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.

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