The 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

Wow.  Picture this:  500 attendees from over 60 non-profits representing the nation’s capital’s 120 charter school campuses gathered at the FHI 360 Conference Center to attend the sold-out 2018 D.C. Charter School Conference sponsored by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  I thought last year’s inaugural event was excellent, but this past Thursday’s meeting was simply spectacular.

FOCUS’s executive director Irene Holtzman began the morning’s agenda with a story about her father teaching her to drive when she was just 13 years old.  He implored her to stop looking only at what was right in front of her and to take in the full picture.  The purpose of this symposium, Ms. Hotzman delineated, is to provide charter school leaders the opportunity to spend a day envisioning the broader view of their profession.

Next, it was time to hear from this country’s leading ambassador of school choice, Dr. Howard Fuller.  Now I know what you are saying.  He played the same role in 2017.  But this was not 12 months ago.  Dr. Fuller’s remarks were so eloquent, and his delivery was so forceful, that his words actually reverberated off the top of the posts supporting the room’s adjustable partitions.  I will not attempt to summarize them here because it would be impossible to give them justice.  Please watch this space for a reprint of his address.

The title of the conference was “Excellence & Equity” and after a couple of rousing songs performed by the Center City PCS student choir, it was time to attend one of 37 breakout sessions offered in four blocks around this theme.  It was extremely difficult to decide which ones to pick; they all looked like great ways to accumulate knowledge about this fascinating movement.

I headed over to “Being an Equity Champion:  How Leaders Systematize Equitable Family Engagement” facilitated by Mike Andres, of the Flamboyan Foundation, and Daniela Anello, head of DC Bilingual PCS.  I always enjoy hearing about the value of teacher visits to student homes emphasized by Flamboyan.  Moreover, if you needed further evidence that the staff over at D.C. Bilingual have their pedagogical act together, there was plenty of it here.  On this occasion, Ms. Anello took the opportunity to inform us about the Expos that take place at her school during parent-teacher conferences.  The Expos consist of tables populated by staff members who provide information to parents about topics such as math, literacy, counseling, and Pre-Kindergarten programs at the charter.  But it goes way beyond school matters to teach parents about the D.C. public library, offer cooking and wellness materials, and answer questions about classes for adults at Carlos Rosario International PCS.  My eyes began to tear as she also informed the group that there is an arrangement between her school and the charitable organization Food and Friends to provide groceries, at no charge to parents, so that the charter can encourage the preparation of nutritious meals for students.  You can read my interview with Ms. Anello here.

I stayed in the same room to hear “Let’s Talk:  Is Education Really Still the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?” led by Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the DC Public Charter School Board; and Nakeasha Sanders-Small, a parent of a student at Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, and a member of the PCSB’s Parent and Alumni Leadership Council.  The answer to the question was an unqualified “yes,” but it was most interesting how the participants got there.  Ms. DeVeaux, who lived up to the high quality presentation skills I see monthly on my computer as I watch the PCSB’s monthly meeting Livestreams, and Ms. Sanders-Small had prepared a series of statements on cards that the audience discussed in clusters of two to three individuals and then again as an entire group.  My favorite, because I’ve written so much about it lately, and the one that Ms. DeVeaux had me read, was “Performance measures are inherently biased against low-income children.”  Ironically, sitting next to me were teachers from Excel Academy PCS, the charter school recently voted to be closed by the PCSB, that offered up as a reason for its relatively low academic performance on the Performance Management Framework the fact that much of its student body lives in poverty.  At the session, the Excel staff informed me that both KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS are vying to takeover the charter.  While they expressed happiness about this turn of events they also told me the parents are worried about whether Excel will remain an all-girls school.

After lunch I sat in on a panel discussion on the topic of “Governance and Advocacy: Your Voice Matters.”  Anytime the word governance is in the title of a charter school discussion you know that our local expert, Carrie Irvin, co-founder and C.E.O. of Charter Board Partners, is bound to play a leadership role and so it was the case here.  Ms. Irvin facilitated a conversation between Catharine Bellinger, D.C. director of Democrats for Education Reform; Abigail Smith, board chair E.L. Haynes PCS and former Deputy Mayor for Education; Mary Shaffner, executive director of the D.C. International School PCS; Naomi Shelton, director of K-12 advocacy at the United Negro College Fund, and the newest board member of the PCSB; and Sheila Bunn, deputy chief of staff for Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray.  Ms. Irvin started the session by pointing out that there are over 600 individuals volunteering as charter school board members in the city.  The workshop quickly turned to the major issues facing public education in the District and the actions that individuals sitting on boards can take to influence policy.  I brought up the subjects of charter school facilities and the FOCUS-engineered charter school inequitable funding lawsuit against the city.  As part of her comments Ms. Bellinger opined that, as has been her pattern, Ms. Bowser would not turn over any shuttered DCPS buildings to charters before the next Mayoral election, choosing to maintain her “play-it-safe” approach in education.  Ms. Smith offered that she is not in favor of the lawsuit, stating that a dollar for DCPS is not the same as a dollar for charters.  She commented that there are differences in the budgets for the two sectors and she thought that these variances were fair.  I thought this was an  unexpected viewpoint coming from the Mayor Gray’s Deputy Mayor for Education under which the Adequacy Study was written that detailed the unlawful revenue the traditional schools receive outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

I concluded the action-packed day with Michael Musante, FOCUS’s senior director government relations.  His tutorial entitled “Understanding the D.C. Charter School Landscape as an ANC Commissioner” provided an information-rich history of Washington’s charter school movement, while contributing intriguing details that I learned for the first time.  The modest education lobbyist somehow failed to mention his success in getting the U.S. Congress to re-authorize for three years the Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides private school scholarships for children living in poverty in Washington, D.C.

It was then off to the conference’s happy hour to mingle with the crowd.  An exceptionally positive day ended on a bright note when Chris Pencikowski, head of Lee Montessori PCS, informed me that a proposal is coming to create a Montessori middle and high school for the four Montessori charter schools to mirror what DCI is doing for language immersion charter elementary schools.  He revealed that it is envisioned that the consortium would even include a DCPS Montessori school with a guaranteed feeder pattern to the new facility.

Now that is exciting.



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