Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Chairman Grosso, members of the Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the DC Public Charter School Board.

The Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017 is a bill which aims to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline in schools, an issue that is very personal to me. You see, I was a “discipline” problem when I was an adolescent. I was suspended multiple times, and, probably would have been expelled had it not been for the intervention of my teacher, Dr. Lorber, who believed I deserved another chance. My school had the choice to expel me and there were moments when perhaps they should have. As I think back, I wasn’t expelled for several reasons. One of the reasons was the trusting relationship between me and my teacher mattered. But so too were the wake-up calls I and my parents received when I was suspended. Frankly, for me they served as a strong warning that some of my riskier behaviors would not be tolerated and that I needed to change.

Many years later, as an official in the Obama Administration managing the federal charter school program, I saw how some charter schools were using school discipline as a way to avoid their obligations as public schools. I am a passionate supporter of charter schools as a way to improve public schools but I am equally passionate that they are public schools who need to serve all children.

Because of my experiences as a student and my work at the Department of Education, school discipline was a priority for me from the moment I began as PCSB’s Executive Director in 2012. Immediately after joining, we reorganized the agency by creating a team focused exclusively on non-academic matters, like discipline. We immediately began publishing discipline data that had previously been hidden, and we created strict data submission policies to be sure we were getting timely and accurate data. We introduced Equity Reports to the city, which published suspension rates by subgroup for every school, comparing them with citywide averages. Our staff meet monthly to review suspension and expulsion data and we notify outlier schools to tell them their rates are high or disproportionate. We created an audit policy to more deeply investigate disproportionate suspensions. We created and have held dozens of “board to board meetings” where our board raises the issue of high or disproportionate rates directly with school’s boards. We review every school’s discipline policies every year, to be sure they offer due process protections, safeguards for students with disabilities, and clarity for the school community. We have sponsored many professional development sessions on reducing out-of-school discipline.

This focus has produced meaningful, significant results. In school year 2011, public charter schools expelled 395 students – more than 1% of their student body. Last year, despite serving more than 10,000 additional students than in 2011, expulsions fell to just 90, or one fifth of one percent. We are now well below the national average for similar populations.

Regarding suspensions, since school year 12-13 suspension rates have fallen by more than half in public charter schools, from 14.3% of all students suspended to 9.3% in 16-17. Based on data through December, we forecast this year to be around 7%. A specific challenge that our board is actively addressing is reducing suspensions at a small group of outlier schools. In spite of our overall progress with reducing suspensions we have a small number of schools with highly disproportionate suspension rates between subgroups, including students with disabilities, African American males, and at-risk students. Highly disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline concern us and we will examine the cause of this disproportionality in order to ensure that students are being disciplined in a fair and equitable manner. We are working with school leaders to address this challenge without disrupting the good work and steady progress occurring at the majority of our schools.

To summarize: expulsions are down more than 80% and suspensions have been cut in half.

We are proud of these results, even as we recognize that we have further to go. We are confident that the approach we have taken will continue to produce meaningful declines in suspension rates.

But as proud as we are of the reduction in suspensions and expulsions, we are equally proud of the WAY we achieved these results. We put in place no edicts, no requirements, no numerical limits, no top-down mandates. Through transparency, dialogue, best-practice sharing, good data, and focused attention, we have brought about change in a way that honors each school’s mission and community. Moreover, we have avoided the negative effects we have been hearing about all day that strict mandates can produce.

While our education community has slashed student suspension and expulsion numbers, test scores at our schools continue to rise even as our schools serve an increasingly vulnerable student population. Due to their flexibility, public charter schools evolved their practices, their philosophies, and their cultures using their own methods in response to each individual school’s changing student demographics. They have moved deliberately, ensuring that teachers and staff had the training and the resources they need.

The thoughtful evolution of these practices would not have been possible if, instead of being allowed the liberty to study the problem and craft their own solution, schools were forced to cede day-to-day decisions made by educators to the Wilson building.

I and our school leaders agree with the spirit and goals of reducing disciplinary rates. But we are concerned we are pressing the gas pedal as we are heading toward a curve. The proposals in this bill could put our progress at risk and undo the excellent work being done at the school level.

We must heed the warnings from other jurisdictions. In Highline, Washington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California, school discipline reform occurred abruptly and without adequate funding. Teachers were not trained in alternative discipline methods and school climates had to adjust overnight. Because of this, these districts have seen a higher than average teacher turnover rate and an increase in in-class disruption. I appreciate the desire to go faster and push harder but I urge this Council to pause and not tie the hands of educators. Where Council can help students, teachers and school leaders most is to support the core social and emotional needs of students in the District.

Our schools work with a high percentage of at-risk students and we know many inappropriate classroom behaviors can be attributed to underlying issues. Increasingly, schools are asked to address the non-academic issues facing our students. Those same schools are not necessarily equipped with teachers and proper supports to handle some of those new expectations. As you may have seen reported in the Washington Post, 47% of students in the District have faced some sort of trauma. Students are dealing with myriad issues before they even enter a school building and often struggle to get in the best position to learn. Homelessness, poverty, and safe passage, along with mental and physical health are taking their toll on a school’s ability to educate its students. If we as a city want to truly create equity and see DC on the rise, we need to reimagine support for public schools that helps students outside of the classroom. Without this, I fear we will not be able to make the progress this city’s residents expect, deserve and fund.

As an alternative to this legislation, which I believe is the least helpful approach to accomplishing the goal of reducing exclusionary discipline, I am asking Council to take a more deliberate approach to this important issue. We need an approach that supports schools instead of tying their hands. That approach needs to include parent and student representation, which I would note, was lacking in this summer’s working group meetings.

Our great city is well-positioned financially to meet the challenges we face. We need meaningful mental healthcare. We need to make sure students not only feel but are safe traveling to and from school. We need to make sure housing in this city is affordable and that our housing policies aren’t destabilizing student’s school experiences. We need to empower DC nonprofits who are supporting schools and students every day in so many areas. So, I ask you, before the upcoming budget season, please look at areas where each Council committee can help contribute to making sure the whole child is taken care of and schools can get down to the business of educating DC’s students.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.

Significant number of D.C. traditional public school high school diplomas last year should not have been awarded

The final report from the State Superintendent of Education regarding the scandal around Ballou High School giving diplomas to high school seniors who did not meet graduation requirements is out and the findings are devastating:

“. . . of the 2,758 SY16-17 DCPS graduates, 937 (34.0%) students graduated with
the assistance of policy violations.”

In fact, the only DCPS schools not tied up in this mess are the selective high schools School Without Walls and Benjamin Banneker.

How was this injustice accomplished? Here you go:

“Most DCPS schools violated credit recovery program requirements, by:

1) Offering credit recovery courses to students who had not yet failed a
regular instruction course (i.e. credit recover offered concurrently or in
place of regular instruction).

2) Awarding credit for courses which do not meet 120 seat hour requirement
under the Carnegie Unit definition in 5-A DCMR § 2299.1 (“seat hour”).

3) Failing to enforce attendance requirements in credit recovery courses

4) Creating school-developed credit recovery programs that do not comply
with the Evening Credit Recovery Operations Manual (“ECR Manual”)

At most DCPS high schools, students have been allowed to pass courses despite
excessive unexcused absences, at times missing the majority of the course. Grade
reductions and failures due to absences are rarely enforced by DCPS high school
teachers or administrators.

A lack of support and oversight from DCPS Central Office contributed significantly
to policy violations system-wide related to grading, credit recovery, excessive
absences, and graduation of ineligible students. Specifically, training,
communication, tools, and monitoring were inadequate.

DCPS teachers and school leaders are subject to a variety of institutional and
administrative pressures which have contributed to a culture in which passing and
graduating students is expected, sometimes in contradiction to standards of
academic rigor and integrity. Pressures contributing to this culture included:

1) Empathy for the extreme needs of the DCPS student population (high
poverty, English language learners, and special education)

2) Aggressive graduation and promotion goals

3) Increasingly burdensome documentation required to fail students.”

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed some of the greatest abuses:

“At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy — the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city. At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed, or inappropriately completed credit recovery, according to the report.

One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4,000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.”

According to Ms. Perry, the principal of Dunbar, Abdullah Zaki, who was named DCPS principal of the year in 2013, was removed from his job, based upon this study.  He becomes the fourth employee of the traditional public schools to lose their positions in the wake of the controversy.

The Post reporter’s article quotes DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson as finally showing the slightest bit of emotion over this mess.  ‘Are you telling me that they didn’t know they were supposed to go to school?’ They know that they are supposed to go to school. You can have an attendance issue and not miss 30 periods of a class.’”

He needs to be the fifth person to go.  We need to start over.  D.C.’s charter schools did not cheat while teaching the same population of students.  Perhaps they should be given the chance to turn this situation around.

 

D.C. charter board manager placed on administrative leave for alleged support of alt-right

In a perfectly written article by my friend Martin Austermuhle, the WAMU reporter tells the tale of John Goldman, currently the DC Public Charter School Board’s senior manager, finance, analysis, and strategy, who has been placed on administrative leave after allegations have been made that he is a supporter of the alt-right, a group that is a proponent of white nationalism.

First, some background.  I know John Goldman.  It was news to me that he was working for the PCSB.  I first met him about a decade ago when he was hired to be the business manager of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (now renamed City Arts and Prep PCS) and I was the board chair.  The school served predominately African American students.  I also know that he played a prominent role in the turnaround of IDEA PCS, a charter serving black children living in poverty in Ward 7 that the PCSB almost closed.  If you asked me, I would state that there is no way on earth this man could be racist.

However, Mr. Austermuhle provides another side of the story.  It turns out that Mr. Goldman writes a blog under the pseudonym Jack Murphy.  The WAMU piece states:

“And in March 2017, he [Mr. Goldman] weighed in on what was then reported as a rape of a teenager by two undocumented immigrants at a high school in Rockville, offering his views on immigration and so-called sanctuary cities: ‘Is it worth educating, protecting, and defending illegal immigrants if it means our daughters will be raped while they are at school?’

That same month, Goldman described his transition from ‘Democrat to Deplorable,’ saying that he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but cast a ballot for President Trump in 2016 after ‘Democrats created a new environment in which normal beliefs are heretical.’ (He says he is writing a book about his political conversion from ‘Democrat to Deplorable.’)

‘A man and woman are different you say? We all have different aptitudes? We should spend our money on Americans instead of aliens? We should lift ourselves up before we lift up others? You are [N]azis now, says the left. Racists. Bigots. Terrible vile people!’ he wrote.

Goldman called Trump ‘unabashedly masculine, unafraid to violate the fascism of political correctness, and willing to take on the issues of the 21st century.’

In earlier writings, Goldman identified himself as a father of three who is divorced. He wrote that going through a divorce made him change. He identifies, as inspirations, Mike Cernovich, an alt-right personality himself, and Roosh, who refers to himself as a ‘pickup artist’ and writes about his exploits with women. (In July, Goldman posted a picture of himself alongside Cernovich.)

‘I am unashamed to be masculine. I see myself holding on to something which is under attack. There is a war against men and boys, being myself and holding strong is an act of protest,” he wrote. ‘The world always needs a villain and today, that villain is the white straight male who knows what he wants and is unafraid to get it.'”

Mr. Goodman flatly rejects the charges.  He asserts:

“A photo recently surfaced where I appeared with Chelsea Manning, the whistle-blower, and a diverse group of media personalities who support Donald Trump including a latina, a homosexual, a jew, an immigrant, and a transgendered person. I myself am Jewish.

I was the unknown person in the photograph. Because various political advocates were upset that Chelsea Manning appeared with Trump supporters, they investigated and discovered my identity for the express purpose of a public shaming.

Lacy MacAuley, an admitted member of known domestic terror group Antifa, libelously spread false information about me in an attempt to get me fired. She tweeted that I was a white supremacist and known associate of Richard Spencer.

She then notified my employer, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), and they’ve placed me on administrative leave pending an investigation.

I 100% deny any association, affiliation with, or support of the alt-right, Richard Spencer, racism, fascism, or anything else other than a liberal Democracy where each citizen has equal protection under the law.

Any notion I am a white supremacist is a complete fabrication, while the opposite is unquestionably true: I am open minded, I love everyone, and I wish nothing more than for our country to come together.

I have written a book on these very subjects, called Democrat to Deplorable. And it will be released this spring.

And today, I am the victim of a vicious smear campaign indicative of the nasty times we live in.

I believe everyone has equal rights and should be treated fairly. I believe we should come together and find unity. I believe we all need to find a way to live together because that’s our best future.

But now I am being libeled as a white supremacist when in fact, I am anti-hate and abhor the alt-right.

I have been openly critical of the alt-right, Richard Spencer, and ethno-nationalists in general. I wrote several articles against Richard Spencer and the alt-right here, and here.

On January 20th, 2017 I even confronted him in public as documented here by the Atlantic.

Rosie Gray of the Atlantic, Oliver Darcy then of the Business Insider, and Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker all witnessed my altercation with Spencer.

I don’t just disavow Richard Spencer, I’ve openly fought him.

I have worked to shine the light on Spencer’s disgusting views and ensure there was no perceived association because there is none.

The New Yorker wrote about my condemnation for white supremacists and my public disagreements with them here.”

It is a highly confusing and weird situation.  But let me just offer one criticism of Mr. Goldman.  If you are going to write an opinionated blog then you need to use your real name.  Over the years I have received my share of compliments on my posts but I’ve also been called horrible names.  Whatever the response, I think it is important to identify yourself so that you are held accountable for your public thoughts.

I hope the PCSB resolves this issue quickly.

Things not going well at District of Columbia Public Schools

The fallout from the Ballou High School student graduation scandal continues unabated.  Today, Perry Stein of the Washington Post reveals that Jane Spence, the DCPS chief of secondary schools, has been placed on administrative leave.  There was no indication of when she will return to her job, when this action was taken, or whether the leave is paid or unpaid.  Yesterday, WJLA NBC7 reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been interviewing current and former teachers at the high school, along with the United States Department of Education and the D.C. Office of Inspector General.  According to the story:

“Sources add the topics of the investigation include allegations that teachers were pressured to change grades to pass students, allegations that administrators altered grades or attendance records, and whether students receiving special federal funding had grades or attendance records altered.”

Principal Yetunde Reeves has been reassigned and assistant principal  Shamele Straughter has also been placed on administrative leave.  The big question is whether Chancellor Antwan Wilson will survive the controversy over whether students received diplomas who should not have due to poor attendance and low academic performance.  There is evidence that administrators pressured teachers to graduate students and that complaints to Mr. Wilson about the situation at the school were ignored.  The chancellor’s response to all of this is that he will hire an ombudsman to investigate problems at DCPS going forward.  But of course, isn’t this his job?

School reform advocates like to say education is a civil right; they don’t believe it

What a great way to wake up in the morning.  Today, I read the Charter Board Partner’s vignette by David Connerty-Marin highlighting the work of Maria Blaeuer, who serves as a volunteer treasurer on the board of directors of Kingsman Academy PCS.  Last May, I interviewed Shannon Hodge, Kingsman’s executive director.  Mr. Connerty-Marin writes:

“When she was in private practice as a legal advocate working with special education students, Maria Blaeuer, who is now board treasurer at Kingsman Academy PCS in Washington, DC, spent much of her professional time in an adversarial role with schools, advocating for the needs of her student clients. While she felt her work was important, she was also frustrated by her limited ability to help change the problems in the system that were at the root of the issue.

‘One of the hard things about doing individual advocacy and litigation is that you’re only fixing it for one kid. After 10 years, I saw that when I fixed it for one kid, there were 10 more kids just like him, right behind. I wanted to be part of a space where I could work on a system to serve all of those kids. That’s really why I joined the Kingsman board.’

In addition to a specific and relevant skill set and experience, Maria says the most important thing a board member brings to a school board is a ‘belief and understanding that all kids have a civil and human right to education.’ And that belief makes the work both easier and more meaningful, she says. ‘Spreadsheets are boring, but spreadsheets in service of a human right are kind of amazing.'”

I, and numerous school reform advocates, have for decades echoed the emotionally moving words of Ms. Blaeuer.  But now I’m starting to believe that they are, in many cases, only that:  words.  Because if we truly believed in our hearts and minds that “all kids have a civil and human right to education” then perhaps we would do some or all of the following:

We would expand charter schools in the District to include management of low performing DCPS facilities.

A high performing charter school would offer to take over Ballou High School.

A high performing charter school would comer forward to add Excel PCS to its portfolio, whose charter was just revoked by the DC Public Charter School Board.

D.C.’s charters would accept children at any grade and at anytime throughout the school year.

The city would push to greatly expand the Opportunity Scholarship program that provides private school scholarships to kids living in poverty.

The Mayor and City Council would resolve the inequitable public funding of charters compared to the traditional schools and thereby end the FOCUS engineered lawsuit charters have brought against the local government.

Policy leaders would once and for all solve the charter school facility problem so that each and every school that needs a building would be entitled to one.

This time of year we watch the newsreels of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and other exceedingly brave men and women did in the name of civil rights.  When it comes to the person to play his part regarding education in the nation’s capital, there is currently a vacancy.

 

 

Dramatic difference between charter and DCPS high school student absentee rates

Yesterday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a preliminary report investigating high school student absentee rates in the aftermath of the WAMU and NPR story revealing that students at Ballou High School were graduated even after missing more than three months of class.  It was not flattering.  From the findings:

“Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years absenteeism among students in their fourth year of high school steadily increased, particularly at the highest levels of absenteeism (Figure 1). In the 2016-17 school year, 7.9% of graduates missed more than half of instructional days (extremely chronically absent), up from 3.7% in 2014-15. While the number of non-graduates has decreased over the past three years, the proportion of non-graduates who have missed more than half of instructional days at their graduating school has risen by five percentage points. More than half (51.1%) of non-graduates in 2016-17 were extremely chronically absent. The proportion of graduates among profoundly chronically absent or extremely chronically absent students has increased significantly over the past three years (Figure 2). In 2016-17, 82.6% of the 579 students in their fourth year of high school who missed between 30%-49.99% of school graduated; 44.8% of the 592 students who missed more than 50% of school graduated. The graduation rate for students with extreme chronic absenteeism has increased by more than 20 percentage points between 2014-15 and 2016-17. The number of students graduating in spite of missing more than half of instructional days has more than doubled.

In 2016-17, 11.4% of graduates from D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) high schools had missed more than 50% of instructional days at their graduating school. More than 30% of graduates (30.6%) missed at least thirty percent of instructional days. While the rise in high rates of absenteeism among graduates and nongraduates is alarming, equally concerning is the precipitous decline in the proportion of students in the graduating cohort with satisfactory attendance. In 2014-15, nearly 20% of graduates had missed less than 5% of instructional days, but by 2016-17 the corresponding proportion had dropped to 7.7%. Only 178 graduates out of 2,307 from all DCPS high schools had satisfactory attendance during the 2016-17 school year; more than 75% of graduates met the state definition of chronic absenteeism, missing more than 10% of school days.”

Charter schools, however, have a diametrically opposed record compared to DCPS, eventhough the sector serves a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students:

“High schools in the charter sector have had much more stable patterns of attendance in the past three years than high schools in DCPS (Figures 9 and 10). The distributions of absenteeism for both graduates and non-graduates do not appear to vary significantly from year-to-year. Across the charter sector, there are few students within the highest bands of absenteeism, and students who reach profound or extreme levels of chronic absence tend to be concentrated among non-graduates. In 2016-17, less than 5% of students, fewer than ten students total, who missed more than 50% of instructional days graduated. The graduation rate for profoundly chronically absent students grew between 2014-15 and 2016-17, but has remained below 50%.”

So what are the implications of these numbers?  There are many.  First, as argued here, Mayor Bowser must immediately entertain proposals for a high performing charter to take over Ballou.  Next, we need a replacement for DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson.  In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, new full-time education reporter Perry Stein revealed that Mr. Wilson has finally made the decision that the principal of Ballou when all of the trouble at the school was noticed will not be returning.  In addition, in reaction to the claim that teachers had known about the chronic absentee problem with seniors for sometime and that administrators had taken steps to cover them up, he is going to appoint an ombudsman to listen to employee concerns.

These are baby steps.  When proficiency rates are around 30 percent some bold changes need to be made.  Let’s see how many charters can be permitted to manage low performing DCPS facilities.  We, as a city, need to shift education reform into high gear.  Our students deserve nothing less.  State Board of Education, are you listening?

D.C. charter board unanimously votes to close Excel Academy PCS

Last Thursday, the DC Public Charter School Board voted six to zero to proceed with the revocation of Excel Academy PCS’s charter at then end of the 2017 to 2018 term.  As background, the board decided at its November 21, 2017 meeting to begin the revocation process and, on December 21st of last year, it held a public hearing on the matter.  At that time I predicted that the proposed turnaround plan offered by the school was most likely too little too late.  It turns out that the members of the PCSB sided with this assessment.

Chair Dr. Darren Woodruff summarized the position of many board members in the statement that he read that afternoon:

“As a board member, I continue to be supportive of the Excel mission – providing a high-quality education in one of the most challenged areas of our city through a school that serves more than 600 almost exclusively African American, economically disadvantaged elementary and middle school girls and their families. With one of the most important student populations we have and as the father of a daughter who attended DC public charter schools I am very aware of how important it is for us – this board, our public charter schools, and the larger community – to get the education of our girls right. We will not get a second chance to do well by these students. Toward that goal I want to acknowledge the obvious passion, engagement and commitment I witnessed during our December hearing with Excel faculty and staff, board members, parents, and students. I have no doubt that everyone involved wants nothing but positive outcomes for these girls.

“Every five years the Public Charter School Board is tasked with reviewing the performance of our schools to determine if they have met the goal of providing a high-quality education. And in the case of Excel, despite the clear commitment and engagement we have witnessed, the student outcomes have unfortunately not matched the passion. The agreed upon expectation of earning an average of at least 45 percentage points on the performance management framework over the past five years was not achieved. A PMF score above 45 was only achieved once in the last 5 years, and that was during the 2012-2013 school year. In fact, the most recent score from last year was 37 points out of 100, the school’s lowest score over the 5-year period we are addressing. In addition, student proficiency at Excel in both reading and math on the PARCC was lower than the citywide average for the past 2 years when compared to girls attending other schools. So, the trend for student performance over the past several years has been negative, despite any benefits that may have occurred from learning in an all-girl setting.

“Recent changes to the school’s academic leadership team, a reconstituted Board of Trustees, the planned addition of a Chief Academic Officer, implementation of restorative justice practices, and a proposed school turnaround plan all represent welcome steps that ideally would have been implemented when the first indications of decreased student performance became evident. However, without these steps more fully in place and clear data on their impact, this Board lacks convincing evidence that Excel represents the best opportunity for these young girls that we all care so much about. For this reason, I am in support of the staff recommendation for charter revocation.”

Attorney Stephen Marcus, representing Excel, made the same argument last week as he did at the public hearing in November: that the school’s relatively low score on the Performance Management Framework was due to the relatively greater percentage of children living in poverty that are enrolled.  However, PCSB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux forcefully refuted this testimony, asserting that there are 22 D.C. charters that currently teach a greater proportion of these children, and that 17 of these schools score higher on the PMF.  She stated that the correlation between economic status and academic preparedness is well known and is a challenge that charter schools accept as their “central task” of closing the achievement gap.

In the end, the message from the board was clear and unequivocal to the charters that it oversees;  don’t wait until you get in trouble to seek help, and if you are going to operate in the nation’s capital, you will meet your academic goals.

 

 

 

 

 

Looks like D.C. needs a new public schools Chancellor

Last Saturday Washington Post reporters Moriah Balingit and Andrew Ba Tran revealed the following:

“In June, a day after graduates from Ballou High received their diplomas, a group of teachers met with D.C. Public Schools officials to share an alarming allegation: Students who missed dozens of classes had been able to earn passing grades and graduate.”

You can read the sad story yourself but I can save you the time.  Here’s what happened.  Several teachers,  including Monica Brokenborough, who was a music teacher and union representative at Ballou, tried on multiple occasions through emails and the grievance process to warn Chancellor Antwon Wilson of problems at the school that were revealed in a WAMU and NPR investigation that was released last November.  However, no action was taken until WAMU made the report public.

The Post article also included this new information about the problems at the high school:

“In January 2017, an email sent from [Principal Yetunde] Reeves to Ballou staffers included a presentation about changes in grading policies. It instructed teachers to enter ’50M’ in their online grade books when students missed assignments: ‘Missing grades should be marked as ‘50M’ (Missing).’

But according to Brokenborough and the school district’s grading policy, entering an M in the grade book signals that the student is out for a medical reason. The mark would allow students to miss assignments without hurting their final grades. Brokenborough emailed teachers telling them to disregard Reeves’s grading instruction because it conflicted with school district policy; she copied Wilson on her note. She later told a labor-relations official that she believed the directive was an effort to inflate grades.”

Here’s government teacher Brian Butcher’s experience:

“Butcher said several students approached him a week before graduation, imploring him to give them makeup work so they could pass his government course. Butcher said that when he refused, an assistant principal told him the students would be enrolled in credit-recovery classes — even though there was just one week left in the school year. Many of the students who failed his class ended up earning diplomas.”

Neither Ms. Brokenborough or Mr. Butler currently work at Ballou.  Her contract was not renewed and Mr. Butler was fired for poor performance.  Both have filed grievances.  The Chancellor stated that Ms. Reeves should stay in her position before he abruptly re-assigned her.  He has offered as an excuse that “that at least one-third of graduates in every comprehensive high school missed 30 or more sessions of a course required for graduation.”

Our children deserve much better then this.  I’m willing to wait until the various investigations regarding Ballou are completed before coming to a final conclusion.  In the meantime, I think Mayor Bowser should be looking for a new Chancellor.

 

 

Shantelle Wright stepping down as CEO of Achievement Prep PCS

I received the following email yesterday afternoon from Shantelle Wright, founder and chief executive officer of Achievement Prep Public Charter School.  With her permission I am posting her message and I will add no commentary, as none is necessary.

Dear Mark,

I’m writing to share some bittersweet news. After more than a decade leading Achievement Prep, I have decided that it is the right time for me personally and professionally to transition out of the role of Chief Executive Officer of Achievement Prep.

Founding and leading Achievement Prep has been my calling, my passion, and one of the most important things in my life. I have spent over a decade of my life dedicated to Achievement Prep and that will never change. I believe we have built an amazing organization that does great things for children, and we will continue to do this important work for many years to come.

Although the Achievement Prep Board of Trustees requested that I reconsider my decision, I know in my heart that it is time to move on. My goal was to get the school through its ten-year charter renewal, and with that done, I feel it is time for me to pursue my next calling.

I am deeply proud of the growth that Achievement Prep has made under my leadership. Over the past ten years, Achievement Prep has grown from a single site school serving 68 fourth and fifth grade scholars to a multi-campus LEA serving nearly 1,000 scholars in grades pre-school through eighth. Our founding scholars are currently freshmen and sophomores at some of the most elite schools in the nation, including Duke, Hampton, Morehouse and George Washington. Our families are among the most courageous and inspirational people I know and they will always be the wind in my sails. It has been my honor to serve as the Founder and CEO of Achievement Prep. It has been beyond my wildest dreams to serve and work amongst the heroes in this important work: my committed Achievement Prep team, the amazing educators in the District of Columbia, and most importantly, my odds-defying scholars. They are the reason I have served at Achievement Prep. I am honored to have served them.

It is my priority for this transition to be smooth in order to pave the way for future success of the schools. My transition is an amazing opportunity for Achievement Prep to identify a leader with a shared commitment to our community who can help to build on our accomplishments to date. I am committed to making sure that this leadership transition causes minimal disruption to our scholars’ learning. Although I will officially step down as CEO in June of 2018, my service is not done – I will stay on as an advisor to the new CEO through the end of the 2018 calendar year. After that, I plan to stay active in the arena of educational excellence and equity, advocating for our scholars and other students of color throughout the DC area. I look forward to the next phase of my journey.

I leave this role humbled, honored and with the utmost respect for the important work that is greater than any one person. I remain unapologetically committed to historically underserved children who, when given the opportunities and support, can soar higher than anyone ever thought. I’ve had the privilege of seeing that first hand over these last ten years in my scholars and they never cease to amaze me. I hope, in my own small way, my service has done the same for them and this city. I know I am leaving Achievement Prep in excellent hands. Our leadership team and Board of Trustees are fully committed to continuing our legacy of three-generational change – knowing if we change the lives of our scholars, we change the lives of their parents and of their future children. I have
attached a letter from our board chair, Jason Andrean, sharing his thoughts about this transition and plans for the immediate future.

Thank you for all your support over these past ten years. I have been blessed. I am honored to know you and eternally grateful.

Yours always in partnership,

Shantelle Wright 
Founder and CEO
Achievement Prep Public Charter Schools

Here is the letter dated January 4th from board chair Jason Andrean that went out to the Achievement Prep community:

I want to share some information around an upcoming leadership transition.  Shantelle Wright, our Founder and CEO, will be stepping down at the end of the 2017 -18 school year.

My fellow board members and I were truly saddened when Shantelle informed us of her decision.  She has been the heart and soul of Achievement Prep since its founding in 2007.  The board tried to persuade her to stay, but she has decided it is time to pursue educational equity in a different capacity.  We will miss her at Achievement Prep and we admire so greatly the work that she has done to date.

Since founding Achievement Prep in 2007, Shantelle has worked to expand high-quality educational options for children in Washington, DC, with a specific focus on children living east of the Anacostia River.  She has helped Achievement Prep grow from 68 scholars to a campus of two schools serving nearly 1,000 students in grades PreK3-8.  Through her leadership, Achievement Prep’s middle school has become one of the top-performing public schools in the District of Columbia.  With her vision and guidance, we’ve empowered families, built relationships throughout our community, and put the name of Achievement Prep on the map as a public charter school of choice in DC.

Although we are sad to see Shantelle go, we are happy to know that she will remain a strong voice in the DC area for equal access in education.  In the meantime, we are focused on finding the right person to fill her shoes at Achievement Prep and build upon our accomplishments to date.  With the guidance and support of On-Ramps, a national executive search firm, we will embark on a national search for Shantelle’s successor.  We will be seeking an innovative, passionate executive with a shared commitment to our community.   The Board hopes to have that person officially enter the role in June 2018.  Shantelle has agreed to stay on as an adviser to the CEO until December 2018, in order to ensure a smooth transition.

 

Exclusive interview with Jenifer Moore, Sela PCS interim head of school

Sela PCS has a lot going for it right now.  The school just reached its five-year mark since it began operating and sailed through its review by the DC Public Charter School Board.  In addition, Sela learned a few months ago that it is ranked Tier 1 on the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, the second consecutive year that it earned this grade and only the second time that it was eligible for grading.

But I discovered recently that the school has another great asset, and that is its interim head of school Jenifer Moore.  I recently had the fantastic opportunity to sit down with Ms. Moore.  You may never meet a more positive and uplifting individual.

Ms. Moore explained to me that this is her third year at Sela.  For the previous two years she had the position of director of curriculum and instruction.  Her path to the charter school is interesting.

The interim head of school spent three years as the lower school principal of Arts and Technology PCS, and she was working there as it was being shuttered by the PCSB for poor academic performance.  KIPP DC PCS ended up taking over this facility.  She was offered the opportunity to become vice principal of the lower school under KIPP, but she decided to push herself out of her comfort zone and join the DCPS Office of Early Childhood Education.  She spent an important year there becoming exposed to multiple early childhood programs such as Creative Curriculum, Tools of the Mind, Readers/Writers Workshop, and Reggio.  She also received the race and equity training that she came to realize would become part of her calling.

During this period something else was taking place.  Ms. Moore had gotten to know Natalie Smith when she too worked at Arts and Technology as the director of academic and staff development.  Dr. Smith was now the head of school at Sela and began recruiting Ms. Moore to come over to the charter.  Ms. Moore turned Dr. Smith down a couple of times but finally agreed to join her in the role of director of curriculum and instruction.

Sela PCS has had a fascinating history.  The Hebrew language immersion school opened its first year with grades pre-Kindergarten four, Kindergarten, and first.  It has added a grade each year but has also grown backwards to add a pre-Kindergarten three.  The charter now goes up to the fourth grade and will conclude its growth at grade five.  The student body of 202 is diverse, composed of approximately 72 percent black, 21 percent white, and 8 percent Hispanic pupils.  Forty-three percent of the children are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Dr. Smith left Sela at the end of last year.  The board of directors, Ms. Moore stated, was completely transparent with the staff and parents saying that its preference would be to grow someone from within the organization.  “The board has provided me with a tremendous amount of support,” the interim principal related.  The decision as to whether she should be made the permanent head of school will come at the end of this school year.

Now I feel I must pause.  Throughout my conversation with Ms. Moore she spoke to me passionately about the help she has received along the way.  When she was the lower school principal at Arts and Technology the first year was challenging, especially around a difficult culture.  In the following years she was able to build a team of educators who did whatever it took to improve teaching and learning.  They developed a shared vision of excellence.  In addition, there was a mentor, Ms. Aleem, who cheered Ms. Moore on and gave words of wisdom at the right time.

Those who worked with her at DCPS did exactly the same thing.  “At DCPS,” Ms. Moore opined, “my colleagues and coaches were extraordinarily skilled.  I had never met so many educators that were both talented and driven about enriching educational experiences of D.C.’s youngest learners.  In a short time, I learned so much from them.”

Once she became interim head of school the staff became excited, announcing that they were now her cheerleaders.  After spending some time with Ms. Moore, I had this sudden urge to assist her becoming head in any way that I could.  Her personality emits warmth toward people that is immediately contagious.  I then asked Ms. Moore why she believes her school has been able to reach Tier 1 status.

“There are a couple of things,” the interim head of school extolled.  “We have a tremendously dedicated staff.  They give a lot of themselves on a daily basis.  The 28 teachers demonstrate true collaboration which is amazing to watch.  Our teachers come from all over the world.  They each bring different experiences and various points of view.  There are many considerations when we think about how we train these professionals and how they interact with parents.  So here’s the other reason that I believe we are Tier 1.  Every adult in this building makes every decision based upon what is best for the child.  I believe it is impossible to be Tier 1 without putting ego aside.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strong foundation that the previous head of school built.  She poured her heart and soul into Sela over the past three years creating systems that would benefit students long term.”

Ms. Moore also wanted to speak about the professional development activities at Sela that support its mission “to offer children of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in the District of Columbia from pre-k to 5th grade, the opportunities to achieve academic excellence in a safe nurturing environment that focuses on Hebrew language immersion, promotes the value of diversity and provides the skills for taking action in the world.”   She revealed that teachers are given time for professional development every week on Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.  “We focus during these sessions on what we can glean in an hour that can go directly into the classroom,” Ms. Moore detailed.  “We also have all-day professional development during which there are sessions led directly by the teachers.  These meetings are data driven.  The teachers are learning how to modify lesson plans based upon the academic measurements we are receiving.”

I then wanted to know why parents select Sela PCS for their children.  Ms. Moore eagerly responded, “Some parents certainly do feel connected to the Hebrew language.  Others think it is really cool.  Many people are attracted to the diversity of the school and the supportive environment that exists here.  There is such a strong community reflected by the strength between the school and families.  Families actively support our school and we encourage them to provide feedback regarding our work.”

We then engaged in a discussion of where Sela is going as an institution.  Ms. Moore listed two buckets. “We want to strengthen the Hebrew program,” the interim head of school stated.  “The language immersion program is not included in the PMF.  We believe that all students can learn Hebrew, even those classified as special education pupils.  Our pre-school students spend 80 percent of the day in Hebrew language classes and the older kids have a Hebrew block during the day.  We have some really strong Hebrew teachers.”

The other area that Ms. Moore was extremely interested in mentioning was the school’s continuing efforts to support diversity and inclusion.  She related to me that student suspensions at Sela are exceedingly rare.  “We provide training to staff around equity beginning in summer training,” Ms. Moore recalled.  “Because some of our teachers come from countries outside of the United States they may have little experience educating African American students or with students with special needs.  We all bring biases to our positions and we strive to understand what they are and to overcome them as much as possible.”

If anyone can lead this school to reach its goals it is Ms. Moore.  She grew up in Washington on New Hampshire Avenue.  Her mother instilled in her the values of family, hard work, and integrity.  She received her undergraduate degree from Howard University and her masters in Educational Administration at Trinity D.C.  Ms. Moore once worked as the Rights of Passage coordinator at the Covenant House and once again one of her supervisors took her on as a mentee.

“I love what I’m doing,” Ms. Moore exclaimed.  “Diversity and equity are extremely important to me.  In my current position I’m still extremely close to teaching and learning.  I am now stretching in my skill sets and I’m comfortable about it.  So many of the people in my life have come together to help and prepare me to teach other adults how to serve children.  It is all about service.”