When I tuned in last evening to watch online the monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I immediately noticed an interesting sight. In attendance was Stephen Marcus, the lead attorney on the FOCUS coordinated lawsuit against the city regarding inequitable funding of charter schools, and the gentleman who I worked with as board chair to negotiate the original building lease for the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts. It is not entirely out of the ordinary for me to see Mr. Marcus at one of these sessions; he has been there many times before. I just could not imagine what would bring him there on this cold and damp January evening. It did not take long for me to discover the reason for his presence.
On the evening’s agenda was a vote to begin the revocation process of the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy’s charter. Mr. Marcus is serving as its legal council, and the fact that he joined the representatives of the school in opposing the proposed action was not the only thing that struck me as unusual.
In the past, when the PCSB has sought to close a school it is usually a binary choice. The board members are given the option of saying yes or no. Sometimes, in negotiations between the school and the authorizer, a compromise is reached to shut particular campuses or to stop teaching certain grades in order to keep the school going. But this time was different. The PCSB staff came with a set of conditions the charter would have to meet if the vote was to continue to allow the facility to operate. It came across to me as the first indication that the board’s staff was itself uncertain as to what the proper course should be.
All of this came about because LAYCCA is up for its five-year review. The Latin American Youth Center has been around for about 50 years helping low income Hispanic young people in a variety of areas such as education, healthcare, and housing. The organization has opened four charters in D.C. that as well as LAYCCA include Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, YouthBuild PCS, and Next Step PCS. LAYCCA focuses on adult learners who have not succeeded in traditional school settings and often suffer from the effects of homelessness, poverty, and incarceration. The charter currently enrolls about 200 students between the ages of 16 and 24. It is ranked Tier 2 on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework tool, an improvement over last year’s Tier 3 assessment.
Almost all of the evening’s discussion revolved around data analysis of student progress. The school insists that in the past it has utilized narrative assessments as indicators as to whether it is reaching its goals, while the PCSB demands that there be quantitative measurements. But to me the entire case by the charter board seems a little strange. LAYCCA has worked closely with the CityBridge Foundation for the last two years on individualized learning plans for its students and recently won a $200,000 Breakthrough Schools grant from the group. Please allow me to quote from the CityBridge website as to how this money will be utilized:
“Latin American Youth Center Career Academy (LAYCCA) will reevaluate the performance management framework used to measure student outcomes at schools serving particularly high-need populations in order to encompass more expansive measures of student success. LAYCCA will recruit a professional research partner to gather information about benchmarks and norms used by schools that are effectively serving these youth around the country. Armed with this research, LAYCCA will create a networked improvement community (NIC) of schools, funders, advocates, and regulators to rewrite performance measures for these schools to capture the complexity of their work.”
In other words, the school is attempting to do exactly as the PCSB wants.
Now back to Mr. Marcus. He appears more than ready to bring the revocation issue to court. He believes that the school’s constitutional due process rights have not been followed. His contention is that LAYCCA was only informed by the PCSB four years into its existence that its goals had to be externally validated. Mr. Marcus also makes the argument that in the past the goals agreed to by the board and the charter were vague. However, as part of its revocation decision the board is now imposing its own numerical quotas that the school needs to meet. The last allegation the school’s attorney makes is that the revocation decision is arbitrary and capricious. He asserts that the PCSB is considering certain evidence that the school is meeting its goals but is leaving out other important facts that demonstrate they have been reached.
In the end the voice of reason on the board appears to be Steve Bumbaugh, who called a couple of the recommended PCSB conditions for continued operation of the school, such as lowering enrollment by 40 percent and ending the medical academy, “backdoor revocation.” It was his motion to delay a decision on revocation to the February meeting that eventually passed, but only by a highly unusual four to three split. Look for the board to reverse itself on the move to close LAYCCA over the next 30 days.