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.”