Erratic action by the D.C. charter board against D.C. Prep

After listening to the two new charter school applications at last week’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board I retired for the night.  After all, there was nothing particularly noteworthy on the agenda, only a few administrative matters that I was certain would sail through the approval process as has been the meticulously orchestrated routine in the past.

But then members of our local charter movement began contacting me.  “Did you see what happened at the charter board meeting regarding D.C. Prep?”  This was not a mundane question.  These individuals were upset.  So I decided to watch the video.  I then understood the reasons behind their highly emotional reactions.

D.C. Prep PCS was requesting three charter amendments.  They were “1) an enrollment ceiling increase of 846 students from its current ceiling of 2,056 students by SY 2019-2020, to 2,912 students by SY 2024-2025; 2) a two-part program replication to open a new elementary campus by school year (“SY”) 2018-2019, and a new middle school campus (“Anacostia Middle”) by SY 2020-2021; and 3) to relocate its existing Anacostia Elementary School to a new, permanent location at 1409 V Street, SE in Ward 8, beginning in SY 2017-2018.”

The PCSB staff wholeheartedly recommended that the board approve these changes.  The report regarding the proposed amendments contained the following unambiguous language:

“Founded in 2003, DC Prep PCS is one of the top performing networks of charter schools in the District, has met its goals and academic achievement expectations at both its 5- year and 10-year reviews, and has been Tier 1 since the inception of DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework. Notably, some of the school’s greatest strengths are its high academic achievement, its willingness to serve all students—especially those from underserved communities, and its strong infrastructure that provides invaluable professional development and leadership training for staff.”

In fact, the school met nine out of ten criteria for replication according to the DC PCSB Charter Agreement Amendment Guidelines, missing the mark on only one because it has not yet identified permanent locations for its proposed Anacostia middle school and the new Ward 7 or 8 elementary school.

The PCSB staff also pointed out that despite having five campuses, D.C. Prep currently has 683 students on its wait-list.  These pupils are most likely all from low-income families.

So as I suspected, everything was in place for a regular approval of a charter amendment.  But the situation quickly became strange.  First, without explanation, board member Saba Bireda recused herself from the vote.  Then when the session opened for questions board member Steve Bumbaugh asked about the high proportion of out-of-school suspensions occurring at this charter management organization, inquiring as to whether the suspensions are “a mechanism for managing the school.”  It was then board chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff’s turn to pick up the same theme.  He indicated that at Anacostia Elementary the out-of-school suspension rate this school year is 6.9 percent, with the charter sector average at 3.7 percent.  Dr. Woodruff went on to relate that for students with I.E.P.’s, D.C. Prep has an out-of-school suspension rate of 40 percent.  Pointing to the Edgewood Middle School Campus, the PCSB chair stated that the out-of-school suspension rate this year is 27.9 percent compared to 18 percent last year, with the rate for special education students at 44.9 percent.

The representative present from D.C. Prep, Mr. Raymond Weeden, the school’s senior director of policy and community engagement, was clearly not prepared for this onslaught of criticism of the school’s suspension data.

The amendment regarding the relocation of Anacostia passed without incident.  However, the out-of-school suspension rate at Anacostia was particularly problematic for Dr. Woodruff because he realized that the students being disciplined are Kindergartners.  He opined, “I am struggling mightily to understand the logic behind suspending out-of-school five year olds.  I know that you don’t have a response to that.  But I have been in education for over 30 years and I can’t come up with an explanation that makes sense.  So, I recognize that this is one of our high performing operators but this is an issue that we have hinted at, talked about, and danced around, and we have not seen significant improvement.  I would love to hear anyone from your organization justify a 40 percent suspension rate for five year olds that have disabilities.  That’s the reason I will not vote for the expansion.”

To complete the peculiarity of the proceedings, Ms. Bireda then un-recused herself for the replicate vote.  Apparently, and I’m not understanding the logic behind this, she didn’t believe she should cast a ballot on the relocation of Anacostia elementary because she lives close to the new site.  But the dye was already cast, and therefore following Dr. Woodruff’s passionate remarks the two amendments related to replication failed on four to three votes.

The staff report does comment on D.C. Prep’s suspension rates.  It concludes:

“The school has historically had higher out-of-school suspension rates than comparable schools in the charter sector, however in the past two years these rates have declined considerably. Per its charter amendment application, the LEA is diligently working to decrease its suspension rate over time.  The school reports that it revised its discipline policy to be more lenient regarding the types of infractions that warrant an out-of-school suspension.  Additionally, the school has implemented more strategic efforts to engage parents immediately following behavioral incidents, such as requesting an in-person parent meeting, rather than automatically suspending the student. DC PCSB staff have documented a decrease in the suspension rate at all campuses and in many cases a significant drop in school-wide or subgroup suspensions, though most rates are still above charter averages.”

I have heard Mr. Scott Pearson, the PCSB’s executive director, proudly state on more than one occasion that his group has been highly successful in lowering suspension rates simply by making the information transparent instead of having to rely on rules and regulations.  But now it appears that this approach is being revisited.  We are now seeing, without notice, modifications to the criteria under which a school can expand, a division between staff recommendations and the actions of the board, and an intrusion of the PCSB into out-of-school suspension policies, an area not covered under the School Reform Act.

Unfortunately for D.C. Prep, it was the first charter to learn of the sea change.

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