Exclusive Interview with Darren Woodruff, Chairman DC Public Charter School Board

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down recently for an interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, the chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board. I asked Dr. Woodruff how he first became involved with public charter schools in the nation’s capital. “I joined the Board,” the PCSB chair replied, “along with vice chairman Don Soifer and past PCSB chair John ‘Skip’ McKoy in December 2008 after being nominated by Mayor Fenty. I had become acquainted with Mr. Fenty through my involvement with my student’s traditional public school located in Ward 4. He was aware I had a background in educational research. “My two children went on to attend a DC public charter school and one is still currently enrolled.”

I then asked what lessons he learned upon joining PCSB. “It was a tremendous learning curve,” Dr. Woodruff answered. “I had never really given expanded school choice a lot of thought. I wanted to understand what it was like for parents to pick a school for their children that was not a neighborhood school and I began to contemplate the pros and cons of parents acting as consumers of education and how to be an effective authorizer in this environment.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “Of course, I am still learning. But what I have realized over the years is that it is exceedingly important for schools to establish high academic performance standards. It is not acceptable for our children, here in Washington, D.C., to attend low performing schools or for public charter schools to set low or middle of the road expectations. The promise of public charter schools is that we see big things in the future for our students. We have been able to offer a variety of instructional models and our pupils have been able to excel in our offerings with many going to college, often the first in their families to attend an institution of higher learning. Parents have expressed sincere gratitude for what we have been able to achieve.”

Our conversation then turned to Dr. Woodruff’s opinion of the track record of the Public Charter School Board. “I think we have done a great job,” he answered almost before I could get the words out of my mouth.  “Just look at the significant number of children that are now attending high quality Tier 1 schools.” For example, Dr. Woodruff pointed out that comparing the 2014 to 2015 term to the 2010 to 2011 school year in which the Performance Management Framework was first utilized 4,667 more students, an increase of 59 percent, are attending Tier 1 facilities. In addition, Dr. Woodruff informed me that during the same time period 1,894 more students, a 15 percent increase, are enrolled in Tier 2 schools and perhaps most importantly, over these years we have seen 2,426 fewer students, a 74 percent decrease, going to Tier 3 institutions.

Dr. Woodruff was obviously proud of these achievements. “Academic proficiency in the charter sector is going up each year and the number of days students spend out of school on suspension is going down,” the PCSB chair emphasized. “These are crucial outcomes for parents. We have smaller numbers of students out of the classrooms, and an increase in the range of academic offerings. Students are now able to learn Mandarin, STEM, or take advantage of a classical college preparation curriculum and pupils are soaring under these options. We are setting the bar exceptionally high and now DCPS is responding. We are seeing academic growth in students that traditionally have not done well in public school. These children are going off to college while at the same time receiving millions of dollars in scholarships.   This did not happen before in D.C., and PCSB deserves much of the credit for what has transpired.”

“We have accomplished these mileposts,” Dr. Woodruff explained, “by insisting on strong academic results while simultaneously closing schools that are not meeting our benchmarks. We have provided resources to boost the practice at schools when we sense that they need help and, while we don’t like doing it, we have closed 13 public charter schools over the last three years. “

I then wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff where he thought the Board could improve. “I think,” Mr. Woodruff answered, “that we could do a better job getting our message out about our quality schools. I want to provide increased communication to parents about what they should be looking for in selecting a school for their children and how to go about making a good match for their offspring. As part of this effort I would like to see us utilize data more effectively to provide information about our portfolio of schools. This is especially important because many of the parents we serve do not have access to a computer. We want to get out more to interact with parents while we also seek ways to bring more parents and children into our meetings.”

One way Dr. Woodruff imagines he can more effectively share knowledge about the sector is through the task force Deputy Mayor for Education Niles is about to establish which will investigate ways to increase cooperation between public charter schools and DCPS. “The task force will be another chance for us to press our emphasis on quality,” Dr. Woodruff asserted. “We hope to be able to discuss common strategies for increasing academic outcomes. We are hopeful that DCPS will decide to adopt the same goals that we have established.   Our aim in participating in this process is to protect the progress we have made and to see these advancements scale up across the city.”

I then inquired of Dr. Woodruff whether the end result of the task force could be to prevent public charter schools from being located in close proximity to DCPS locations as happened last year with Harmony PCS. Dr. Woodruff was quick to respond to my question. “We do not have decision making authority over where schools decide to begin their operation, although we can provide advice. The problem is that we do not have access to closed DCPS facilities. If we did the issue with Harmony would have never arisen. Harmony opened where they did after attempts to secure other sites fell through. It is unfair in this case to blame the authorizer or Harmony. What we need is a more equitable and transparent process for charters obtaining surplus buildings. This piece is really critical. Neighborhoods should not be the last to know a public charter school is moving in. There has to be a much greater focus on making space available relying on a clear and fair procedure.”

Although it is apparent that academic proficiency rates have been climbing in the city I asked Dr. Woodruff if he was satisfied with our process. “Not at all,” the PCSB exclaimed. “We need as an authorizer to insist that new charters are Tier 1 on day 1. My belief is that as we raise community knowledge of our schools there will be fewer acceptances of low quality institutions. We will continue to study leading trends in public education across the country. In addition, we will attempt to bring more high quality operators here locally but if they come we don’t want them to stumble.  As a Board we want to make sure that they are ready for D.C. and D.C. is ready for them.”

I then asked Mr. Woodruff if PCSB should have been quicker to identify the problems that were discovered regarding Options PCS and the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy PCS. “Yes,” Dr. Woodruff remarked, “We need greater transparency about what our school boards are doing with their vendors so that we can be sure this does not happen again. We will not be telling schools how to spend their money but we need to be able to ask questions. We have asked for this authority. We have to make sure schools are good stewards of tax dollars. But to our credit as soon as we realized that there were financial improprieties at these charters we acted quickly and we have seen positive resolutions from our actions. Kingsman PCS is taking over Options without interrupting the education of students with special needs there, and together with the great cooperation of the Deputy Mayor for Education, DCPS, Friendship PCS, and DC Bilingual PCS the children enrolled in CAPCS will all have the availability of quality seats for the upcoming school year.”

I also wanted to know what Dr. Woodruff thought of the FOCUS coordinated lawsuit against the city regarding funding inequities between DCPS and charters. The PCSB chairman was direct. “Unfortunately, it had to get to this point. I’m in support of the goals of the lawsuit but I’m not happy at all that this action had to be taken. We have a new administration now that Muriel Bowser is Mayor and I understand that she wants to see both education sectors, charters and DCPS improve, and so therefore I’m am hopeful that she will find a way to resolve this issue.”

Finally, I was interested in knowing what the PCSB chairman envisioned for the future of our local charter school movement. For example, did he wish to see charters expand well beyond the 44 percent market share of all public school children that it currently teaches? Dr. Woodruff turned this question on its head.

“I wish to go back to the original bargain of public charter schools that we would bring competition and innovation. That is what we need to put the gas on. If we have to do this by adding more public charter schools than so be it. But if DCPS can provide the same high expectations for academic achievement than that is perfectly acceptable. I predict that in the next ten years the city’s tolerance for mediocre schools will be nonexistent. The current fight is not over whether a child attends a public charter school or DCPS but whether he or she is in a quality seat. You can go to almost every part of town and see that public charter schools are doing an excellent job and consistently doing great things. The students have not changed but our expectations for what can be done with these students has been raised. Public charter schools are changing the lives of our children and we need the traditional schools to join us in this fight.”

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