The DC Public Charter School Board Summer Graduation Ceremony

This past Tuesday the DC Public Charter School Board held its first ever Summer High School Graduation Ceremony honoring about 60 seniors at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest Washington, D.C.

The room for the event was packed with school leaders, teachers, parents and relatives of the students.  David Grosso, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee was in attendance.  The Master of Ceremonies was Walter Deleion, who holds the dual distinctions of being the youngest elected representative in the nation’s capital as an ANC Commissioner and being a graduate of Washington Latin PCS.

Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, the deputy director of the PCSB, kicked off the ceremony, beaming as she explained to the enthusiastic audience that graduation events such as this are the reason she comes to work everyday.  The quick-paced agenda included a Presentation of the Colors by IDEA PCS’s Junior ROTC, a highly emotional signing of the National Anthem by Angela Moore, an operations assistant at the PCSB, and a poem by Michael Moore from National Collegiate Preparatory PCS.

The keynote address was provided by Quentin Liggins, the acting executive director of the D.C. region for Leading Educators, a group that provides teacher leadership training to improve the quality of classroom instruction.  Mr. Liggins spoke eloquently about the power of perseverance, asking the matriculating seniors to go boldly forward in life by having a vision for their future, to win or learn but never lose, and to not be afraid to ask for help.  His third piece of advice echoed a similar recommendation offered by Ms. DeVeaux.

Following Mr. Liggins were some remarks by Dr. Darren Woodruff, the PCSB chair.  Dr. Woodruff commented to me about the graduation ceremony, “This year marks the 20th year that public charter schools have been in Washington, DC. Our first ever summer graduation is a fitting way to kick off the celebration and put a spot light on the accomplishments of all of our graduates.”

The names of each of the graduates was then read aloud by Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, to wild cheers from the audience as each scholar dressed in their graduation cap and gown traversed the stage.  It was about the classiest sixty minutes that you will ever see.



Lars Beck stepping down from Scholars Academies

An item on the agenda of last night’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board caught my eye.  All it said was “DC Scholars PCS – Governance Structure Amendment.”  Of course, I’m extremely familiar with DC Scholars PCS.  The pre-Kindergarten to seventh grade school is one of two in Washington, D.C. that utilizes Scholars Academies as its management company, and whose founding board chair was Mieka Wick, the executive director of the CityBridge Foundation.   Interestingly, Scholars Academies also manages Stanton Elementary, a DCPS facility with grades pre-Kindergarten to five.  These institutions have something extremely important in common.  Both DC Scholars PCS and Stanton Elementary specialize in teaching children living in poverty.  Each school population is comprised of 100 percent of students coming from low income households.  So to find out what was going on I called Lars Beck, Scholars Academies’ CEO.  What I learned greatly surprised me.

Mr. Beck explained that Scholars Academies is taking the highly unusual move of dissolving it central corporate structure.  He related that more than a year ago the organization figured out that it could be much more responsive to the schools being served by bringing management closer to those it assists.  Therefore, the decision was made to give up the main office and create three regional centers, with each given the autonomy to make decisions about how best to serve students in that particular area.

Just as I was about to compliment Mr. Beck about how innovative I thought this approach was, since I don’t think up to now I’ve ever heard anything similar to a home office deciding to voluntarily give up authority over those under it, he hit me with a bombshell.  “I’ve decided to leave Scholars Academies,” Mr. Beck informed me.

In fact, it was Mr. Beck’s move that prompted the strategic discussion leading to the conclusion that students and parents would best be served by Scholars Academies separating into three regional networks.

I first met Mr. Beck a couple of years ago.  He impressed me from the second I introduced myself with his sincere interest in helping those that others had abandoned.  From my interview which took place in April, 2014:

“I came from the business world,” Mr. Beck answered. “My job was marketing and management for a firm in Canada. My mom for years ran a private faith-based school in Philadelphia for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds characterized by exceedingly strong academic results. I wanted to do more with my life and the inequities between people of various races and income levels continuously gnawed at me.”

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan described the work being done at Stanton Elementary as “remarkable.”  Mayor Gray commented that “We simply need to bottle this and figure out how to proliferate it all around the city.” Kaya Henderson has said that she wants to replicate what is taking place there.  Academic proficiency rates have doubled from the absolute bottom of the ladder.  But almost more importantly, Mr. Beck portrayed the school as one in which a culture of high performance has now infused the building.

Mr. Beck relayed that he will leave in September and that after 13 years in his current position he has no real plans for what he will do next.  It is a supreme understatement to say he will be missed.  Again from our interview:

All of these educational endeavors regarding improving the lives of the less fortunate are consistent with the life-long efforts of Mr. Beck’s mother. “Our drive is to transform low performing schools,” Mr. Beck commented towards the end of our discussion. “We believe in what is possible for students and then we try and let them realize their hopes and dreams.”


William E. Doar, Jr. PCS to change name to City Arts & Prep

Tonight at the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board a vote will be taken to change the name on August 1, 2016 of the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS to City Arts and Prep PCS.

The move makes sense since none of the creators of WEDJ are currently associated with the school.  Julie Doar-Sinkfield, Mr. Doar’s daughter, who was the first board chair and executive director, had a public battle with the charter in 2011 when she and the two original founders, Mary Robbins and Nadia Casseus-Torney, attempted to wrestle control of the school from its board of directors.  The issue made it to D.C. Superior Court with a judge issuing a restraining order blocking the three women from involvement with the charter before they decided to drop their effort.  WEDJ received legal assistance from Stephen Marcus, the same attorney who is now facilitating the FOCUS engineered lawsuit against the city regarding inequity charter school funding, and ironically, the lawyer who negotiated WEDJ’s original lease with the landlord at 705 Edgewood Street, N.E.

Despite all of the controversy I hate to see the change.  I was part of the founding group of the school who met in Ms. Doar’s basement apartment on Capitol Hill over a decade ago to write the charter.  She cooked dinner for us as we sought to develop the best charter school the nation’s capital had ever seen.  I went on to succeed Ms. Doar as WEDJ’s board chair for five years.

I never met Mr. Doar since he passed away in 1982.  But he was obviously a remarkable man.  Here is a small portion of his biography:

“During his lifetime, he took steps to initiate the desegregation of facilities at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and is responsible for placing the first African-American doctor on its staff. He was a member continuously since 1945 of the United Bowling League of Brooklyn, the league most responsible for the integration of the American Bowling Congress. He helped to bring about the integration of the Nursing School at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and was responsible for placing the first black youth in the biology laboratory of that hospital. He worked with the late Congressman Adam Powell in integrating the stores on 125th Street in Harlem. With the New York State Employment Service he brought the discrimination at Bell Telephone Laboratories and Western Electric to a halt with the cooperation of the NAACP.”

Mr. Doar was a member of the Kappa Beta Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity for over 48 years, holding a variety of leadership positions.  His involvement led in 1995 to the international headquarters of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity on Kennedy Street, N.W. to be named the William E. Doar, Jr. Building.

While I did not get the chance to know him I spent many hours with his wife.  I found Mrs. Doar to be the epitome of class and kindness.  She has a fantastic sense of humor which she expresses with a broad smile.  I especially welcomed that look when Julie would become completely frustrated when she couldn’t get people to do exactly as she wanted.

Julie, as well as Mary and Nadia, taught me so much about charters, regarding both pedagogy and governance.  The potential of these individuals to do good in the world was never more evident than on one of the annual faculty performances that we held as fundraisers.  We spoke of everything that was being accomplished at the school and everything that was still be be done.  We laughed at the joy being brought to us by those gathered in the room.

And we talked about William E. Doar, Jr.


Charter school restarts should be exempt from Tiering for 2 years

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, wrote an extremely interesting article recently on lesson learned by his organization when turning over management of a charter that is being closed to another school.  For many years now  when the PCSB shutters a charter it tries to identify a Performance Management Framework Tier 1 school to takeover the facility instead of finding new places for the pupils to attend.  It is a great move in that it minimizes disruption for families while significantly increasing the quality of what is taking place in the classrooms.

Mr. Pearson indicates that one of the traits that will increase the probability that a restart will be successful is to allow the board of directors of the closing school to select, within parameters, the incoming charter.  This is an engagement tool for those that are being in the unfortunate position of having to give up their institution.  Another important observation discovered through this process is that the new school should bring strong resources to the existing site.  This includes hiring an experienced principal and “flooding the zone” with extra resources to ensure success.  Furthermore, Mr. Pearson writes that the staff should avoid trying to expand their program to areas that they lack prior experience in carrying out.  In other words they should stick to what they know they do best.

One crucial issue the PCSB executive director has found with restarts is that there may not be a school agreeing to assume the task.  This was the case this year with Potomac Prep PCS.  When I interviewed Mr. Pearson a couple of months ago he explained to me that another school could not be found to take it over.  One impediment to a charter being willing to enter into a restart relationship could be the fear that the move will negatively impact their PMF score.  Therefore, to provide a strong incentive for a charter to boldly go into a restart situation, the PCSB should exclude this campus from PMF tiering for two years; the first year of operation at the new campus plus another twelve months.

Mr. Pearson admits in his article that one charter taking over another is a daunting job.  I content that by holding off grading on the PMF for two years for charters initiating a restart we could see far greater replication of some of our highest performing schools.

Scott Pearson should replace Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor

In today’s Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews writes an open letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser begging her to cancel the national search for a Chancellor to replace Kaya Henderson.  He writes:

“The alleged stars hired in these fantasy adventures usually have little familiarity with the administrators, teachers, parents, students and power brokers in the school district or have little knowledge of its history. They lack trusted allies. Some of the most valuable people they must work with resent their presence.”

I agree.  Fortunately, we have someone here in D.C. that can ameliorate all of these concerns. That individual is Scott Pearson, the current executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board.

What a perfect choice this would be.  In his five years at the job Mr. Pearson has demonstrated a laser focus on improving the quality of the schools his organization oversees.  In fact, almost all of the charters graded as Tier 3 institutions on the Performance Management Framework are no longer around.  According to the PCSB’s 2015 Annual Report “of 23 schools rated Tier 3 since 2011, 6 have improved and 19 have been closed.”  He is used to holding schools accountable for results and yet he is always conscience of the need to extend as much autonomy as possible.  In other words he is not a micromanager.

In addition, Mr. Pearson has proven himself to be a skilled administrator.  Under his direction, the PCSB has gained a reputation as being perhaps the best at what it does.  According to testimony given last year to the D.C. Council by past board chair John “Skip” McKoy “both the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools have recognized D.C. as the strongest charter sector in the nation, and PCSB as a leading authorizer.”

Mr. Pearson already has a strong working relationship with all the major stakeholders in public education in the nation’s capital.  The PCSB executive director has had a particularly good rapport with Ms. Henderson, consistently treating her with dignity and respect.  He has worked collaboratively with the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and DCPS on highly successful projects such as the common lottery and the development of equity reports.

Finally, Mr. Pearson values the traditional schools.  In a 2015 Washington Post editorial written with Mr. McKoy he stated:

“Right now, the District has the best of both worlds: a vibrant charter sector that offers a wide range of learning models from some of the best school leaders and a strong, improving and growing DCPS that has responded to charter competition by revitalizing its commitment to quality. D.C. schools are nowhere close to perfect. But the current model, with two public school systems pushing each other to be better and cooperating whenever possible, is proving to be the right mix for the District’s schoolchildren.”

In making Mr. Pearson Chancellor we could get a true win-win situation.  Someone who knows and revers the major education players in the city, and at the same time, a leader who will try new ways in order to continue the rise in academic achievement demonstrated under Ms. Henderson’s tenure.

The decision for the Mayor is clear and simple.




Study on where charter students go to school points to need for more charters

Last Thursday evening at the Donald Hense retirement and birthday celebration I had the honor of sitting next to Linda Moore, the founder and past executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School.  I always enjoy catching up with Ms. Moore because she is such a strong and personable leader in our local movement, an achievement symbolized by her 2013 election to the National Charter School Hall of Fame.  It has been five years since I interviewed her so I asked her how things were going at her school.  “Isn’t the wait list for admission getting up to about 1,000 students?” I asked.  No, she replied, it is now grown to 2,000 pupils.   The last lottery cycle, Ms. Moore explained, there were that many children for 20 available slots.  She added that the Stokes is now considering replication but no decision has been made.

This conversation brings me to the study completed last month by the DC Public Charter School Board which documents how far students travel to attend our schools.  It turns out that the distance is not very far.  On average kids travel 2.1 miles to class, a statistic that has not changed from the 2014 to 2015 term.  The title of the report is “Choosing Quality” but it really could have been called “Keeping Young People Close to Home.”  According to Tomeika Bowden, the PCSB communications director, students do not travel farther to attend schools with larger wait lists, nor do charters ranked as Tier 1 on the Performance Management Framework draw kids living far away from these institutions.

In other words, as we already knew, parents want their children to attend schools where they live.  There could be many reasons for this phenomenon.  For instance, there may be a greater sense of community for families when kids from the same geographic areas go to the same school.  As Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB, pointed out to me during our conversation, parent schedules may make it extremely difficult for them to travel long distances for the educational needs of their offspring.  Finally, it is expensive to commute.  While pupils now ride free on buses and Metro, the same benefit is not realized by the adults.

The study’s conclusions say loud and clear that we desperately need quality charters on every street corner.  The findings have important implications as to the question of whether there should be a neighborhood admissions preference (there probably should be one on a voluntary basis) and whether we should be concerned about a charter opening in close proximity to a DCPS facility (we should not care).  The bottom line here is that if there was a sufficient number of charters a preference for those living nearby would become unnecessary.  The supply would meet demand.

Finally, as I’ve called for in the past, we must figure out a way to expand great schools quickly.  I don’t know about you but as a parent I think constantly about those that are blocked from having their children attend their preferred site.  We pride ourselves in the amount of school choice we have here in D.C., but with wait lists like the one at Elsie Whitlow Stokes, we are really providing no choice at all.




The Donald Hense retirement and birthday party

Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the pleasure of attending the retirement and birthday party for the founder, chief executive officer, and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School Donald Hense.  Mr. Hense retired this evening as CEO, as he continues his role as chair of the school’s board of directors.  Held at Washington, D.C.’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, it was as if someone had thrown open a powerful electric circuit feeding one of the Friendship Teacher of the Year ceremonies that Michele and I have had the honor to be guests of for many years.  In fact, just as with the Teacher of Year events, the television commentator and author Roland Martin was the Master of Ceremonies.  The night included speeches, roasts, song, poetry, and much laughter.  But I do not think any affair can really fully capture the legacy of this man that is bigger than life.

Mr. Hense had gotten to know Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was at Morehouse College.  Later, as the executive director of Friendship House, he saw first hand the problems facing those living in poverty.  “You cannot provide a child with a vision if the parent doesn’t know where rent or the next meal is coming from,” Mr. Hense realized. “How are parents with that kind of stress going to tell their children they can become the next president of the United States?”  He came to understand that schools were not preparing these kids adequately for college so he opened Friendship in the poorest areas of D.C.

Friendship PCS was founded in 1998 which makes it one of the first charters in the nation’s capital.  I would start my involvement in this movement a year later.  So allow me to give you a sneak peak into what this was like.  Charters were looked at as organizations that were trying to steal kids from the traditional public schools.  Distrust was rampant, with many accusing this movement of privatizing education by making it a for-profit business.  I remember like it was yesterday approaching a bank for a loan to acquire a building.  The official looked at me like I was crazy when I explained that the only collateral we had was students.

Friendship has grown to 11 campuses teaching over 4,200 children.  In addition, there are two partnership schools in Baltimore and one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  99 percent of Friendships student population is African-American with 75 percent qualifying for free or reduced price meals.  Three out of four pupils live in Wards 7 and 8.  15 percent are special education students.

Three of Friendship’s campuses are now classified as Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School’s Performance Management Framework.  Friendship’s four-year high school graduate rate is around 95 percent, much higher than DCPS’s 64 percent and the overall rate of charters at 72 percent.

Over 95 percent of its 2,500 high school graduates have gone on to college.  Through Friendship’s efforts these students have been awarded over $40 million in scholarships.

Mr. Hense turned 74 years old on July 4th.  He summarizes his motivation for his exceptionally difficult work over the last 18 years this way:

“I believe the best thing you can do to get people out of poverty is to educate them. The most valuable skill in today’s economy, where jobs can be located anywhere there is an Internet connection, is knowledge. And knowledge, for the vast majority, is nurtured within our local public schools. We all share the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of our children. I know it can be done. We do it every day at Friendship.”