on investment management and debt management. Craig is the Co-Founder and President of the Association of Public Finance Professionals of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Richard Pohlman, Board member
Richard Pohlman is the Executive Director for Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Washington, DC. The school is consistently ranked as one of the top schools in D.C. with more than 80% of graduates enrolling in college within one year and 62% of those that go to college completing within 5 years. Prior to joining Thurgood Marshall Academy, Richard served as the Chief of Operations and Policy and as Acting Head of School at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. He also served as the Director for the District of Columbia’s Race to the Top program and Attorney Advisor to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Richard was a Presidential Management Fellow at the United States Department of Education, and served as Special Assistant United States Attorney at the Department of Justice. In 2016, he was selected to represent charter schools nationally on the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He also serves on the boards of the DC Special Education Coop and previously served on the boards for My Schools DC, and the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools. Richard is a resident of the District of Columbia and a proud charter school parent.
Kiva Zytnick, Board member
Kiva Zytnick is the Pro Bono Coordinator at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, a mom to two rambunctious preschoolers, and a Ward 5 DC resident.
At CUA Law, Kiva connects law students with hands-on legal service opportunities so that students can assist people in need of free legal help and organizations that promote access to justice. She also advises students interested in pursuing public interest legal careers. Previously, Kiva worked at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, where she led outreach and development projects and supported the Committee’s DC Public School Partnership Program. As a law firm associate, in addition to her litigation practice, Kiva developed and implemented a volunteer partnership with a DCPS elementary school that featured a reading program. Kiva graduated from The George Washington University Law School and clerked for The Honorable Thomas B. Russell of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Kentucky.
As a parent and DC resident, Kiva believes that every child in the District deserves an excellent education in a school that supports its students and families, fosters joy in learning, and helps grow independent, creative, and justice-minded leaders.
Wendy Pugh, Board member
Wendy Pugh joined DC Public Schools in 2008 as a World Cultures Coordinator and is currently a Pathways Coordinator at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC). In the Pathways role she collaborates with other district and school-level staff members to research alternative, innovative, and engaging approaches to teaching, learning, and student engagement and support. This research then leads to the development of personalized promotion plans for all students in the designated population. Wendy works with students to ensure they have set goals that will help them meet promotion targets, that students are aware of exactly how to achieve these goals, and that students are able to track their own progress toward these goals.
Wendy holds a Master’s Certification in Project Management and began her professional career in the private sector as an Operations Manager at Verizon Communications. Wendy has over twenty-nine years of technical and cross-functional project management experience in delivering innovative solutions that transform strategic goals into measurable results.
Laure Fleming, Board member
Laure Fleming, M.Ed, is the Program Manager for National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector’s Mid-Atlantic Region and serves as the D.C. Regional Coach for NCMPS Residency schools, providing site visits and feedback, regional and customized professional development, and offering 1:1 coaching to school based instructional and executive leaders. Laure holds an Association Montessori Internacional (AMI) primary (3-6 year olds) certification, an American Montessori Society (AMS) elementary (6-12 year olds) certification, and Maryland State Department of Education licensure for Teachers and Principals. After completing undergraduate studies in Anthropology from the University of Maryland at College Park, Laure earned her M.Ed in Montessori education from Loyola University and a post-graduate certificate in School Administration and Supervision from Johns Hopkins University. Laure has more than 20 years of Montessori educational experience (16 years in public schools) serving at all levels from Montessori classroom teacher and school curriculum coordinator to assistant principal and head of school. After working abroad in education in Latin America for three years, Laure is a fluent Spanish speaker.
Marlena McWilliams, Board member
Marlena McWilliams is an expert in the fields of real estate sales and development, financial analysis, business development, account management and cost estimation, with over 13 years of experience. She has focused especially on the life cycle costs and business development analysis involved in government procurement activities and real estate development and investment. Marlena previously worked at Lockheed Martin (7 years), PRICE Systems, LLC (2 Years), and ANSER at the Homeland and Security Studies and Analysis Institute (HSSAI) (3 Years). In addition, Marlena is and has been a Senior Associate as real estate professional within the Washington Metro Area for the past 6 years. Marlena received her MBA with focuses on International finance and Real estate from American University and her B.S. in finance and economics from Tuskegee University.
Founding Design Team
Truth’s Founding Design Team was made up of leaders from Breakthrough Montessori PCS, Lee Montessori PCS, Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan (DCPS) and the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS). The Team formed in 2017 in response to advocacy from families who wanted a public pathway in the District by which to continue their Montessori experience through middle school and high school. The initial work for The Sojourner Truth School was done at a series of Design Camps sponsored by New Schools Venture Fund, and further support since then has come from CityBridge Foundation.
Academic Design Committee
The Academic Design Committee meets on a regular basis to focus on Truth’s instructional model. The Committee has done extensive work to develop a personalized, competency-based approach that supports Truth’s core values (honor self-development, pursue justice everywhere, design for positive impact, and challenge the mind, body, and soul) and the Montessori principles of meaningful work, student agency, and deliberate design of the learning environment. Academic Design Committee meetings are open to all interested stakeholders.
Parent Design Committee
To ensure that parents have a strong voice in and influence on Truth’s design, the Parent Design Committee meets on a regular basis to articulate priorities for all aspects of the school’s design - from culture and climate to academics. The Parent Design Committee is open to all interested community members.