Note on the interview: My meeting with Dr. Woodruff took place shortly before the resignations of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles and DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, and a few days prior to Excel Academy PCS announcing that it would become part of DCPS next school year.
I had the privilege of sitting down recently for an conversation with Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board. I have interviewed Dr. Woodruff a couple of times in the past, and sadly, this will be the last one as PCSB chair since his term is ending in the spring. He has been on the board for the last nine years. I began by asking Dr. Woodruff for his viewpoint on the situation at Ballou High School. He had clearly already formed an opinion.
“I think the problems at Ballou are not unique to that school,” the PCSB chairman informed me. “It is important to me that we not throw the teachers, administrators, and most of all the students under the bus. I view what took place at Ballou regarding high student absenteeism, and the pressure placed on teachers to graduate these kids, as an opportunity. If the Mayor, D.C. Council, DCPS Chancellor, and other public education stakeholders take this seriously then we have a chance to improve the situation. We know we are dealing with an extremely challenging environment with these kids. We need to figure out a way to support them. The question is what as a city are we going to do about it. We should not be talking about these issues two years from now.”
I pointed out to Dr. Woodruff that the same consultants who investigated Ballou on behalf of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also looked at D.C.’s charter schools and did not find the same pattern of irregularities around high school graduations. I asked him for the reason behind this finding. “I think we are not seeing these things,” the PCSB chairman opined, “because we have an established a consistent metric for school quality in the Performance Management Framework. Our sector has persistently and unapologetically focused on quality. In addition, the PCSB has had consistent leadership. We look at school transcripts. I sign all high school diplomas. We have an infrastructure in place to monitor student academic progress. The PCSB executive director Scott Pearson and his staff continue to search for ways to further evaluate the advancement of our charter school pupils. At the same time, I have to give credit to our school leaders that adhere to high standards.”
A controversial topic that came up recently in our local charter movement was the placement of John Goldman, the PCSB’s senior manager, finance, analysis and strategy, on administrative leave after it was discovered that he had written material associated with discriminatory views of the Alt-Right. I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if a final decision had been made about his continued employment. “I’m not exactly sure where we are with this to be frank,” Dr. Woodruff revealed. “ I know that we are in the middle of an investigation.”
I then requested from Dr. Woodruff to understand his overall impression of how charters are doing at this point in their 22-year history. “Overall, very well,” Dr. Woodruff commented without hesitation. “We now have 51 Tier 1 schools as ranked on the PMF. With the exception of Ward 3, we have a variety of quality campuses in each of the city’s wards. Fully 40 percent of our schools are Tier 1. We have waiting lists at most of our schools. There are exciting schools opening in the fall. I contend that we should be celebrating how far we have come. Families are now at least considering sending their children to charter schools when this was not the case not all that long ago, and we want to see them get even better. I’ve been exceedingly privileged and blessed to see the improvements in our portfolio of schools. We must remember that there is no finish line. We can continually raise our performance.”
The charter board voted last month to close Excel Academy PCS at the conclusion of this school year. I had heard from some Excel teachers at this year’s FOCUS Charter School Conference that KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS were vying to take over the charter. I asked Dr. Woodruff if he had the same understanding. The PCSB chair asserted, “I hope someone does continue its operation. We don’t want to scatter more than 600 students to the wind. We hope a strong school will take it over, especially since this is an all-girls school. It is up to the Excel board, not us, as to the organization that would eventually lead the school.”
During the discussion about the future of Excel, that school and Somerset PCS made the case that the PMF is biased against charters that teach a large percentage of at-risk students. I wanted to know from Dr. Woodruff if he agreed with this assessment. He responded immediately. “No, I don’t believe that there is a bias. Every year our staff does a validity check to determine whether the tool is predisposed against any group, whether it is at-risk kids, African-Americans, boys, or girls. We have not found a significant correlation that this is occurring. But based upon the recent testimony by those schools we will take another look.”
Dr. Woodruff continued, “There are charters in Wards 7 and 8 that as part of their heroic missions are taking in the most difficult to educate children. We should be rewarding these schools with special recognition. It is an exceptionally difficult population to teach. These pupils are different from those in Ward 1, for example. We should highlight the work of places like KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, DC Prep, and other schools whose strategies are working with these children. We can dive deeper and see how they are doing it, and then hopefully share that information with other charters.”
Next, I brought up a couple of points that attorney Stephen Marcus had addressed in my interview with him. First, he alerted me to the fact that schools are required by the PCSB to earn a PMF score of at least 45 percent at the 10 year mark of operation and 50 percent at 15 years of teaching. He related that the PCSB puts pressure on schools to adopt the PMF as their goals, and then eventually raises its floors. The attorney contends that this action is equivalent to the charter board setting charter school goals which is a violation of the School Reform Act. I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to these assertions. “There is nothing particularly magical about a score of 45 or 50,” Dr. Woodruff explained. “What we want to see is that there is improvement. We did not establish the expectation that a school would score a 65 percent at a particular period in time which is at the Tier 1 level. We give schools flexibility to earn Tier 2 but we don’t believe schools should be Tier 3 after being open for 10 or 15 years. As to Mr. Marcus’s point about the floors, yes, they have gone up, but so has the academic track record of our charters. It is like grading on a curve. If all schools had recorded lower performance levels, then the floors would be lowered. I don’t want to apologize for our increased expectations for student learning. We want to see all schools do their best for the children they serve.”
The last topic I wanted to raise with the charter board chair was his vote last year against the expansion plans of D.C Prep because of its higher than average student suspension rates. The board’s initial decision on this matter to not approve the charter amendments caused much controversy as people accused the PCSB of exceeding its authority under the SRA. I asked Dr. Woodruff to react to the above statement, and that is exactly what he did in a highly emotional manner. “Here’s the thing,” Dr. Woodruff said. “I respect the SRA as much as anyone else. As I mentioned earlier, the board’s primary focus is school quality. My interest in raising school quality is the reason I joined this board. What we have found is that school discipline is not being administered uniformly. Consider these statistics. During the 2016-to-2017 school year 17 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charter schools had zero suspensions. 40 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade LEA’s suspended less than 10 percent of their pupils. 67 pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade charters, or 60 percent, saw less than 10 percent of their kids suspended.
The average suspension rate is about 9 percent. Therefore, here’s what we did as a board. We took the nine percent figure and tripled it, considering that any school that had a suspension rate three times the average was an outlier. Schools such as D.C. Prep PCS, Democracy Prep PCS, KIPP DC PCS, Monument Academy PCS, National Collegiate Preparatory PCS, Paul PCS, and Seed PCS are in this category. 11 campuses were outliers that represents only 7 charter school LEA’s. Moreover, it is not that these suspension rates are leading these schools to become Tier 1 institutions because several are Tier 2 or Tier 3 schools. I’m personally concerned about these schools and the impact of suspensions on their students.”
Dr. Woodruff had much more to say on this topic. “The vast majority of our schools, such as Kingsman Academy PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, and DC International PCS, are doing an amazing job in this area. But the ones that are outside the norm are suspending African American students and students with disabilities. What I’m concerned about is exclusionary discipline on kids that are already at-risk. I believe strongly that we should fix this problem internally. We have tools such as the Equity Reports, and conferences on topics such as restorative justice to help us in this area. But we desperately need to do more. I’m baffled by the push back on this subject. In addition, while I admire Councilman David Grosso’s leadership on this topic, I do not believe legislation is the way to fix it. I would love to see schools come up with their own solutions. I feel like we have a board that understands the nuances of this area and can help move the issue forward.”