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Q&A: Principal Laina Cox on designing schools for citizen scholars

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    EL Education

Join us in conversation with Laina Cox, winner of the 2018 Silverberg Leadership Award and Middle School Principal of Capital City Public Charter School, as we discuss the challenges and opportunities of educating for a better world in the nation’s capital.

Q: What does it mean to be an EL Education leader?

Cox: What sets us apart from a traditional school leader is really what we prioritize and what we name as our work. Our work is not just about test scores. Our work is not just about compliance. Our work is about building character and young activists and change-makers.

Q: How do you know that EL is working, that the work we’re doing is actually having an impact?

Cox: Our 5th graders study the branches of government and how they came to be. Before election day, one of our 5th grade humanities teachers, Sarah Cole, had an idea to get our students to canvas at George Mason University in Virginia. They were collecting data about college students’ plans to vote; they shared their knowledge of the government and the impact of their votes; they had [college] students signing pledges to vote the next day. Then they led a march through campus, chanting, “Vote for us because we can’t,” and, “This is what democracy looks like.”

CCCS student vote drive Cox

I know that we're doing the right work because they were engaged in it. They understood why voting is a right and that is wasn’t always a right—especially our students of color and our girls. I know that the essay that they'll write as a result of their field work will be high-quality work. That's exactly what EL expects of us when we talk about achievement.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face as a leader and how do you address them and stay focused on the mission?

Cox: The biggest challenge I face as a leader always comes down to ensuring that we’re helping our students become good people. It’s about loving our students—especially middle school students, who are going through some serious developmental changes in their life—and really helping our students learn to love themselves.

The current climate makes it hard to teach our students to be good people—to be compassionate and respectful, to be informed, and to use evidence when they’re making claims. Unfortunately, they’re not seeing those character traits right now from some of their nation’s leaders.

Laina Cox With Girls

We can only control what happens inside of our school building. So it's our job to make sure that we discuss what they’re seeing outside of our school building and that we are equipping them to handle that as the leaders that we want them to be.

Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming the leader you are today.

Cox: I started with EL Education as a student teacher. It was how I was taught to teach and where I set the bar. For the three years that I left EL to start my administrative career at a very traditional public school in Boston, I walked around thinking, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. This isn’t how I was taught.” Things that I thought were common sense weren’t that common outside of EL, so I knew I had to get back.

Laina Cox With Student Pointing At Each Other

I feel EL Education in my heart. I believe in EL. I really think that's a huge part of who I am as a leader. It's not just something that you subscribe to, it's really a part of you. I think that's also a difference between EL leaders and more traditional leaders.

Q: You’ve helped EL Education staff establish a community and a series of spaces for EL Education leaders of color to connect. Tell us about the significance of that work.

Cox: It is critical that we ensure that we are recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders of color. To be able to have everyone in a room together discussing our experiences—the ways in which EL can support us, retain us, and give us what we need so that we’re able to give our teachers and our students what they need—is beyond important. •


For seventeen years, Cox has devoted her professional life to making a personal difference in education within the Atlantic Region. She joined Capital City Public Charter School in 2012 and brought with her a profound commitment to excellence for every child, along with her expertise as a former EL Education School Designer, assistant principal, and humanities teacher. It is not her credentials alone, however, that make her such an effective school leader; it is also the leadership and trust she inspires in her staff, her students, and her entire school community.

Laina received the 2018 Silverberg Leadership Award for her ability to inspire students and teachers of all identities and backgrounds to achieve more than they thought possible. Established by EL Education Board Member Irwin Silverberg, the award is given to an outstanding school leader who has raised student achievement through deep implementation of EL Education practices.

Learn about past winners here.