Exclusive interview with Irene Holtzman, executive director of FOCUS

I had the distinct privilege of sitting down recently with Irene Holtzman, the newly selected executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. The first question I wanted to ask her is why she was the one selected for the position. “Well, you would really have to ask our board of directors that question,” Ms. Holtzman explained. “I had substantial advocacy experience in my decade of work at KIPP DC interacting with OSSE, the D.C. Council, and the DC Public Charter School Board. Most of my efforts were around the fair and equal treatment of schools. As a result of this activity, I developed close relationships with charter school leaders based primarily on trust. It took me 10 years to cultivate these bonds and I am still continually trying to strengthen them.”

Ms. Holtzman thought that another reason she may have been picked is that she understands the environment that is necessary for a charter school to succeed. “KIPP DC thrives under the conditions of autonomy, equity, and accountability,” the FOCUS executive director asserted, “and I believe all schools deserve the opportunity to operate under these settings.”

I next wanted to know what it felt like to follow Robert Cane in her new role. Ms. Holtzman answered without hesitation. “These are extremely big shoes to fill. He was here almost from the beginning. Robert is a highly effective attorney and a great orator. He has a tremendous belief in the good work that these schools and school leaders do on a daily basis. In my opinion, what really led him to doing a fantastic job here at FOCUS was his constant vigilance around protecting charter school autonomy and fighting for financial equity. As most of us know, Robert was also not afraid to take controversial positions. While my leadership style is different, if I can accomplish half of what he did I will be happy.”

We then talked about her initial plans for her organization. “My immediate goal was to visit all schools in my first 90 days, although I didn’t quite make it,” Ms. Holtzman detailed. “In general, I would like to further strengthen our partnerships with the charter schools and the charter support sector so we can present a unified agenda. Toward this aim we have begun developing our new strategic plan for FOCUS. But the first subject on my mind is the acquisition of facilities for charter schools.”

I asked her if she had a plan to accomplish this task. “I think we should start by holding the city accountable for conducting a meaningful, transparent Request for Offer process for surplus traditional school buildings. Though DCPS enrollment has increased in recent years, if you look at the numbers, I do not think they will not need all of the vacant school buildings they have over the next 25 years. There are numerous charter schools that could use these facilities now to give students a great education. Instead, we often have to put our charter school students in expensive commercial building that lack green space and other amenities. We are not where we need to be regarding equity for our public school students.”

Perhaps, I wondered, would FOCUS be willing to use legal action to obtain access to surplus building for charters. Ms. Holtzman was not enthusiastic about this suggestion. She observed, “In terms of legal action, FOCUS would not have standing in court because it is not a school. I am hopeful that the city will do the right thing and we will not have to resort to lawyers to enforce existing legislation. But there is a finite limit to the number of tools we have in our toolbox.”

Ms. Holtzman was eager to continue to speak to her plans as executive director. “We want to work directly with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in a highly cooperative manner. There are many things that Superintendent Hanseul Kang wants to accomplish, and we want to support OSSE’s involvement with the charter school sector in a way that makes sense for the schools.”

A subject on the mind of many involved in public education reform is Mayor Muriel Bowser’s upcoming Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force. I wanted to know from the new FOCUS executive director what she hoped to see come out of its efforts. “First of all, I strongly believe that the group should be composed mostly of leaders from public schools, both charters and DCPS. I feel that there are many areas where partnerships could be formed between the two sectors, but they cannot be mandated. For example, a conversation about establishing feeder pattern across Local Education Agencies is definitely worth having. I could imagine such a relationship being established, as a hypothetical, between existing Montessori elementary schools and a newly established Montessori middle or high school.”

Ms. Holtzman added that the idea of neighborhood admission preference should be discussed further, but again only if it is voluntary. “But in this area,” she added, “we have to be careful. I would first like to see data about the impact of this policy. Schools certainly could not have a one hundred percent neighborhood preference because this would block admittance for low income children to particular institutions. The end goal has to be to provide meaningful school choice to all families.”

One subject the FOCUS executive director was not open to being part of the discussion is where charter schools can be located. “Providing charter schools with access to vacant facilities or under-utilized schools has to be a priority,” Ms. Hotlzman asserted. “In general charter schools have had to work around the limitations and use innovative methods to acquire space. However, the failure of the city to turn over surplus buildings is limiting the number of quality charter school seats available in the nation’s capital.”

Before we ended our meeting Ms. Holtzman wanted me to be aware of a couple of other initiatives that FOCUS offers and is in the process of strengthening. First, the organization is proud of its charter school startup program through which is helps potential charter schools create strong school models that lead to additional high quality seats for District students. The executive director pointed out that during the last application cycle before the PCSB only those schools that went through this program were approved.

In addition, Ms. Holtzman detailed that FOCUS provides performance management consulting services in which data is utilized to help schools improve. But I have to admit that by this point in the interview I had gathered all the information I needed because I had come to an important realization.

I understood that I had answered for myself my initial question of why Ms. Holtzman is now FOCUS’s executive director. Throughout our time together Ms. Holtzman consistently answered my questions in a direct, down-to-earth manner. She is obviously passionate about the success of D.C.’s charter schools, but that passion is expressed in a matter-of-fact casual style. It is as if there is no need to argue a polemic; she is just stating what is true. Her approach gave me a great sense of confidence that FOCUS is in extremely good hands, and therefore so too is our local charter school movement.

Exclusive interview with Shavonne Gibson, Director of Instruction Center City Public Charter Schools

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Shavonne Gibson, the director of instruction for the six campuses of Center City Public Charter Schools. I had met Ms. Gibson a year ago at an Ahead of the Curve conference sponsored by Fight for Children and the DC Public Charter School Board. At the time she was the principal of the Center City PCS Brightwood Campus, and upon hearing her lead a session I was immediately impressed with both her knowledge and intensity. Now that she has transitioned to her new position her energy level has not subsided a bit. In fact, it was a challenge to keep up with my note taking as she spoke.

“There are three parts to my job,” Ms. Gibson eagerly explained. “First, in my capacity I support school leaders with the goal of improving instruction going on in our facilities. Part two involves planning professional development for our instructors which encompasses designing and leading sessions. These first two components take up much of my day. The final segment of my responsibility is supporting the development of teacher leaders within our schools.”

Ms. Gibson appears to be the ideal candidate for the role she is currently playing with Center City. She spent four years as the Brightwood principal. When she began the student reading proficiency rate was at 39 percent and the math proficiency rate of the pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school was at 24 percent. By the time she left her position the reading proficiency rate had jumped to 64 percent, with math proficiency climbing all the way to 67 percent. She reached this attainment with an enrollment that is about 40 percent English Language Learners, 50 percent Latino, and 50 percent African American, with almost 90 percent of kids qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. Additionally, in her second year at Brightwood, she had the second highest composite growth for all ELL’s in the city. After one year as the principal of Brightwood, the school moved from Tier II to Tier I as measured by the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework tool.

Naturally, I wanted to know from the director of instruction what led to this strong academic success with her students. Ms. Gibson modestly pointed to four factors; stabilizing talent management, teacher observation and feedback, use of data, and increased family engagement through initiative sponsored by the Flamboyan Foundation.

Upon coming to Brightwood she found not a lot of teachers who had worked there when it was a Catholic school prior to the conversion to a charter. She immediately noticed a disconnect between the standards in the classroom and the rigor of instruction. “There were a lot of worksheets being utilized and not a great many opportunities for pupils to apply what they had been taught,” Ms. Gibson related. “I had to emphasize that you cannot lead a classroom from an office. We instituted side-by-side coaching of our teachers. We did a lot of work in small groups. There were difficult decisions around talent after the first year. Initially a stigma existed because we drilled down data to petite points and tried to get the teachers to respond. During this time, about twice a week, I would have teaching staff in my office crying that they could not do this difficult work. But we desperately wanted to establish a growth mentality, we wanted everyone to be better, and that applied to the employees as well as the students.”

Ms. Gibson also addressed her emphasis on the use of data. She remarked, “Of course, we looked at test scores. But I also focused on absences and tardiness. It was vital that we built structures and set expectations. If a child was sick and I didn’t receive a call then I would contact the parents. Some would say, ‘You mean you want me to let you know, and I would say you bet I do.'”

We then moved on to talk about the value of the help provided by the Flamboyan Foundation. Ms. Gibson was only too eager to speak about her experience working with this group. “The organization showed us how to approach parents as individuals. This was the key to presenting quantitative information to them and to explain where their kids could benefit from additional instruction and practice. During our first year of engagement with them we implemented the Academic Parent Teacher Team approach which replaces the traditional parent teacher conference. During the second year we utilized APTT’s and put home visits in place. During the third year we started having middle school kids facilitate their own student led conferences.”

All of these efforts were assisted, Ms. Gibson stated, by the introduction of the Common Core Standards.   “We started laying the foundational pieces of the standards in every lesson. At the end of the class teachers have an exit ticket which allows instructors to know if the students have mastered the day’s material.”

She also utilized short-cycle assessments in between interims to gain an understanding of student mastery of subject matter. “If the scholar is not meeting the level of mastery then we created strategies around bringing them up to where they needed to be.”

I then wanted to know Ms. Gibson’s opinion of the Common Core. “I think it has received a bad rap,” the Center City director of instruction expounded. “I appreciate that we now have tests to assess high levels of comprehension for every student. I want my son to have a deep understanding of subjects. I want him to understand how numbers work. I was not particularly good in math growing up. In class my fellow students moved on to other material and I was left wondering why I was not grasping the details. I want our kids to be ready for the 21st century workforce, and I contend that this is what the Common Core Standards will allow our schools to do.”

As I believe you can see from the above statement, Ms. Gibson has a passion about her work that infuses every part of her being. It is the drive that began when she first joined the New York City New Teachers Fellows. It was there when she started practicing her profession at a highly sought after middle school in Brooklyn. The student population at this school closely mirrored Ms. Gibson’s own community where she grew up in Brooklyn. It traveled with her next to the private St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School where she became the associate director of admissions. Ms. Gibson’s enthusiasm for her career then led her to gain entry to a residency program through New Leaders for New Schools, which brought her to Arts and Technology PCS first as an assistant principal.

Ms. Gibson left Arts and Technology before it was shuttered by the DC Public Charter School Board to join Center City where she recorded the student gains detailed earlier. About her move to becoming the director of instruction she would only say, “Approximate 30 point gains in four years is nice but I didn’t think I was the one to move the dial even higher. Besides, what we accomplished should be replicated throughout our system, not to pat myself on the back, but it’s because what all children deserve.”

Re-write of No Child Left Behind appears on right path

Last Friday the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton wrote about the emerging Congressional bill that will replace the expired No Child Left Behind.  There were a number of fears expressed by education reformers about this legislation, the main one being that it would eliminate mandatory testing of public school students.  It appears that this is not going to be the case.  From the article:

“The agreement maintains the federal requirement that states test students annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and publicly report the scores according to race, income, ethnicity, disability and whether students are English-language learners.

It also requires states to intervene in schools where student test scores are in the lowest 5 percent, where achievement gaps are greatest, and in high schools where fewer than 67 percent of students graduate on time.”

But in a bow to Republicans, the new law would leave it up to the States to decide how to fix under-performing schools.  Ms. Layton explains that these plans would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.  Those institutions that are doing well can decide for themselves the role of standardized tests at their facility.

The House and Senate are also taking steps to make sure that the next Education Secretary cannot have the influence over policy that Arne Duncan enjoyed “prohibiting the secretary from influencing state academic standards and assessments, requiring teacher evaluations or using grant programs to influence state education policy.”  No more Race to Top competitions.

 This is all good news.  Going forward, the kids would be tested according to the currently utilized subgroups and these scores would be publicly available which were the main innovations of the original NCLB.  States would still be required to take steps to improve schools not making the grade.  Moreover, now that almost all localities have adopted the Common Core Standards as well as uniform measures of proficiency, we are on our way achieving the pillars of high standards, accountability, and autonomy that has led to significant improvements in public education in the District of Columbia.  But we have to be watchful.  The final bill has not yet been released.

In D.C. public school reform is still not fast enough

In today’s Washington Post there are two articles about public education in the District of Columbia.  The first, by Michael Allison Chandler, celebrates the five year anniversary of Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor.  She includes this observation:

“Despite the accolades, many educators and advocates are concerned that progress in the school system is still not being felt by many of city’s most disadvantaged students. In many schools in the poorest parts of the city, less than a third of students perform on grade level, standardized tests show.”

The second piece, by Emma Brown, talks about the fact that the growth of charter schools in the nation’s capital has slowed.  She explains that while it was true for years that only New Orleans had a higher concentration of students in charters, now D.C. is eclipsed by Detroit and Flint, Michigan as well.  For the last three terms the percentage of kids in charters has remained stuck at 44 percent.  Ms. Brown writes:

“That flat-lining comes after a period of rapid growth: Nine years ago, just 25 percent of D.C. schoolchildren were in charters, which are funded with taxpayer dollars but run by independent nonprofits.”

These two trends are not good.  We desperately need to figure out how to increase substantially the number of high performing seats for every child that needs one.  Many have recognized that providing a quality education to all, no matter the race or socioeconomic status of the student, is the final great civil rights struggle of our time.

How do we do it?  Well we need some help.  The DC Public Charter School Board needs to provide incentives for good schools to replicate such as giving a year off of Performance Management Framework grading when a new campus is added.  Next, the city must turn over to charters the 20 or so vacant shuttered school buildings that are currently sitting empty.  In addition, the Mayor should bring to a conclusion the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit so that charters operate on a level playing field with DCPS.  Ms. Bowser,  the D.C. Council, and Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, also have a duty to bring successful charter management organizations here with the promise of a facility.

I guess we could go on talking about the quality of our public schools for another 100 years.  For me, I just don’t have the patience.

The core principles of Fight Night

Last Thursday I had the privilege of attending Fight for Children’s annual fundraiser Fight Night.  This was year 26 for the event and it brought in a staggering $5 million.  The money, which is already committed to supporting Fight for Children’s re-focused mission of strengthening early childhood education, only tells part of the story.  Come with me inside the Washington Hilton Hotel and I will explain the rest through the words of others.

Upon my arrival I was extremely fortunate to be standing right next to Raul Fernandez, Fight for Children’s chairman.  I inquired of Mr. Fernandez what was special about this evening.  He answered as if he knew what I was going to ask.  “With the tremendous assistance of Under Armour we are paying respect to Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who passed away at the end of 2011.  This year we are bringing Fight Night to an upgraded exciting level.  We are honoring Muhammad Ali, and for young people across the world there is no better role model than him.  He is, in fact, no better role model for what as an organization we are trying to achieve.”

Soon it was time for the 2,000 men dressed in black tie and 280 hostesses wearing red and gold cocktail dresses to enter the ballroom.  If you have never seen this space in person you are missing one of the great wonders of the world.  With the boxing ring/stage planted right in the center, complete with an electronic scrolling ticker-tape billboard across the top of the square perimeter, and laser lights shooting across the ceiling carrying with them the sound of the band performing boisterous southern rock and roll songs, it as if your senses have gone into overload.

New for 2015 was the placement of tall words on the walls of the room that comprise Mr. Ali’s six core principles.   These included “confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality.  The values were also included in a well-produced video about the boxer.  It was soon after arriving at this location that I saw Michela English, the Fight for Children president and CEO.  I wanted to know from her what she was looking forward to about the evening.  “Well, we are going to reach a fundraising level for the history of the event.  We were trying to attract a younger audience to Fight Night and we have achieved that goal.  With the contributions of everyone here we are really going to move the dial when it comes to early childhood education.”

Ms. English’s comments made me realize that I was witnessing nothing less than the transformation of Fight for Children.  Fight Night appeared the same as the first time I had attended eight years ago.  There were open bars wherever you looked.  The steaks still overflowed the dinner plates.  Once again entertainers, on this occasion Frank Sinatra, Jr. and The Orchestra, a band comprised of members of the former Electric Light Orchestra, brought bright energy to the guests.  Yet, there were changes, perhaps subtle at first.  The food was more plentiful, the performances were expanded, and there was not an empty seat in the house.

When Under Armour’s Kevin Plank addressed the crowd he could not conceal his excitement.  “This is the largest Fight Night in its long tradition.  It is a real tribute to Joe’s work.  This is so cool, I have never seen anything like this.  It is simply amazing.”

As Fight for Children retools its annual School Quality Awards luncheon, as it adds its Ahead of the Curve professional development conferences with the help of the DC Public Charter School Board, and as it seeks to redefine what preschool is really all about, it is as if the celebration was about two distinct tracks.  We were there, of course,  to celebrate the philanthropic legacy of Joe Robert, and too, we were witnessing a towering resurgence in the group he founded in 1990 to help kids living in poverty through strengthening their health and education.  I came to understand that the principles of Mr. Muhammad Ali were actually the core tenets of our hosts.

Tonight is Fight Night 2015

Tonight over 2,000 people will come together in the Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom to join in Fight for Children’s Fight Night, the premier fundraiser in the nation’s capital.  I’m especially excited to attend because Fight for Children’s chief operating officer Keith Gordon declared recently in the Washington Business Journal that this year’s event will be like no other. “You have to do more than give it just a fresh coat of paint,” Gordon said. “You have to really look at all the aspects — the experience, the programming, all of the entertainment, all of the individual attendees — and you have to really make it something that is never going to be replicable.”

Mr. Gordon also asserted that Fight Night will raise $5 million, a record in its 26 year history.  In 2014 the gala brought in $4.6 million.  For the third time in a row Kevin Plank’s Under Armour is staging the festivities.

Fight Night comes at a special time for its parent organization.  Fight for Children has re-focused its mission on strengthening early childhood education.  In fact, all of the proceeds from the event will go toward leading Washington, D.C. to nothing less than having the best preschool offerings in the nation.   Commented Fight For Children chairman and vice chairman Monumental Sports & Entertainment Raul Fernandez, “Through the generosity of our partners, including Kevin Plank and Under Armour, Fight For Children is able to support programs like Joe’s Champs, which improves the quality of early childhood teachers and school leaders in the region’s highest need neighborhoods.”

But this evening’s celebration marks another important milestone.  Right now moving through Congress is the five year re-authorization of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan that provides private school scholarships for children living in poverty in the District of Columbia.  The late Fight for Children founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr. championed this legislation, leading its original passage over a decade ago through the introduction of the Three-Sector Approach that provided equal funding for school vouchers, charter schools, and DCPS.

House Speaker John Boehner made continuation of the OSP one of his last priorities before stepping down.  Moreover, this past September, it was announced by the U.S. Department of Education that a new group, Serving Our Children, would become the plan’s administrator.  Headed by a board of directors that includes former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, former D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, and Friendship Public Charter School’s chairman and founder Donald Hense, and run by Rachel Sotsky, former Senator Joseph Lieberman’s legislative director, the OSP appears to be in extremely competent hands.

Just yesterday, before a Senate Committee, Mary (Beth) Blaufuss, the head of school for Archbishop Carrol High School, testified in support of re-authorization of the OSP.  She explained:

“Since the OSP began, Archbishop Carroll High School has graduated 221 Opportunity Scholars. Internal data from the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust indicates that high schools with OSP students safely deliver 88% of them on to college—compared to a national rate of 49% for low-income families.  Archbishop Carroll’s OSP graduates have gone on to colleges such as Dartmouth, Columbia, Georgetown, George Washington, Penn State, Mt. St. Mary’s, Morehouse, Spelman, and a host of other institutions. We currently serve 198 Opportunity Scholars. While we often tout loudest those who go on to colleges with national reputations, many of our OSP graduates of whom I am the most proud are those who came to us reading two or three years behind grade level but who still completed a rigorous college prep curriculum; or those like Mark, a student who admitted to me last week that he wasn’t really even thinking about college as an option before he came to our school; or the graduates I know who to have endured periods of homelessness or state custody while in high school. The numbers and the anecdotes tell the same story: the Opportunity Scholarship changes lives.”

So too heroically does Fight for Children.  Later today we will proudly join in their charge.

Thurgood Marshall Academy offers bright spot in PARCC scores

Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School has since its inception been a leading academic institution teaching at-risk students in Ward 8. Over 70 percent of the school’s population qualifies for free and reduced lunch and practically all of its pupils are African American.  Yet it has boosted some of the city’s best marks on the DC CAS and has been a DC Public Charter High School Tier 1 school for each of the years that the tool has been utilized.  I interviewed the school’s then executive director and co-founder Josh Kern in 2011.

It appears that the pattern of preparing students for success in college has continued with the transition to Common Core Standards and the PARCC examination.  Last week, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education released high school test scores which mostly measured 10th grade performance.  For Geometry,  Thurgood Marshall students came in at  13.1 percent proficient compared to 7.0 percent on average for D.C.’s charter sector and 10.0 percent for DCPS as a whole.  For economically disadvantaged students the number for Thurgood was 11.4 percent in the same subject, with charters and DCPS at 4.2 percent.

In English Language Arts Thurgood Marshall students stand out even more.  For all of their kids the proficiency number is 56.6 percent, while for charters it is 23.0 percent and for the traditional schools 25.0 percent.  In the category of economically disadvantaged students TMA came in at 58.6 percent proficient with charters at 19.1 percent and DCPS recording 16.5 percent.

How did they do it?  The school is direct in its answer:

“When the District announced the transition to PARCC in 2011, TMA took a number of steps to prepare, including aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessments with the new, more rigorous Common Core standards. ‘Our leadership, faculty, and staff have worked to revise our curriculum to meet the demands of the common core state standards,’ said Kena Allison, the school’s Interim Head of School who has also served as a TMA science teacher and instructional coach for several years. ‘We continue to work diligently to make sure our students are ready for the rigors of a college education.'”

Now let’s see other schools follow this impressive lead.  Elementary and middle school PARCC results should be available in a few weeks.