Exclusive interview with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chair DC Public Charter School Board

It has been a little over a year since I interviewed Dr. Darren Woodruff, the chair of the DC Public Charter School Board, so I was extremely gratified that I recently had a second chance to talk with him.  I recalled that the last time we met one of his goals as chair was to increase the amount of information available to parents about schools prior to enrolling their children.  I asked if progress had been made in this area.  “The PCSB,” Dr. Woodruff replied, “has created a parent advisory group that has been revamped and strengthened under Tomeika Bowden, the director of communications.  She has worked to increase the geographic diversity of its membership.  The group is the primary vehicle for two-way conversations between the board and parents.  Of course, as part of the process to open a new charter, school applicants are encouraged to reach out to the community and groups like the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to receive input and hear concerns.”

When I asked the PCSB chair how things are going for D.C.’s charter sector he expressed a couple of concerns.  “It is highly disappointing that we did not get a funding increase for the facility allotment,” Dr. Woodruff responded.  “Charters had asked the Council for Fiscal year 2017 to bring the facility allotment to $3,250 per child with built-in increases for inflation from $3,124 a pupil where it has been for years.  In addition, there is still a mysterious process around the release of surplus DCPS buildings to charters.  The PCSB has a tremendous relationship with David Grosso, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee; Jennie Niles, the Deputy Mayor for Education; and Mayor Bowser.  What we really need is a reliable funding stream and a predictable procedure for the acquisition of vacant facilities.  I would place both of these issues at the top of our priority list.”

I then wanted to learn from Dr. Woodruff about progress regarding the D.C. Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force.  “We have had about several meetings and we are a year into the schedule,” he revealed.  “We have really been focused on getting to know one another.  There are many people there from DCPS that we really didn’t know before the group was formed.  We have begun looking hard at student mobility.  We’re aware that some students leave a charter school in midyear.  Mobility is a challenge because currently charters do not receive supplemental funding if a student enters the school after the annual count in October.  No decisions have been made, but charter school representatives on the task force have emphasized the importance of funding support for students who move across schools. No decision has yet been made.”

Dr. Woodruff continued, “I think that as a city we should make it as easy as possible for kids to be admitted either to charters or DCPS. Right now we don’t have a comprehensive handle on the reason students are leaving.”

I then asked Dr. Woodruff what he would like to see come out of the Task Force’s work.  He answered without hesitation.  “We need to seriously address academic outcomes and the achievement gap.  We have to return to the original promise of charters that we can provide all children, no matter their background, a first rate public education.  We must identify innovations in schools and replicate them among both charter and DCPS classrooms.  There are high performing charters in all of the Wards in which they operate and there must be serious conversations about how they got to where they are so that others can learn what they know.  We need a much more aggressive push toward academic excellence for all students.  A lot of this must be based upon trust between charters and DCPS.  We have made slow steady progress over the last 20 years but we desperately need transformational progress.”

Since Dr. Woodruff expressed that we have not yet made an acceptable level of academic progress, I inquired as to whether the PCSB should raise the bar for a school to be rated at Tier 1 or Tier 2 on the School Quality Reports  that are based upon the Performance Management Framework tool.  “No,” Dr. Woodruff stated, “I don’t believe we should raise the bar.  There has to be an increased level of drilling down by school leaders to determine what works and what doesn’t.  Then the right resources and interventions need to be made to support the appropriate instructional programs so that children are learning at high levels. This is especially important if year after year students are not progressing. “

Next, I reviewed with the PCSB chair my observation that the number of new applications for charters has dwindled to one or two a cycle.  I asked him if his organization was concerned with this trend.  “Yes, we have noticed,” Dr. Woodruff commented.  “At the same time we have added campuses of strong charters such as DC Prep, Two Rivers, and KIPP DC.  Other schools are currently investigating replication.  While this is occurring, Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, has been encouraging other operators from across the country to open schools in our city.”

When this interview took place DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had just left her position.  I wanted to know from him what her legacy would be.  Dr. Woodruff answered, “Kaya was an extremely strong leader.  She was the right person at the right time.  You have to remember that when she came in office there was a lack of confidence in the traditional school system.  Few parents wanted to send their kids there.  Under her direction, enrollment has climbed, standardized test scores went up, and most recently, the four-year high school graduation rate jumped by five percentage points.  I applaud her accomplishments.”

“However,” the PCSB chair added, “we need to step it up several notches.  We have to make sure all kids are benefiting from this renaissance.  Progress has been great for affluent and middle class kids and for some low income students, but not all.  The new Chancellor should strive to ensure that all pupils can obtain a quality education, and the person selected for this role will have to work across sectors to make this a reality.”

I concluded my time with Dr. Woodruff by asking him for the major accomplishment of the PCSB over the last 20 years and what he would like to see for public education in the District in coming years.  He responded without hesitation.  “I think that our biggest accomplishment,” he opined, “besides having 44 percent of all children in public schools now attending a charter, is that we now have applied the Performance Management Framework across the entire length of our portfolio.  We have the early childhood, elementary, middle school PMF’s, as well as one for schools teaching adults.  In addition we have added an Alternative Accountability Framework.  When you ask about the future I guess the one thing I am really interested in seeing is one rubric that looks at the quality of all schools, both charter and traditional.  I don’t believe it is right that parents have to understand different measures for schools governed under different structures.”

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