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.








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