D.C. school lottery leave many families frustrated

In a well-written piece appearing on the Washington Post website yesterday, Perry Stein describes the frustration many families experience when going through the My School DC lottery to find a public school for their children.  From the article:

“Sabrina Gordon knows that any lottery is a fluky game of odds. But she needs to believe that the school lottery is different.

The single mother lives in a poor area of Southeast Washington and refuses to enroll her 10-year-old son, Trevonte, in their neighborhood school, Johnson Middle, where he has a guaranteed slot.

So Gordon joins the thousands of families across the city anxiously awaiting results of the city’s competitive school lottery this week — a system that highlights the bleak reality that the demand for high-performing schools in the District far exceeds the supply.”

Ms. Perry highlights the difficulty of children obtaining spots in some of the city’s high performing charters.  At Munde Verde PCSshe states that only one child was accepted last year into Pre-Kindergarten three who did not already have a sibling at the school or whose parent is not already there as a teacher.  Two Rivers PCS has a wait-list of over 1,400 pupils.  The story mentions DC Bilingual PCS where the backlog is almost as high.  Many charters in the District have similar numbers of students trying to get admitted.  The reporter indicates that 40 percent of lottery participants live on the east side of the Anacostia River.

There is only one solution for this mess that we have on our hands, and that is the opening of many more high quality schools.

Yet, when I talk about the charter school facility problem that is preventing the expansion, replication, and creation of new campuses it is as if my words are falling on deaf ears.  When I point out that the funding inequity of charters compared to DCPS is hurting the quality of instruction, I get no response.  When I write that the charter school application process is too difficult to attract charter management organizations that are successful in other localities around the country, it is as if I’m bothering the DC PCSB.

Washington D.C. will never be a great city without great public schools.  Washington D.C. will never be a great city without great public schools. Washington D.C. will never be a great city without great public schools.

Now, perhaps someone will do something to fix this mess.

 

 

 

 

D.C. charter board receives three applications for new schools, a number that is way too low

The DC Public Charter School board announced last Friday that it has received three applications to open new charters, plus the request by Friendship PCS to expand its Online Academy PCS through high school that currently serves grades Kindergarten through eight, as I mentioned in my coverage of the 2018 FOCUS Gala.  At the end of four years the Academy is projected to add 100 students.

Capital Village Academy PCS describes itself as a micro-school that would enroll 170 students in grades five through eight, and bases its curriculum on the use of E.L. (Expeditionary Learning) together with a blended pedagogical approach.  It would locate in Ward 1,4, 5, or 6.

A particularly aggressive application is one by The M.E.C.C.A Business Learning Institute-D.C. PCS that wants to open a sixth-through-twelfth grade school that would enroll 990 students.  It already has a preferred location using a vacant building that was the DCPS Fletcher Johnson School located at 4650 Benning Road, S.E. in Ward 7, but will land in Ward 8 if this property does not work out.  M.E.C.C.A. gets its name from the Mentoring by Example Foundation, Inc., which describes itself as “an award-winning nonprofit youth service organization that has been educating at-risk youth and young adults, promoting community engagement, and cultivating the next generation of business leaders, professionals, and entrepreneurs in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area for nearly 20 years.”  Its founder is  LaChaundra Graham.  The proposed school’s name is an acronym for Mentoring by Example College and Career Academy.  It would be a Chinese Mandarin language immersion school with Latin added in.

Bolt Academy PCS would be a high school teaching 400 students located in Ward 7 or 8.  Its application states that “BOLT will provide high school students with a world-class education in the heart of our nation’s capital, with Boundless Opportunities for Leadership and Travel. BOLT students will benefit from fully-funded immersive study abroad opportunities and a rigorous curriculum that will prepare them for the college or career of their choice.”

If given the green light from the charter board, these institutions would open in the 2019-to-2020 school year.  The PCSB states that its approval is based on new schools meeting its “Standard for Approval” which means they must show “a demonstrated need for the school; sufficient progress in developing the plan; consistency of the mission and philosophy; inclusiveness; and founding group ability.”

Based upon the written applications, I don’t expect any of the schools other than Friendship’s to be approved.

This is sad.  For some reason or reasons we are not receiving requests to open schools from the many high performing charter networks around the country.  I attribute it to the difficulty of the application process and the lack of available charter school facilities.

Yesterday I read that this past Sunday Linda Brown passed away, the namesake of the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation of public schools in this country in 1954.  Her father joined four other school discrimination complaints because his daughter, at age nine, had to travel two miles past an all-white elementary school in order to go to class.  Today, here in the nation’s capital, parents still have to send their offspring unacceptable distances to obtain a quality education.   Far too many do not even have the option of sending their children to a good school.

When is this going to end?

The FOCUS Gala 2018: We stand on the shoulders of giants

Last Thursday evening, my wife Michele and I had the honor of attending the 2018 FOCUS Gala, held for the first time at Eastern Market’s North Hall.  You could feel the positive energy the moment you walked into the room, perhaps generated by the student artwork from 14 of the city’s charter schools displayed along the perimeter of the space whose next stop is at the United States Department of Education.

One of the first attendees we ran into was Friendship PCS’s chief executive officer Patricia Brantley.  I asked her what was new with her charter school network that currently teaches over 4,200 students.  “The Friendship Education Foundation is opening two schools in Arkansas in addition to the one we operate in Baton Rouge,” she beamed.  “Locally, we are excited to be expanding our Online Academy through high school which currently goes from Kindergarten to eighth grade.  This will increase its size by 50 percent. It is the program we took over after Dorthy I. Height Community Academy PCS closed.  The plan is to involve students in the design.  You might think that the pupils who take advantage of this curriculum are not sociable.  But they get together as a group once a week.  These kids love interacting with each other.  It is as if they are part of a special club.”  I noticed that standing right next to the Friendship CEO was Donald Hense, who of course founded the charter.  He could not appear more proud of his successor.

Many of the leaders of our local charter school movement could be found at the gathering.  It was great as always to speak to Tom Nida, former chairman of the DC Public Charter School Board, who is associated with the tremendous growth spurt of the sector during the first decade of this century.  He was there supporting the addition into the D.C. Charter Hall of Fame of Josephine Baker, the PCSB executive director with whom he worked closely.  Other inductees on this occasion included Jack McCarthy, co-founder of Appletree Institute for Education Innovation; Julie Meyer, previous executive director of The Next Step PCS who I recently interviewed; and Linda Moore, founder and past executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, who is also a member of the National Alliance of Public Charter School’s National Charter Hall of Fame.  It will be tough going forward to top this year’s cohort.

Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, opened the formal portion of the program.  In her remarks, she observed that the robust state of D.C.’s charter schools rests on the shoulders of the exceedingly strong foundation provided by the four people being recognized.  I have heard Ms. Holtzman speak on multiple instances and I have to say that she has a way about her that lifts people’s spirits.  It reminds me of Katherine Bradley, co-founder of CityBridge Education, in the way she consistently expresses her admiration for those with whom she interacts.

Each of the honorees were introduced by other prominent members of the charter community.  Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools, brought Ms. Baker and Ms. Moore to the stage; Russ Williams, CEO of Center City PCS, summarized for guests Mr. McCarthy’s charter school career; and Celine Fejeran, vice-chair of The Next Step PCS board of directors, did the same for Ms. Meyers.

New at this year’s gala, and an especially classy touch, was that the presentation of the Hall of Fame awards was preceded by a finely produced video of each of those being recognized describing their work in their own words.

All four inductees emphasized the same theme in their acceptance speeches: the unwavering goal of their life’s efforts has been to provide a quality education to every child that needs one.

But I’m jumping ahead.  Following Ms. Holtzman’s comments, she introduced the Mayor to say a few words.  Ms. Bowser received effusive thanks from the FOCUS executive director and all who stood before the podium because attendees learned from the District’s chief executive that her proposed fiscal year 2019 budget contains a 3.9 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula and another 2.2 percent jump in the per pupil facility allotment.  By my calculations, if the D.C. Council goes along with her move, that would bring the base of the UPSFF to $10,060, with the facility allotment rising to $3,263 a child.

It was an interesting moment in the celebration.  Earlier, my wife and I had the chance to spend a few minutes with Susan Schaeffler, KIPP DC PCS’s founder and CEO.  The previous week we had a tremendous time at the school’s KIPProm that supports its College to Career Program.  I asked her if she was planning on opening another high school.  She answered that this is her goal but she has not been able to identify a building.

Our conversation with Ms. Schaeffler preceded by a few minutes the one I had with PCSB executive director Scott Pearson.  We discussed the struggles D.C.’s charter schools have in obtaining permanent facilities.  It is clear that the per pupil facility allotment is not providing the intended results.  For if one of the nation’s most prominent charter management organizations cannot get a property, then something is terribly wrong.  It is as if we are stuck in a frozen terrain of fighting for facilities.

Yet, today it is estimated that there is over a million square feet of vacant space that stands empty in the form of closed DCPS schools that could be turned over to charters.  In the meantime, the same fiscal year 2019 budget put forth by the Mayor contains $1.35 billion in capital improvement dollars for the regular schools.  Even with the projected 2.2 percent improvement, that is a facility allotment almost ten times the size of the one charters are projected to get per student.  This is not fair or right.  Something has to change.

FOCUS’s senior director of government relations Michael Musante provided the closing remarks by reminding the Mayor that his organization will congratulate her when it thinks she is doing the right thing, and continue to point out those issues where it believes improvements can be made.  On the improvement end, I know right where he can start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mayor Bowser proposes increase to public school funding in an apparent move to shift narrative away from current controversies

Yesterday, Ms. Bowser released her fiscal year 2019 budget, and public education stakeholders are ecstatic that it includes a 3.91 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  If passed, her proposal would raise the base of the UPSFF to $10,658 per pupil.  The reason for the enthusiasm is that last year a working group that convened over six months under the auspices of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to review the city’s school budget recommended a 3.5 percent increase.  However the Mayor, in last year’s spending plan, suggested a rise of only 1.5 percent.  The D.C. Council then took this number and doubled it to 3 percent.  The 2018 budget also included a 2.2 percent jump in the charter school per pupil facility allotment.

So why the sudden change of heart by Ms. Bowser? Well, a few issues have popped up over the previous 12 months.  It was discovered that the Chancellor she hired, Antwan Wilson, had one of his children transfer schools outside of the lottery and in violation of a policy he had created and signed.  This led to his forced resignation together with that of Ms. Bowser’s coveted Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.  There are now allegations that the Mayor was told by Mr. Wilson of his discretionary placement months before it was known to the public.  At the same time, a WAMU and NPR story led to the realization that hundreds of students received high school diplomas from DCPS facilities in 2017 who never should have graduated.  Next, it was uncovered that more than half of all students attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts falsify their home addresses to show they live in the District so they don’t have to pay tuition.   A lawyer for OSSE was apparently told by higher-ups not to rush an investigation into this matter because it is an election year.

Finally, last week, there was the Mayor’s State of the District Address, in which she provided no solutions for the recent ills of DCPS, or an explanation of who she would bring in to fill her top two administrative education positions.  Tonight is the 2018 FOCUS Gala and Ms. Bowser is expected to attend.  Which do you think she would rather talk about, the recent problems with the traditional schools or more money for charters?

The new incremental dollars will also deflect calls for a modification of the structure of Mayoral control over the public schools.

The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil, Perry Stein, and Faiz Siddiqui, in an article appearing yesterday, state that the added money for education is not that big of a deal.  They write:

“While some education watchdogs celebrated the per-pupil spending increase, Marlana Wallace, a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said it’s not as high as it appears. According to Wallace, part of that increase covers raises for teachers that came after the union reached a contract agreement with the city for the first time in five years.”

Moreover, before you get too excited about the extra revenue, I feel an obligation to point out Ms. Bowser’s 2019 budget also has a line item for $1.35 billion toward the modernization of another 26 DCPS buildings.  Charters do not get a dime of these funds.  They have to cover renovation costs out of the per pupil facility allotment.

 

 

 

 

D.C. charter board gets it right; Washington Post editors do not

Last evening the DC Public Charter School Board held a low-key monthly meeting during which Carlos Rosario International PCS and Friendship PCS sailed through their 20-year charter reviews and Community College Preparatory Academy PCS easily received permission to continue operating after its first five years.  It was a welcome respite from the unevenness of the board’s March 12th emergency session during which it voted to begin charter revocation proceedings against Washington Math Science and Technology PCS.  The gathering was held at Washington Latin PCS, the school upon which I served as board chair, and even though it was at a remote location in the school’s multipurpose space, the sound quality was excellent.  Dr. Darren Woodruff dialed in and you could make out all of his comments.

I want to single out the performance of Patricia Brantley, Friendship’s chief operating officer, who seems increasingly confident in her leadership after succeeding founder Donald Hense.

The only difficulty I had about last night was the use of proxy votes by board members.  I know that attorney Stephen Marcus has raised this issue in the past.  Other organizations I have participated with as a board member have included in their bylaws a requirement that votes by member must be made in person or by telephone.  The electronic ballot has not been permitted because it does not allow deliberation by participants as is found in a live meeting.  I’ve also received governance advice from experts that this is the proper manner in which to conduct business.  I don’t understand how a board member can make an informed decision if he or she has not had the opportunity to listen to the deliberation first-hand.  I wish the board would eliminate the use of proxy voting.

In other public education reform news, the Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday pointing out that in spite of a series of setbacks by DCPS, significant progress has been made since Michelle Rhee became Chancellor.  From the piece:

“Recent school controversies have given license to critics of school reform to weave a misleading narrative of what has occurred since the elected school board was dissolved and control of the schools given to the mayor in 2007. Under their scenario, reform has been an abject failure, with most schools worse off except for those that have seen improvement because of demographic changes.”

I really don’t think this is what individuals are saying.  What is clear is that the bold claims of significant improvements in high school graduations rates was a sham, that families continue to game the system through residency fraud, and that Mayoral control has not fixed the ills of a system that was characterized by patronage.  Moreover, the academic performance of minority children is embarrassingly low more than a decade after oversight was taken away from the Board of Education.

We can and must do better.  Another generation of kids has been shortchanged.  It is as if the school system continues to be about protecting the reputations of the adults in charge of this mess.  It is about time someone or some people out there started acting like there was an urgency to creating a world-class education system.  If it were your children nothing less would be acceptable.

 

KIPP DC PCS’s 2018 KIPProm

There is so much beauty in this world and if you look for it you will find it all around you.  A shining example was last Friday night as my wife Michele and I attended the third annual KIPP DC PCS 2018 KIPProm.   We headed over to Dock 5 at Union Market from which, appropriately, out the windows you can see KIPP DC College Prep High School.

We entered the event space to find KIPP teachers and supporters attired for an elegant night on the town.  For men, black tie was the wardrobe of choice.  There were open bars all around surrounded by waiters and waitresses passing appetizers appropriate for a party at a Ritz Carlton Hotel.   Silent auction items for which guests could bid were lined up along the perimeter of the hall.  At the conclusion of a fast-paced hour, it was time to transfer to the adjacent room for dinner and the formal program.

The KIPProm fundraiser supports the school’s College to Career Program.  The night’s program explained why this effort is important:

“Every child deserves an excellent education and the opportunity to graduate from college and enter a rewarding career.  Unfortunately, many children in the District of Columbia face a different reality and have limited access to quality educational options.  KIPP Through College & Career is part of KIPP DC’s promise to students and families that we will foster the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to become thoughtful, intentional citizens in the competitive world.  Our alumni have amazing potential and KIPP Through College & Career helps them navigate the world beyond KIPP DC and fully realize this potential.”

The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Trauvello Stevenson, an emerging comedian who is also an alumna of KIPP DC Key Academy and is a teacher at KIPP DC Quest Academy,  She directed us to a lesson plan covering the five keys to college persistence that include having a passion, purpose and plan; focusing on academics; actively networking and navigating; being financially fit; and knowing who you are.

The next portion of the agenda was fascinating.  Situated around the room at various dinner tables were four former KIPP students who took turns standing at their seats to explain their backgrounds and experiences in college.  Each of the five-to-ten minute perfectly articulate speeches brought tears to my eyes as these young adults passionately described the severe struggles they have faced in their lives and the adversity they have successfully overcome.  We heard from Aaron Ford, 2017 graduate of Towson University; August Colbert, 2018 graduate of Bowie State University; Lawrence Davin, 2018 graduate of Radford University; and Toria Walker, 2015 graduate of Mount Holyoke College.

All of the remarks were amazing, but it was Ms. Walker whose words sent chills through my spine.  She recalled growing up in Southeast D.C. where the quality of life experienced during her childhood was about as opposite as you can get from 99 percent of us reading this article.  Of course, the notion of going to college when she was little was the equivalent of being transported to another planet.  Her heroic efforts, together with KIPP DC, turned all of this completely around.

The current mantra of educators is that they are meeting students where they are.  But in the case of Ms. Walker, this is literally what happened.  She described her college adviser traveling across mountains to check up on her at Mount Holyoke.  We learned that efforts like this are the norm, not the exception, when it comes to the higher education school supports provided by KIPP.  College to Career has already raised $3.9 million in scholarships and grants for its 2018 graduating class.

Her story dovetailed perfectly with the conversation we had during the reception with our friend KIPP DC president and chief operating officer Allison Fansler.  She explained that at the charter, 50 percent of their students are completing college once admitted.  She is exceedingly proud of this statistic because across the country students with a background like Ms. Walker’s only earn a college degree 9 percent of the time.  Still, KIPP DC, which now educates over 6,100 students on 16 campuses in six geographic regions of the city, is trying to figure out how raise this number even higher.  It is a goal that I have no doubt this charter network will achieve.

It was now time for dancing.  The event raised over $250,000.

 

 

 

 

 

Mayor Bowser wastes State of the District Address when it comes to public education

The Mayor was supposed to give last evening’s speech at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.  It would have been the perfect symbol for how education reform on the traditional school side has fallen apart.  The building was recently renovated at a cost of $170 million which was $1 million more than its projected budget.  But a trio of calamities, including the finding that more than fifty percent of the students who attend Ellington do so without living in the District while falsifying their permanent addresses so they don’t have to pay tuition; drove the hasty decision to relocate the event to the University of the District of Columbia where it was staged last year.  The Administration put forth the excuse that there was better access to parking, the subway, and buses at this location.

If you are dying to know what Ms. Bowser said about the pressing topics of the forced resignation of her Deputy Mayor for Education and the Chancellor over the school placement of Mr. Wilson’s child outside of the lottery, the grossly inflated graduation rates of high school students, and residency fraud, I will provide a service by saving you the time of having to read her entire remarks before getting to the end where these subjects were discussed.  Here we go:

“In recent months, there have been bumps in the roads – frankly, there have been some mountains. But now the band aid has been ripped off, and we understand better than ever the challenges we face. . . I recognize that there is trust that needs to be rebuilt between our school system and parents, and systems of accountability and oversight that need to be reinforced and reviewed.  Under the leadership of interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander, we will finish this school year strong and be ready to start the next one.”

That is it.  Nothing about the search for a new Chancellor or who will be the next Deputy Mayor for Education, and not a word about steps that will be taken to correct the abject failures of “accountability and oversight.”  But more significantly, not one mention about charter schools that now educate over 43,000 children in the city, a number representing 47 percent of those in our public schools.

The 2018 FOCUS Gala is next week.  What a perfect opportunity this would have been to announce that she was turning over twelve former DCPS facilities for use by charters.  She could have added that she will make room for pupils from this sector in over a dozen other traditional schools that are severely under-enrolled.  The Mayor might have offered that she is the Chief Executive of Equality, and therefore will immediately seek to end the funding inequity lawsuit against the city by providing revenue in the same proportions to charters and the regular schools as the law demands through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  Finally, she could have acknowledged the nationally recognized progress that charters in this town have made by stating that she will seek to emulate management of her schools by studying the work of these institutions and the DC PCSB.

I am so sorry.  It is extremely early in the morning, and I must still be dreaming.

Union disaster at Chavez Prep PCS

Last December, when we checked in with Chavez Prep PCS, teachers were marching on the street during their lunch period instead of working on lesson plans or providing additional help to scholars to demonstrate their contention that the school was making decisions without negotiating with them first.   Now word has seeped out from the charter that the American Federation of Teachers is ecstatic that the National Labor Relations Board has decided to hear two complaints from its members at the school.  When I wrote previously that bringing in a union to a charter school was a terrible idea because it places a third party between the staff and management, this was exactly the situation I was warning about.

Below is a statement from Emily Silberstein, CEO of Chavez Schools:

In response to complaints filed by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office that covers the District of Columbia has issued two complaints against Chavez Prep Middle School, where contract negotiations have been underway since Prep faculty voted in 2017 to unionize.

We are disappointed that the AFT is diverting attention and resources toward complaints over minor points that have no meaningful impact on our faculty and staff or on our scholars. The National Labor Relations Board has not validated the union’s complaints. A hearing has been scheduled for July.

The AFT’s complaint about last year’s updates to the Chavez Schools employee handbook relates to immaterial clarifications, updates to existing provisions and standard policies for any workplace. Changes to the handbook were in motion long before Chavez Prep’s staff voted to unionize in June 2017. These updates include an expanded definition of harassment to better protect staff, accommodations for nursing mothers, and permission to wear jeans at work. Literally making a federal case out of routine and positive handbook updates is unproductive and contrary to the spirit of collegial negotiations.

The union’s second complaint is about adjustments made to some Prep teachers’ schedules when lower-than-expected enrollment prevented us from filling two vacant positions. These mid-year modifications did not result in any staff member having to work more hours or give up personal time during the school day. Standard planning time was preserved. We chose this solution because it was the least disruptive option for Prep staff and scholars, and the union presented no viable alternatives during bargaining sessions on the topic.

Since last summer, a team of Chavez Schools administrators and representatives has met regularly with the union’s representatives to negotiate an employment contract for Chavez Prep. Labor and management have come to tentative agreements on nine issue areas, including a policy of non-discrimination and the formation of an employee committee to advise on school discipline policies and campus culture.

We have a dedicated team of teachers and staff at Chavez Prep, and we try to recognize their work with a competitive package of compensation and benefits. The average teacher salary at Chavez Prep is $65,000, on par with DC’s other charter schools. Employees receive generous and flexible paid leave, above-average retirement benefits compared to most workplaces, and their health insurance costs employees as little as $10 per paycheck.

Complaining to the NLRB during first-time bargaining is a common tactic in the AFT’s playbook as the union seeks to expand its membership in charter schools. Resolving complaints expends resources for both union members and management, diverting funds from students’ needs. While Chavez prepares for an NLRB hearing before an administrative law judge, our leadership team will continue to bargain on issues that the union has raised. Preserving the flexibility we have as a public charter school to meet the needs of our scholars and their families is our first priority.

Cesar Chavez PCS has a lot going on right now regarding concerns over its academic program as expressed by the DC Public Charter School Board at the institution’s 20-year review.  Fighting with a union over nonsense is the last thing it needs right now.  Please allow me to offer a suggestion.  I think that the criteria for the board closing a school should be expanded from taking this action for poor academic results, financial irregularities, and a material violation of the law or its charter, to include having union representation.

 

 

Exclusive interview with Julie Meyer, former executive director The Next Step Public Charter School

I had the great honor of sitting down for an interview recently with Julie Meyer, the recently departed executive director of The Next Step PCS.  I asked her about how she came to the school.  “My family moved to D.C. in 1988,” Ms. Meyer explained.  “I was appalled at  the state of public schools and felt that, with home rule, city officials should be focusing on quality education for all youth.  I myself am a red diaper baby, meaning that my parents were members of the Communist Party.  My mother was a teacher in Los Angeles and worked on issues such as racism in the public school system.  She was actually called before the Hollywood version of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  In college and after graduation, I became an activist involved with the Central America solidarity movement, which was organized around opposition to American military involvement in the region. I also worked for The Central American Refugee/Resource Center, which provides support for immigrants fleeing hostile conditions in that part of the world, and later helped found and direct the Lambi Fund of Haiti.

In 2005, Ms. Meyer met Linda Ohmans, the founding principal of The Next Step.  “The Next Step PCS is the oldest charter school in the city,” Ms. Meyer detailed.  “It was chartered in 1996 by the D.C. Board of Education and opened in the fall of 1998 when our founding organization, the Latin American Youth Center, opened their main site on Columbia Road.  Linda sought a part-time executive director.  She was aware I spoke Spanish and that I knew the Latino community and nonprofit management, but I didn’t have a Masters’ Degree in Education.  She needed someone to interact with the Board of Education and to assist with securing a permanent facility.  We had about 70 students at the time and had severe space constraints. We decided to add an evening program because of demand and economies of scale.  In a matter of about two years my position transitioned to full-time.”

Before I go any further, I just want to include some background information about the The Next Step PCS.  The mission of The Next Step PCS is to “provide students who face extraordinary challenges and who are not supported in traditional high schools with the opportunity to continue their education.”  The school’s website details its main features as follows:

  • TNSPCS offers a bilingual (English/Spanish) ABE (adult basic education), GED, and ESL program open to all youth between the ages 16-24.
  • Class sizes are small and the student support and engagement staff includes social workers, case managers, attendance and transportation coordinators, and college and career counselors.
  • Three free, healthy meals per day are available to students and free childcare is offered both day and evening.
  • The program is offered year-round, with a minimum of 195 instructional days and has developed a curriculum aligned with the national common core standards and the GED examination.
  • TNSPCS uses differentiated instruction, instructional technology, restorative practices and tutors to accommodate a diverse student body. Students receive guidance in order to continue their education beyond the GED at community college, vocational education programs and/or further English proficiency courses.

The Next Step is a Tier 1 charter as ranked on the DC Public Charter School Board’s 2017 Performance Management Framework, the first time that it has reached this mark in the three years that this tool has been used to benchmark schools.  Here’s what the board had to say about The Next Step reaching this milestone, “The Next Step PCS educates students ages 16-24, with the average student being 21.6 years of age. Over the years, this Tier 1 school has managed to create a school environment that has led to achieving an 88% student enrollment rate throughout the 2016-17 school year. This is the highest retention rate among all the adult education public charter schools.”  The charter now teaches approximately 400 students, with 92.1 percent of its enrollment classified as being composed of Hispanic/Latino and 6.4 percent being black.  Eighty-nine percent of the student body are English Language Learners and 4.5 percent are special education students.

The Next Step was originally located in the same building as the LAYC, and opened with 25 students.  Ms. Meyer related to me that the school quickly ran out of room.  “There was a lot of demand for an evening program and we believed that we could use these classes to help pay for additional square feet,” Ms. Meyer recalled.  “Like a lot of charter schools, two different negotiations for a permanent facility fell through.  The third one was the charm, which we accomplished through the assistance of Ten Square Consulting.”

The charter’s home on 15th Street, N.W. was owned by Capital City PCS, but that school outgrew this location.  In December 2011, Next Step purchased the building and moved in the following summer.  The structure originally served as the headquarters for the Central Presbyterian Church.  Woodrow Wilson became a member of the congregation shortly after becoming President in 1913.  Sometime after 1958 the church vacated the property.  It had been utilized by community groups until Capital City purchased it and renovated the dilapidated space.

Ms. Meyer characterizes The Next Step as “not fitting neatly into any boxes.” She mentioned that the school teaches many of the most at-risk students in the city.  It provides courses in ESL and prepares pupils to take the GED.  The population is composed of  a majority of Spanish-speaking immigrants.  There are 10 native languages represented at the school.

The charter, according to Ms. Meyer, completed a two-year process last summer to develop its strategic priorities.  She summarized them as “keeping the students coming and keeping them enrolled.”  These goals can be a challenge, Ms. Meyer added, because many of the students have jobs and kids of their own.  Priorities include continuing to create more flexible schedules to accommodate student needs, growing the Career and Life Skills department, and, with the assistance of a $500,000 grant from CityBridge Education, implementing Individual Life Plans to encourage greater agency and goal-setting and monitoring by students themselves.

I then wanted to know from Ms. Meyer why she thought the school was able to reach the Adult Education PMF Tier 1 level.  “The school makes every effort to provide supports needed to maintain students in class and approaches young people with respect and kindness, building strong relationships between students and staff,” Ms. Meyer remarked.  She pointed to the fact that Next Step had 57 of its students obtain their GED last year. This statistic represents around an 80 percent pass rate for those academically prepared to take the test.  Students must be reading at at least the 11th grade level to pass the GED, but at The Next Step most students enter on average at a fourth-to-fifth grade level in their native languages.

Ms. Meyer was excited about the efforts the school has made in tracking the progress of its students.  “We remain in contact with alumni as much as possible and continue to support them as they develop their education and careers,” the former executive director beamed.  “We push hard to have them go to college. They often go to the University of the District of Columbia or Trinity Washington University when the idea of obtaining a higher degree never entered their minds. Some students attend culinary school or other vocational training programs. We assist them with applications, financial aid, and more.”

Another goal of the charter which Ms. Meyer is especially excited about is the expansion of career and life skills training provided to the student body,  including, among many avenues: financial literacy, legal workshops, career exploration opportunities, and computer literacy.  “Unfortunately, people take advantage of immigrants, and the poor,” Ms. Meyer exclaimed.  “Our students also receive legal training. They often don’t realize they have rights. We link them with mental health services and organizations that provide legal assistance and provide transportation assistance. Housing remains a major problem for low-income youth in our city.”

Ms. Meyer then summarized the achievements of Next Step PCS.  “We meet the students where they are,” she intoned.  “We have been able to grow the school in size, comprehensiveness, and flexibility.  Every staff member becomes a mentor for these students.  It is a relationship-based school.  All who come in contact with us mention the positive atmosphere. We have students articulate their short and long-term professional, personal, and academic goals.”

In conclusion I wanted to know about Ms. Meyer’s current plans.  Although she said that she has nothing presently lined up, she did want to talk about the transition. “I believe leadership changes are good,” Ms. Meyer stated.  “I feel that transitions become more difficult when the organization becomes linked with one individual and style. The Next Step is fortunate to have an excellent, experienced senior management team and a new executive director who will help take the school to the next level.  We are currently a great school that in three to five years I believe can be a national model for educating older, opportunity youth.  This is really not an easy space within which to operate.  I’m extremely hopeful for the future of Next Step PCS.”

In an emergency meeting, D.C. charter board votes to close Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

This has been perhaps the most bizarre series of events that I’ve witnessed by the DC Public Charter School Board since I first began observing its activities about 20 years ago. Sunday night, at about 10:30 p.m., I was tipped off that the board had scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday evening at 5:30 p.m to consider revoking the charter of Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter High School.  The notice on the PCSB website provided no additional information.

Then yesterday afternoon documents were added to the on-line announcement supporting the contention that WMST did not have the financial capacity to continue operating.  Apparently, the PCSB has been receiving highly problematic income statements from the school, which led it to hire a forensic accounting firm to study the issue.  The review, as stated by the PCSB, found:

  • The school is unlikely to have sufficient cash to meet its March 23 payroll, unless it delays paying many bills due now, such as utilities.
  • Even with delaying payables, the school will not have sufficient cash to meet its April 6 payroll.
  • The school is forecast to require $833,991 of additional cash between now
    and the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2018 to cover all expenses,
    including payroll, operating costs, mortgage payments, and required debt
    repayment. This number grows to over $1,164,853 when adding the payroll
    due the current teaching staff in July and August for their work over the
    2017-18 school year.
  • The school has a $300,000 line of credit which is presently fully drawn down.
  • It currently has no other source of new cash or financing.
  • The school’s largest asset is its building. The school has a Letter of Intent
    from a buyer, indicating a possible, but not certain sale. However, the net
    proceeds from the sale, at the current proposed purchase price and after
    closing costs and repayment of the mortgage, is insufficient to cover the
    $833,991 projected deficit.

The reasoning behind calling the emergency meeting is based upon the common school lottery deadlines.  Assuming the board votes for closure last night, the charter has 15 days to ask for a public hearing.  Therefore, the latest this request can be made is March 27th. The PCSB revealed that this hearing will be scheduled before the My School DC announcement of results on March 30th. However, parents have only until March 15th to re-prioritize their school preferences. In addition, although the rankings are made known on March 30th, according to information provided by the PCSB, the lottery is run a week earlier. Following the timeline above, a final decision by the board would come after the lottery has concluded.

So a meeting was arranged for 5:30 p.m. at the PCSB headquarters and a conference line was provided for individuals to call in. There was no live video broadcast available. I am guessing this was because of the short meeting notice. I participated by telephone but it was virtually impossible to hear. Many of the board members who had joined by phone had the same trouble.  It is sometimes astonishing that this school sector spends over $800 million a year and this is how it conducts business.

Scott Pearson, the PCSB executive director, outlined the results of the investigation by the forensic accountant. The rebuttal came from attorney Stephen Marcus representing WMST.  What I could barely make out was that the school was prepared to continue operating primarily with revenue associated with the sale of its permanent facility.  The charter has a signed letter of intent from a buyer.  Mr. Marcus mentioned that the school’s teachers were even prepared to skip being paid on March 23rd if that would help the situation.  But notwithstanding the extremely short notice of this gathering, the charter board members had made up their minds, and the PCSB voted six to zero to begin the revocation proceedings.

Mr. Pearson did remark that WMST now has two weeks to shore up its cash position, and if there was sufficient evidence that this had indeed occurred the charter board could reverse its decision.  Alternately, he offered that if the school thought there was no hope in turning the finances around that it could relinquish its charter now so that parents could make other arrangement for their children’s education next term.  He added that if the PCSB’s final decision was closure, the charter board was prepared to provide a loan to allow it to continue going through June.

The money problems at the charter appear to be tied to decreasing enrollment, which has gone from a high of 333 students during the 2013-to-2014 school year to 228 pupils currently.  WMST also has consistently failed to meet its enrollment targets. The charter board, in its preparation for its 20 year review of the school that was to be presented at its monthly meeting next week, states that the decreasing size of the student body “has to do with many factors including an increasingly competitive high school environment, a sub-standard facility that the school is seeking to change, and disruptive nearby construction projects.”

The PCSB executive director hinted that the charter was going to have difficulty even reaching its current enrollment in the fall, based I believe on My Schools DC data.  Moreover, with the vote yesterday it appears that the school’s fate is sealed.  I don’t see why parents would not start trying to move their kids now.  But if the charter will continue to teach until the end of the year,  it seems that this presents more time for WMST to find additional revenue.  I have been in similar situations with each of the three charters I have volunteered with as a board member.  It is a harrowing and difficult place to be, but there is almost always something that can be done.