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Two Rivers: For Children, by Parents

K-12 Education

Two Rivers: For Children, by Parents

Fawzia Ahmed

Senior K-12 Education Program Officer

Manda Kelley sits on a chair at the front of her classroom, surrounded by first graders listening to a morning math lesson. 

At first glance it’s a pretty typical school scene, with students raising hands to ask questions. There’s a poster about counting, a flip chart about vowels.  

For Manda, though, the class is anything but routine. It represents a dream realized. 

Twelve years ago, the Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., existed only in the imagination of Manda and several dozen other parents who were concerned about a shortage of quality educational options in their community. 

Today, the Two Rivers network serves 750 students, from pre-school through eighth grade, on two campuses. It has become one of the most sought-after schools in the city. 

And Manda, one of the founding parents and a former member of the Two Rivers board, turned her parental passion for education into a personal profession. She recently graduated from Trinity Washington University and now works as an assistant teacher at Two Rivers’ newest location. 

“We had a vision for what we wanted in a school and, from that, we just started building it,” she said. “To watch it grow into this great entity has been really wonderful. There are no words to describe it.”

The Two Rivers story began in 2002 in Capitol Hill, a historic residential neighborhood east of the U.S. Capitol. 

Manda and other young parents regularly met up with their kids at community parks. As the children played, conversations frequently turned to problems they saw in area public schools. 

The few good schools had long waiting lists. Others were overcrowded or understaffed. Rather than stew over the problem, the parents decided to think big, and try to create the kind of school they wanted for their kids.


“We knew it was a big dream but we felt we could do it.”


Parents held ‘visioning sessions’ in local homes to brainstorm about their ideal school. Common themes emerged. 

“We wanted the kids to be in a diverse community, to reflect the world we live in. We wanted our kids to have exposure to the arts, so they would have music and drama and be able to play and sing. We wanted them to have access to a foreign language. We wanted the school to be bright and open, with lots of window space and room for the kids to move,” Manda says. “We knew it was a big dream but we felt we could do it.”

The school received its charter in 2003 and opened its doors to its first children in 2004.

Two Rivers school opened its middle school in 2009. A second campus, Two Rivers at Young, where Manda now works, opened in 2015. 

The Walton Family Foundation funded the school’s expansion as part of its K-12 Education Program, which aims to expand educational opportunity and access to high-quality schools, particularly in poor or underserved communities. 

Two Rivers is an EL Education model school, formerly known as ‘Expeditionary Learning,’ built on the education principles of Outward Bound. The school stresses project-based learning and in-depth studies of real-world problems, which take classes out into the community for first-hand experiences.  

Manda's first grade class, for example, studied the problem of food insecurity in Washington, D.C., and held a popcorn sale to raise money for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm group serving the city.

A tier-one school, academically, Two Rivers students are excelling

Aesthetically, the school remains true to its original vision for an open, inviting learning environment. The walls at the Two Rivers at Young campus are vibrant with color. Sunlight streams in from oversized windows. 

Core principles for education include emphasis on empathy and caring, and diversity and inclusion. 

“We are known for having really kind kids,” says Guye Turner, the principal at the newest Two Rivers campus. 

The school network has also realized its early goals for diversity. The student body is 62% African American, 24% white and 9% Hispanic. More than 15% of students have special needs.


“Community is the cornerstone of everything we do.”


Guye, who was an assistant teacher at Two Rivers when it first opened in 2004, said staff take tremendous pride not only in the academic successes, but also the school’s culture. 

 “Community is the cornerstone of everything we do.”

Manda, whose daughter attended Two Rivers from fifth through eighth grade, marvels that the school she teaches in today reflects, in so many ways, the original vision that parents had for Two Rivers.

“I wake up every day and I am so excited to come to work. I love the challenges. I love the rewards. I love the kids,” she says. “My class is amazingly diverse. They love each other. They understand their differences but they don’t dwell on them. They support each other. They care about each other.”

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Myra Maggard Brewer

For these statistics to make sense, a person would need to know the same statistics about the area where the school is located: "The school network has also realized its early goals for diversity. The student body is 62% African American, 24% white and 9% Hispanic. More than 15% of students have special needs." It would be something to consider if it did not smack of separate but equal or reverse discrimination. There is no kind of timeline story to show what the school was before and how it became what it is now. Is there somewhere this other information can be found? Journalism is printing those things not everyone is happy to hear. Anything else is just public relations.