Closing Latin American Youth Center would be the worst decision D.C. charter board would have ever made

Last month, in a five-to-two vote, the DC Public Charter School Board decided to begin revocation proceedings against the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy Public Charter School.  As part of this process the school is entitled to a public hearing if the institution is so inclined.  A source close to the charter expressed to me some trepidation about proceeding with this step.  I can remember only one case in which the board reversed its original position after a public hearing. However, forgoing this session would have been a tremendous mistake.

Last night, I watched representatives from the school, one after another in perfectly choreographed highly passionate testimony, make the case that the charter should be allowed to continue to operate.  If you have any interest at all in our local charter movement, or in the subject of school choice in general, investing a couple of hours in viewing what transpired in front of a packed house at the school’s facility is a marvel to observe.  The bottom line is this:  all of the difficulty that LAYCCA is facing is due to a major communication problem between the board and the charter.

The Youth Center is serving adult students with an average education on a sixth grade level.  This is the average.  Almost all of those enrolled have faced tremendous obstacles throughout their lives from drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, and incarceration.  Needless to say, these are not individuals from typical two-parent households.  Then what this school does, and I have no idea how they do this, is they take these disadvantaged people and put them back together.  The charter demonstrated that many attendees are able to gain years of learning under their watch.  As was stated yesterday evening, Frederick Douglass remarked that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  But somehow, in consistent irrefutable evidence presented by the staff and the board of directors, fixing broken human beings is exactly what this charter is accomplishing.

I have to admit that much of the conversation was technical regarding the value of the results of various academic assessments.  But the highlight for me was when PCSB member Sara Mead asked a hypothetical question about how long it would take the school to bring a student reading at the sixth grade level up to the level of the eleventh grade for this subject matter.  A staff member asked Ms. Mead to tell her about the past trauma that this pupil had experienced in his or her life.  The PCSB board member had no answer.

I’m afraid that there is no proper response for what got us to this point.  One area that was found to be severely lacking by the authorizer in its five year review was the low number of students obtaining their GED.  However, as explained during the hearing, individuals must be reading at that eleventh grade level in order to simply take the examination.  When a grownup arrives at the school with the knowledge of a four year old this is an astonishingly high mountain to climb.

Obviously, the goals established for this school are unrealistic.  This would easily explain the reason that the targets for the number of students graduating from LAYCCA’s academic pathways are not being met.  However, as the charter’s board chair reluctantly revealed, when the institution tried to work with the board on revisions to these targets they were met with “tension” and “a gotcha mentality” by the PCSB staff.

The hero in this story, standing with those at LAYCCA who dedicate their lives on a daily basis to developing men and women who can become valuable members of our community that others have cast aside, is the CityBridge Foundation.  You see there are no current national benchmarks to judge success for schools caring for this population of students.  None.  CityBridge (now CityBridge Education) presented the Youth Center with a $500,000 grant to develop those assessments.  Let’s sincerely hope that it gets the opportunity to try.

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