Controversies emerge at Charter Board monthly meeting

It has been awhile since I’ve observed the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, and even more time has elapsed since I’ve sat through one in person.  So last night I traveled to the campus of Cesar Chavez Prep Public PCS for Public Policy to see the action up close.  It was a highly worthwhile decision.

A few quick observations.  I know that the board is trying to get out in the community by rotating meeting locations but the space last night was not adequate for the number of people in attendance.  Second, the composition of the board has changed.  Gone is member Barbara Nophlin.  She resigned last month with no explanation, and my questions about this matter to the PCSB communications director failed to shed light on the subject.  Two new individuals have joined the group. Steve Bumbaugh, from the CityBridge Foundation, is now on the board as well as Ricarda Ganjam, who has worked with KIPP DC on a college readiness program through Accenture, the company for whom she is employed.  Ms. Ganjam has three children in public school, one at DCPS’s Brent Elementary and two at Basis PCS.  I have to say I enjoyed her comments from the perspective of a parent.

The evening started with a routine request from DC Prep for a student enrollment increase, the third over the last 12 months.  School founder Emily Lawson was on hand to testify and she immediately received well deserved praise regarding the stupendous academic performance of her now five campuses with a student body of over 1,500 children.  But the niceties did not last long.  Rapidly came inquiries as to why students are not enrolled after the sixth grade.  This was followed by questions about DC Prep’s higher than average student suspension rate.  Vice chairman Don Soifer, who ran the meeting in Dr. Darren Woodruff’s absence due to illness, even hinted that her desire for more pupils was somehow tied to kids being taken out of class for punishment.

Ms. Lawson did her usual admirable job responding to the board’s comments, stating that her team is having discussions around admitting students in the seventh and eighth grades, and detailing the many steps they have taken to reduce out-of-school suspensions.  Look for the enrollment increase to be approved.

There was a long discussion regarding a student enrollment increase proposal from Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS.  A decision on this issue was tabled until the January session in the face of many people showing up to testify during the public comment period that parking around Edgewood Street, N.E., has become impossible since the charter relocated to its permanent location nearby on Douglas Street last year.

It was then announced that the PCSB was supposed to vote on whether to approve a new charter school applicant, Pathways in Education, which would have been part of a national network of schools serving at-risk students.  However, Mr. Soifer stated that the application had been withdrawn and the PCSB vice-chair seemed to be unaware of the reason behind the school’s action.

Next up was a consideration of the 10 year charter continuance of St. Coletta PCS.  Accolades were abundant from the dais for this institution that educates level four special education students.  Any contrary opinions  over this affirmative decision were avoided through the school’s cooperation with the PCSB  on separating the charter’s revenue and expenses from its private school parent company and thereby increasing its financial transparency.

Also on the agenda for a charter continuance vote was Richard Wright PCS.  Among those representing the school were my heroes, founder and chief executive officer Dr. Marco Clark and journalism and media arts coordinator Michelle Santos.  The discussion over whether to allow the charter to keep going past its first five years was much tougher than I thought it would be considering the tremendous academic progress this institution has made over its short history while teaching kids living in poverty.  The board was not happy with the math proficiency rates at the school and they let it be known loud and clear.  The staff, however, had obviously given this subject much thought and they demonstrated in clear and direct terms their efforts to infuse mathematics into every act of learning taking place at the charter.  The continuance was approved.

Finally came the moment the audience was waiting for, which was the decision regarding whether to start the charter revocation procedures against Potomac Preparatory PCS.  Many will remember that the board wanted to shutter the school last year for failure to meet its academic targets as identified during its 10 year charter continuance review.  The school convinced the PCSB that a serious turnaround effort was in place, and the charter was allowed to operate after a series of four specific targets were established for the 2014 to 2015 term.  The deal was that if these were not met the charter would have to be relinquished.  Last evening, Ms. Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, the board’s deputy director, announced that three out of these four goals had not been reached, adding that the board has been informed that the school had no intention of  voluntarily giving up its right to operate.

The atmosphere in the room was extremely tense.  Many of the attendees had already spoken earlier during the session passionately about their opposition to charter revocation.  Those testifying from the school strenuously disagreed with the board’s findings.  Shouts from supporters loudly permeated the discussion.

In the end the board voted unanimously, without comment, in fact, with an almost deafening silence, to begin the process of closing Potomac Preparatory PCS.  The school has 15 days to present their side of the story.  It looks like this fight is far from over.


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