The 2017 FOCUS Gala

Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the absolute pleasure of attending the annual Friends of Choice in Urban Schools Gala.  The event, held at the LongView Gallery, commemorated 21 years of charter schools first operating in the District of Columbia.  Upgraded from prior anniversaries, the agenda began with a policy forum entitled “Proof Point City:  How Healthy Competition Has Benefited All Public School Students in D.C.”  The panel discussion was facilitated by David Osborne, of the Progressive Policy Institute, and included Josephine Baker, the former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; Ward 7 Councilmember and former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray; George Parker, former president of the Washington Teachers’ Union; and Scott Pearson, the executive director of the PCSB.

Mr. Osborne did an admirable job leading the conversation.  The most interesting comments came from Mr. Parker.  He revealed that his support for school choice had become more positive over time.  He recalled an occasion when he spoke to a middle school class and at the end of his talk a student asked him what the head of a teachers’ union did.  Mr. Parker answered that he made sure that schools had the best teachers and that facilities had the resources they needed to provide a quality education.  He stated that after the lecture a pupil came up and gave him a hug.  He asked the young girl why she had approached him.  She commented it was because he had said that he was making sure she had great teachers.  Mr. Parker admitted that on the way home in his car he realized he was a hoax because he had just spent $10,000 arbitrating in support of keeping a teacher’s job who in no way should have been in the classroom.

There were so many of my heroes gathered in this space that I lost count.  I spoke to Susan Schaeffler, the founder and CEO of KIPP DC PCS; Jessica Wodatch, founder and executive director of Two Rivers PCS; Linda Moore, founder of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS; Jennifer Niles, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education and founder of E.L. Haynes PCS; Marquita Alexander, head of Washington Yu Ying PCS; Donald Hense, the founder and chairman of Friendship PCS; Joe Smith, co-founder and CEO of Eagle Academy PCS; and Dr. Marco Clark; founder and CEO of Richard Wright PCS whose school’s six members of the instrumental ensemble entertained the overflow crowd. Also in attendance was Malcolm Peabody, the founder of FOCUS who had just been inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame.  The common theme among all of these guests was the unbelievably energetic and supportive job Irene Holtzman is doing in her role as the executive director of FOCUS.

The formal part of the program included three new inductees into the D.C. Charter School Hall of Fame.  Irasema Salcido, the founder of the Cesar Chavez PCS’s for Public Policy, tried to bring the attendees back to what is was like when she first opened her school twenty years ago.  Please don’t ever underestimate what Ms. Salcido did for public education.  After her first year when she started with about 75 high school freshman, she held back 75 percent of her students because they were not ready to advance academically to the next grade.  Nothing had ever been done like this in the nation’s capital.  Previously, kids were socially promoted all of the way to graduation.  This petit woman who came to the United States as a teenager speaking no English sent shock waves across our town and our nation.

Cassandra Pinkney was also inducted on this night.  This is someone I never had the delight of meeting who passed away suddenly in 2016.  But I have visited Eagle Academy, the charter she co-founded along with Mr. Smith, and was blown away by the work in early childhood education being done there.  Mr. Smith recollected that when Ms. Pinkney a couple of decades ago first began discussing providing universal access to school for three and four-year olds no one had ever considered such a idea.  It was therefore highly appropriate that as part of the panel discussion Mr. Gray had stated that the introduction of universal preschool when he was the city’s chief executive was one of the achievements for which he was most proud.  Mr. Smith also informed us that Eagle Academy was the first charter in the city to accept students with the highest level four special education disabilities.

But the absolute highlight for me were the words of Robert Cane, the former FOCUS executive director who was the third D.C. Charter School Hall of Fame inductee.  He reminded all of us gathered together as to why there is a FOCUS in the first place, which is namely to protect the autonomy of charter schools.  He passionately observed:

“Our charter school law gives school leaders the ability, if they’re able, to provide a good education to their students.  It gives the school leadership, and no one else, the right to decide on the school’s staffing; to choose and manage its curriculum and instructional methods; to decide how to spend the school’s money; and to set all school and student policies.

These are your rights as school leaders.  And, like other rights, they have to be fought for, day in and day out, because no one but you and your advocates cares about them.  To everyone else they’re just an impediment to the achievement of their policy objectives, few of which mirror yours.

In spite of our best efforts, during the years I was executive director these rights were significantly eroded.  And as you know, the effort to erode them continues today.  Just recently, for example, the Public Charter School Board, in violation of the law and its own policies, prevented one of our top performing schools from serving more kids because of its suspension rate.  And a new version of the Language Access Act, which we thought we had defeated three years ago, is back in even more egregious form.  This kind of stuff goes on all the time.

The point I want to make here is that it doesn’t matter how you feel about student suspension or the importance of having a language access coordinator who speaks Spanish.  What is important is that each one of these governmental actions, if brought to fruition, further eats away at your fundamental right to run your school as you see fit.  And if you can’t run your school as you see fit, you’re not running a charter school.  So keep fighting.

Finally, let me urge you to be wary of those who promote the notion that “collaboration” with the other sector on such things as admissions and other important school policies represents the way forward to better schools.  No proof of this thesis is offered; what’s more, most of the people urging collaboration have a long history of seeking to achieve goals that have nothing to do with preserving your ability to run a good school. Quite the opposite.

The truth, perhaps a sad one, is that we didn’t get here by collaborating with anybody; we got here by working day in and day out to provide good schooling to DC kids, and, to the best of our ability, guarding the freedoms that make it possible, against all odds, to do so.  Continuing on this path is the only way forward.”

This celebration, in all of its glory, rededicated ourselves to following Mr. Cane’s advice.

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