By Kelly Livingston
College Park Academy (CPA), the city’s blended-learning public charter school, has found a new executive director. The interim chair of the academy, Jennifer King Rice, Ph.D., announced that Sandy Abu-Arja, Ed.D., would assume the position on Oct. 8.
Abu-Arja was chosen by CPA’s board of directors following a year-long international search. In her announcement of the hire, King Rice noted the academy’s goal of identifying an executive director who could continue to expand opportunities for students at the relatively new school. King Rice wrote, “With high academic scores, more than 90 percent of our graduates moving on to colleges and universities, and an atmosphere of support and innovation for our students and parents, it was important to find an executive director who could build on our successes and expand the opportunities for our students.”
College Park Academy was established in 2013 with the mission of providing students a blended-learning educational model designed to prepare them for college while allowing them to earn up to 60 college credits by their high school graduation. The role of executive director is centered around strategic planning. Abu-Arja is responsible for educational programming, professional development for staff and community relations.
Abu-Arja’s educational and leadership philosophy lends itself to CPA’s flexible model. “I believe that specifically-designed support can make an exponential difference in a learner’s life: it can stretch a gifted and talented student to realize his potential, it can assist a struggling student to reach a milestone, or it can scaffold a student’s learning step-by-step until he is equipped to venture onto the next stage on his own,” she wrote.
Most recently, she has been working as an online instructor for Moreland University in its Master’s in Educational Leadership and Teacher Preparation Certificate Program. Prior to that, she lived in Jordan with her husband, a native Jordanian, and their three daughters. While there, she spent 17 years with the Amman Baccalaureate School (ABS) in both teaching and leadership positions.
In 2012, while working for ABS, Abu-Arja was invited to give a talk on education at TEDxRasAlEinSquare. During her talk, titled “Education Plus,” she said, “I strongly believe that we are all life-long learners and that every opportunity that we are given, whether it be good or it be bad, is a learning experience, and that we should take something away from it and grow.” In that same talk she described her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bernice Johnson, who inspired Abu-Arja to become a teacher. Abu-Arja said that Johnson made her feel “seen and heard.”
In an interview with the College Park Here & Now, Abu-Arja expressed admiration for CPA’s culture, which she described as collaborative and based on a growth mindset. She also talked about what she hopes to bring to the team.
“It’s … working together as a community to ensure that we are unlocking the potential for everyone who’s contributing to it,” Abu-Arja said. “So it’s not like a top down, where we’re going to say these are the goals, everyone’s going to do it. … How are we going to bring everyone’s talents out to ensure that everything is linked to teaching and learning? Everything goes back to what is that quality education that we’re providing our students to make sure that they’re college- and career-ready.”
“She’s somebody that brings a lot of experience to our team and really, especially for our development as a school and for the students of Prince George’s County,” CPA Middle School Principal Steven Baker said. “We’re very, very excited about her coming on board to further develop our relationship with the University of Maryland, further develop our relationship with the City of College Park, and then she also brings a wealth of experience in professional development for teachers – so we’re really excited to tap into that as well.”