Dr. Howard Fuller at the 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!
The Statue of Liberty

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. I want to focus my remarks on the theme of this conference, Excellence and Equity.  Not only were these two concepts put forward, there was an explanation included which stated:

Excellent schools are committed to equitable access, opportunity, and outcomes for all students. DC’s Public Charter School leaders continue to demonstrate the strength of this commitment by striving to dismantle the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students.

There are a lot of powerful and meaningful words here. My question is, how many of us truly understand what they mean? And even further how many of us are actually committed to fighting for the realization of these noble ideas – excellent schools, equitable access, dismantling the link between race and poverty, eliminating the opportunity gap. WOW!!

In honor of this being the first day of Black History month, I want to cite a historical fact:

On Feb. 1, 1960, 58 years ago today, four Black students from North Carolina A&T sat down and a lunch counter and demanded to be served. And by doing so doing they changed the course of history. And here we are in 2018 four Black students sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcomed and can’t read the menu.

Here is my question – quoting Beyonce from “Drunken Love” – How did this shhhhh happen?  It has happened because there is no real political commitment in this country to create excellence and equity for Black and brown children, particularly poor Black and brown children. And further more it has happened because we have allowed it to happen and continue to do so today. We talked about leaving no child behind a few years ago and now we are talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a few years there will be some new buzz words. We have conferences, give out awards, and praise ourselves for being awesome but where is the anger. Where is the outrage that year after year we continue to allow them and us to fail far too many of our neediest students.

Last year in my talk, I mentioned a book by Dr. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. I want to cite it again today but a different passage.

Dr. Thurman was discussing the plight of the masses of people who live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.  The children of these families are in so many instances being victimized instead of being helped by educational systems in this country.  Dr. Thurman said this about those children,

The doom of the children of the disinherited is the greatest tragedy. They are robbed of much of the careless rapture and spontaneous joy of merely being alive. Through their environment they are plunged into the midst of overwhelming pressures for which there is no possible preparation. So many tender, joyous things in them are killed without their even knowing the true nature of their loss. The normal for them is the abnormal. They are likely to live a heavy life. 

These children do indeed live a “heavy life” and their lives are made even more difficult when the world around them reinforces such low expectations of them and indeed imposes on them words, images and actual conditions that diminish and destroy their dreams rather than expanding them. And indeed sometimes their very lives are snatched away by the violence that surrounds them every day in their communities or like in the case of Tamir Rice by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

In using the word equity there is an assumption that people understand the difference between equality and equity. But just in case that is not true let me state the difference as simply as I can: Equity is giving everyone what he or she needs to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.

In order to truly help the children from the families of the disinherited, we must go beyond equality and get to equity. To have a chance to be successful these students require not the same level of resources available to the children of families with resources; they require more resources. Because of factors outside of the control of schools as well as some things that happen to them within far too many of our schools equity creates the best possibility of closing the opportunity gaps in education. Frankly, I can’t envision them ever receiving equity or for that matter even equality. I say that because I do not believe the American “body politic” writ large cares about these children or their families.

If that is true then there are several fair questions to ask beginning with why am I here? Why should we have conferences like this one?  Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day, if equity, frankly not even equality is likely?  I will come back to that valid question.

Let me talk for a minute about excellent education.

For me an excellent education means our students leave our classes, our schools, or whatever learning environment they are in with the ability to read, write, think, analyze and compute at high levels. Obviously what constitutes high levels is subjective. But we do have some ideas about the type of conditions we need to establish in school in order to create an environment that will encourage and support student learning. In Paul Tough’s book Helping Our Children Succeed he discussed the work of two professors of psychology, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. These professors stressed the importance of school environments that stressed three things:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Autonomy
  • Competence

Excellence is possible for our students if we believe it is possible and we create the conditions to help them achieve – Howard Gardner’s work.

So, excellence is possible, but for the young people from the families of the disinherited education alone is not the solution for them. We must also clearly focus on the reality of the impact on their lives of the existence of differential power and access to resources in our society based on race and class outside of schools and school systems.  I am not sure what the organizers of this conference meant when they talked about “dismantling the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students,” or how they think we will do that, but here is what I do know.

Race and class matter in America.

Young people must see a society where their race will not be an impediment to advancement and respect.  They must interact with adults who have not already reached conclusions about their capabilities because of the color of their skin.  There have been significant changes in the intensity of racial discrimination in this country since the March on Washington 50-plus years ago but race and ethnicity are still factors in determining ones life possibilities in our American society.  I am asserting as strongly as I can the fact that race still matters in America.

But another key factor affecting our young people’s life chances is their socioeconomic class.  Poverty is debilitating to the human condition and the human spirit. (Money matters).

Children and young people who are hungry cannot learn.  Children and young people who are abused and neglected are not going to be able to concentrate in school.  Young people need to see people in their immediate families and their communities working in order to understand the value of work and the connection between education and work.

We must walk a delicate line here because although race and class clearly have an impact on our young people’s perceptions and their life chances, we cannot allow these conditions to be an excuse not to educate them; not to provide them with opportunities for their personal advancement. But, again we also must not pretend that schools or various educational opportunities can by themselves overcome the horrific conditions faced by our poorest children in this community and throughout this country.

Let me return to the questions I asked in the beginning of my remarks.  Since I do not believe we will ever see equity or even equality for the children of the families of the disinherited:

  • Why am I here?
  • Why should we have conferences like this one?
  • Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day?

Two reasons:

  1. We may not truly get excellence and equity for all of our children or change the entire system but we can save the lives of a whole lot of children in spite of the obstacles, if we are not too scared to fight for them inside and outside of schools.
  2. Derrick Bell in his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “Fight even when victory is not possible.”

So the fight for excellence and equity must go on. The children of the families of the disinherited are depending on us to fight on their behalf.

There will be no measure of equity or excellence without a struggle.

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.



Testimony of Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy Public Charter School, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Good afternoon, Councilmember Grosso and members of the Committee on Education. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6.

Kingsman Academy serves about 270 students in grades 6 through 12, in a project-based academic program that emphasizes a therapeutic approach to education. Our students face challenges like homelessness and incarceration, and 81 percent of our high school students are over-aged and under-credited. Forty-five percent of our students have disabilities, and a quarter of those students have emotional disabilities.

While I support the Council’s efforts to tackle the overuse and disproportionality of school exclusion, I do not support the Student Fair Access to School Act in its current form. I take this position even though Kingsman Academy has not suspended or expelled a single student in over a year and a half.

I oppose this bill as proposed primarily because it focuses on the symptom and misses an opportunity to address the problems.[1] School exclusion is a symptom of an education system struggling to meet demands to educate the whole child, to reach all students where they are, and to demonstrate high academic achievement using inadequate metrics. School exclusion is a symptom of schools willing but unprepared to take on the challenge of educating all students to high standards while also managing the effects of trauma, mental illness, and intergenerational poverty.  School exclusion is a symptom of recognition and accolades going to schools who show great results on limited metrics with little exploration of the sometimes less-than-desirable tactics used to get there. School exclusion is a symptom of distributing resources for citywide issues, such as improving school climate and special education services, to a limited number of schools on a competitive basis.

Over two years ago, Kingsman Academy made the decision to reduce school exclusion because of its role in the school-to-prison pipeline. None of this work was legislatively mandated. None of this work was required by our authorizer. None of this work was easy.

We made the decision because we experienced firsthand the futility of suspending and expelling students who were already struggling in school. In fact, many of our students came to us from other schools they were suspended from, expelled from, or counseled out of. We realized we needed a different approach to get different outcomes.

At our commencement ceremonies in June 2017, one graduate spoke about being suspended for thirty days as a fifth grader for bringing a knife to school, being kicked out of school in the eighth grade, dropping out of high school for a couple years, and finally making his way to us. He shared with the audience how Kingsman Academy saved his life, gave him hope, never gave up on him, and provided him an opportunity to make his family proud. We did that without excluding him, and he felt and spoke to the difference.

Ending suspensions and expulsions was an arduous process that required much more than simply making the decision to do so. We revisited our code of conduct and ensured that all faculty and staff were familiar with the range of responses available. We implemented positive behavior interventions. We spent time working to identify and address each underlying issue, and many families reported this was the first time a school had done so. We reviewed and revised our interventions system month after month.

We dedicated a significant portion of our limited resources to staffing to be able to change our response to student disciplinary infractions. We have an adult-to-student ratio of 5-to-1 and a student-to-teacher ratio of 13-to-1. One-third of our staff, including 3 social workers and 9 interventionists, are assigned full-time to respond to students’ socioemotional, behavioral, and engagement needs.

We continuously research evidence-based practices appropriate for our student population. With OSSE’s support, we receive ongoing assistance on restorative practices, school climate, and teacher recruitment and retention strategies.

We also experienced unintended consequences. We lost and let go of good teachers who were not willing to work through the change or teach in classrooms where students knew that they would not be suspended. We lost students whose parents did not believe their children were safe in an environment where their peers were not suspended.

Even though we have one of the most challenging populations in the city, we have not needed to suspend or expel a student in a year and a half. Yet our work is not done. We need more. We need the resources to address the problems that result in exclusion. We need resources distributed to schools based on student and school need, not competition. We need improved collaboration between government agencies, community support organizations, mental health practitioners, and schools. We  need to be able to work with the agencies providing our students therapy and medication, but we rarely have the opportunity. The Council can facilitate that collaboration through legislation addressing challenges such as information-sharing and by creating incentives for schools and organizations to create model partnerships to support these students.

Actually reducing school exclusion–and not just on paper–will require more than just the prospect of punishment.

Thank you, Councilmember Grosso and the Committee on Education, for your willingness to tackle this very difficult matter, and we look forward to supporting that work however we can.

[1] In addition, I am concerned that the bill in its current form adds untenable requirements and unreasonable deadlines to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Furthermore, the bill as proposed disadvantages single-site charter schools, which often do not have “victim transfer” or “safety transfer” options available to them and need to be able to exercise discretion to ensure the safety of their students.