Teachers’ unions should be barred from charter schools

This morning the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews bemoans a radio advertisement being run in English and Spanish by the California Teachers Association attacking charter schools.  It says:

“They’re lining up against our local public schools. One after another, out-of-state billionaires are trying to buy our politicians. Following the lead of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, billionaires like Koch brothers allies Jim and Alice Walton have their own narrow education agenda to divert money out of our public schools and into their corporate charter schools. It’s true. Out-of-state billionaires investing millions into politicians who will protect corporate-run charter schools that lack accountability.

“So as California chooses its next generation of leaders this election we must stand up to politicians who divert money out of our neighborhood public schools and say yes to leaders who value the promise of quality public education for all students no matter where they live. And leaders who always put kids before profits. Learn more at kidsnotprofits.com. Paid for by the California Teachers Association.”

On the website the union states that is is spending 1 million dollars to run these spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento.   What a terrible use of its member’s hard earned cash.

These dishonest words mirror those coming from staff supporting the American Federation of Teachers at the Cesar Chavez Prep Middle School, which voted last June to join the union.  As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein revealed last week, Chavez teachers took to the streets for the second time this school year to protest management decisions at the charter.  From her piece:

“A rare battle between teachers and administrators at a charter school has broken into public view, with educators taking to the streets of a D.C. neighborhood to press their case that the school is spending millions of dollars on consultants while cutting core classroom positions.”

The teachers are apparently upset that a couple of vacant positions will not be filled.  In addition, they don’t like the fact that the Chavez board of directors decided to hire TenSquare to turnaround student academic performance.  The Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy has been losing revenue tied to a decline in student enrollment, and is in danger of facing closure by the DC Public Charter School Board for the classroom performance of its pupils.  I recently interviewed Josh Kern, founder and managing director of TenSquare.

Copying the script from California is Christian Herr, a science teacher at the school and a union leader.  He comments, according to Ms. Stein, “It seems to us that TenSquare is coming in and exploiting a broken evaluation system to fill their pockets.”

I have a suggestion for the teachers at this campus.  How about doing your job and instructing the children under your care?  Please stop diverting the attention of the Chavez volunteer board with your shenanigans and allow them to try and improve the charter.

What a complete waste of time and energy.

 

 

D.C. charter board not responsible for financial problems at Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

Yesterday, in stellar reporting by the Washington City Paper’s Rachel Cohen, it was revealed that the DC Public Charter School Board knew almost a year ago that there were serious financial issues at Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter School.  Through a public records request of electronic messages to and from the PCSB’s executive director Scott Pearson on the issue of WMST’s balance sheet, she discovered the following:

“According to the emails, two PCSB school finance specialists, Mikayla Lytton and Mohammad Bashshiti, met with WMST’s head of school, N’Deye Diagne, and its business manager, Mark Addae, in May 2017 to discuss the school’s financial situation. Among other things, they talked about how between 2015 and 2017, WMST exceeded $704,000 in revenue loss as student enrollment declined, while their expenses grew by $440,000.

On June 15, 2017, Lytton, who no longer works with the PCSB, emailed Diagne and Addae writing, ‘As we discussed over the phone earlier today and as I hope you understood from our [May] meeting, we are very concerned with the school’s financial status and projections.’ Lytton wrote that the PCSB would like to work with the school to develop a ‘Financial Corrective Action Plan,’ which sets specific targets to improve a school’s financial health.”

The Financial Corrective Action Plan was never developed.  This eventually led to the highly unusual emergency meeting on March 12th, which was only announced the evening before it took place.  It was at this session that the charter revocation proceedings against the school were put in motion.

The board never mentioned that it was aware of the cash flow issues at the school as early as May 2017.  In testimony before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee earlier this month, that I don’t honestly feel is unfair to now characterize as misleading, Mr. Pearson was asked by Chairman Grosso why the difficulties at the school were not uncovered earlier.  The PCSB executive director replied that the board has early warning systems that have worked in the past but that his organization did not take a conservative enough approach to this charter’s financial reports.  He added that a more conservative review of the fiduciary books of the schools it oversees has now been implemented.  In her piece Ms. Cohen includes a communication Mr. Pearson sent to his senior staff and board members last March in which he admits, “I did not act on it aggressively enough because I believed that the school’s building had appreciated significantly and so in a worst case they could borrow against the building equity (as Ideal PCS just did).”

All of this speaks to a severe lack of transparency by the PCSB, something Mr. Pearson stated emphatically at the same hearing is a guiding value at his place of employment.  This disregard for providing the public with information continues to this day.  On Monday, April 23rd the board voted to close WMST at the end of the school year, a decision which would be reversed if a pending loan of $500,000 by United Bank to the charter was consummated within 24 hours and a valid financial corrective action plan was submitted within three days.  We are now almost a week away from these proceedings and no update about the status of the school has been released.

However, while the manner in which the board is operating is highly troubling, the difficulties that this charter finds itself in are no one’s fault but its own.  WMST should have been aware long ago that it was running out of money, which then would have led to actions to raise revenue and reduce expenses to correct the situation.  The whole mess points to a tremendous governance failure by the charter’s board of directors.  This is not the fault of the DC Public Charter School Board.

Charters love to talk about their strong desire for autonomy and defiantly rail against efforts by the PCSB to increase oversight and regulation.   But if being left alone is something schools want, then they better be excellent stewards of public funding.

 

Exclusive interview with Josh Kern, founder and managing partner of TenSquare

My recent meeting with Josh Kern marked a milestone in the history of exclusive interviews.  It was the first instance in the nine years I’ve been doing these that I sat down with someone that I have talked to in the past who is now in a different role.  In early 2011, I conversed with Mr. Kern regarding his co-founding of the nationally respected Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School.  Now, I was in the downtown office of TenSquare to understand the story behind the creation of this charter school consulting group.  But first I wanted to go back in time to learn about Mr. Kern’s decision to leave TMA and start TenSquare seven years ago.

“I felt like I had accomplished what I set out to do in co-founding the school,” Mr. Kern indicated.  “It was an amazing personal journey that began with my teaching an introduction to law class at Ballou High School to juniors and seniors when I was in my second year at Georgetown Law through the Street Law program.  I saw the challenges that these kids had in obtaining their education.  They would sometimes have to stand outside the building for 30 minutes in the cold during the winter months in order to go through a metal detector and be patted down.  In the classroom it seemed like announcements were broadcast continually over the loudspeaker which sent a strong signal that learning was not a priority.  But I loved the involvement with the students and they really enjoyed the curriculum that culminated in a mock trial.”

The experience led Mr. Kern, in the spring of his second year of law school, together with a team of 10 others, to submit an application to create Thurgood Marshall.  After it was approved, he spent his third year at Georgetown Law preparing to open the charter.  In May 2001, Mr. Kern graduated with honors and in August of the same year TMA began its operation.  Four years later it moved into its permanent location at the former DCPS Nichols Avenue School in Ward 8 after spending $12.5 million to renovate the facility in the classic tradition.  The agreement to take over the building involved negotiations between the school, the U.S. Congress, the District of Columbia, and the private sector.  Thurgood Marshall was the first charter to take advantage of New Market Tax Credits to reduce its loan amount.

Academically, the charter has consistently scored some of the city’s highest standardized test scores of open enrollment schools in reading and math while instructing a population of students of which 74 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.  It has been ranked as Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework since the tool was introduced in 2012.  Mr. Kern informed me when I interviewed him the first time that education researchers had studied TMA to find that they were years ahead of leading-edge practices.  The U.S. Department of Education has used methods at TMA as the standard when comparing processes at other schools.

Therefore, with his mission accomplished, Mr. Kern was ready to move on.  During his decade at Thurgood Marshall he thought he had learned much and made a lot of mistakes.  He believed that the charter sector needed a stronger ecosystem to support the local movement.  The co-founder of TMA felt that many schools would experience the same hurdles that he did, including recruiting high performing teachers and administrators and setting up systems to effectively use student data to inform classroom instruction, and that schools deserved a resource that could provide help.

He then explored an opportunity to serve as executive director of the DC PCSB following Josephine Baker’s retirement.  At that point the Washington Post claimed that Mr. Kern was the board’s choice to lead the institution.

“The position appealed to me because I thought I could make an impact, but ultimately I felt that I could make a bigger difference for students by creating a charter school support organization.  Starting TenSquare was also a better fit with my entrepreneurial nature.  Leading an authorizer is a very challenging job, and Scott Pearson has been a great leader at the PCSB.”

In 2011 Mr. Kern, along with Jerry Levine, who had been on the advisory board for the financing of the Nichols campus, established TenSquare.  The firm is named, according to Mr. Kern, after Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution that defines a federal district “not to exceed 10 miles square.”

The business began, recalls Mr. Kern, by doing some work around facilities for Next Step PCS and Eagle Academy PCS.  But it was Norm Johnson, the former executive director of IDEA PCS, who was the first to utilize TenSquare for the school turnaround improvement interventions for which TenSquare is most widely known.  When the company was formed, IDEA was a Performance Management Framework Tier 3 school facing its 15 year review.  Mr. Johnson was about to retire, and he was fearful that the charter would be revoked.  The situation IDEA found itself in was exactly the right one for TenSquare’s mission.

Mr. Kern explains, “It is getting harder and harder for stand-alone charter schools to prosper, in D.C. and in other cities and states.  The expectations around academics, facilities, compliance, regulatory requirements, and back office duties are increasing and becoming more and more complex.  The implicit and explicit belief is that charter schools can meet these demands on their own.  School leaders and boards often feel that they don’t need assistance.  But as authorizers mature in their oversight of charters, the requirements a school must meet for it to be defined as successful are going up exponentially.  It doesn’t count if a school was great 10 years ago.  What matters is the school’s performance right now.”

TenSquare engaged with IDEA PCS for three years and the results were astonishing.  On December 16, 2014, then-Mayor Vincent Gray joined school leaders in celebrating the charter’s academic improvement.  The press release for the event listed these statistics:

  • IDEA’s PMF scores increased 26 percentage points during the two probationary years, from 28.4 in 2012 to 54.4 in 2014
  • IDEA earned the designation of a DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education Reward School, an honor reserved for the top five percent of schools showing the greatest growth in student achievement, for two consecutive years
  • IDEA scholars outperformed all other high schools in Ward 7 on the DC-CAS in reading and math combined
  • Achievement on the DC-CAS math test increased by 29 percentage points to 67%, the greatest student gain of any DC high school in 2013–2014
  • Student progress in reading exceeded the growth target set by the PCSB, earning IDEA 100% of the points possible for this metric on the 2014 PMF

TenSquare has refined its approach over the years.  It now begins its school improvement engagements with charters by completing a comprehensive performance audit.  This document then leads to development of a customized improvement plan that normally spans four to five years.  The cost of the support depends upon the intensity of TenSquare’s day-to-day involvement. TenSquare charges based on the personnel it assigns to a school, distinguishing it from charter management organizations, which tend to charge a percentage of a school’s funding. During the first year or two, TenSquare might hire a new head of school as one of its staff members, who will eventually either become an employee of the charter or move on to another position.

The group has found over its seven years that by following its school improvement trajectory, a D.C. charter’s PMF will improve on average by 12 percentage points each year.  The average student Median Growth Percentile, a measure of academic improvement in math and English compared to their peers, will grow by a mean of 10 points in two years.

One interesting aspect I found about the way in which TenSquare operates is that when it comes into a school it often significantly raises teacher salaries.  “Underperforming schools generally underpay their teachers,” Mr. Kern observed.  The dollars needed to improve compensation come from substantial reductions in operating costs, which TenSquare is able to realize due to its expertise.  “We consistently see improvement in the school’s balance sheet and cash position,” Mr. Kern related.

TenSquare’s staff of 28 includes specialists with first-hand school experience leading academics, culture, operations and finance, facilities acquisition and development, talent management, and data analysis and compliance.  It currently operates in eight states, including Minnesota, Louisiana, Nevada, and North Carolina, and lists as its clients 25 charters,  In addition, TenSquare works directly with state and local authorizers on policy, charter reviews, and as receivers for under-performing schools.

Here in the nation’s capital TenSquare has partnered with Imagine Hope Community PCS’s Lamond Campus, and the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts (now renamed City Arts and Prep PCS).  Perry Street Prep PCS, YouthBuild PCS, Meridian PCS, and the Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy are currently using its services. In the school year 2016 to 2017, according to Mr. Kern,

  • Perry Street Prep was recognized by the DC PCSB as having the highest student growth among all charter schools,
  • YouthBuild Public Charter School not only attained Tier 1 status, but had the second highest GED attainment rate among charter adult programs, and
  • Meridian Public Charter School was acclaimed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education for the largest growth in student in-seat attendance among all public schools.

Mr. Kern stressed that schools should not wait until they get into trouble before seeking outside help.  “In D.C. there is a high-stakes review every five years,” the TenSquare co-founder stated.  “If a school has a couple of bad years or even stays stagnant, then that means there has been lack of progress for 40 percent of that period.  It is therefore dangerous for charter boards of directors to see a year of declining academic results as an anomaly and wait to see if there is a trend.  Adding to all of the complexity of this situation is the fact that board members and school leadership frequently change.  In this environment of ever-rising accountability, it is especially important that schools enlist help before issues worsen. Also, schools are not immutably high or low performing. In any school, there’s always need for improvement and the possibility for success.”

I have to admit that it was a tough sell for me that charters should sign up for a performance audit even when indicators are pointing in the positive direction.  But perhaps Mr. Kern is correct.  After all, his instincts have been right before.  He founded one of D.C.’s leading high schools.  He was also the one who orchestrated an orderly transition of Options PCS, a school serving severely physically and emotionally disabled children, and one that the DC PCSB was about to shutter, to a new charter school serving the same students.  The reports he filed to the court in his time as Receiver are a primer in operations management.  For these efforts Mr. Kern justly deserves our gratitude.  In all likelihood the same is true with TenSquare.

 

 

D.C. charter board takes a final vote to shutter Washington Math Science and Technology PCS

Last evening the DC Public Charter School Board decided to close Washington Math Science and Technology Public Charter High School at the end of the current school year.  The unanimous decision was reached despite the charter taking heroic efforts to reverse its dire financial state:

  • WMST has secured $97,000 in short term debt and other contributions that enabled it to meet the March 23rd payroll and pay other expenses.
  • The school’s staff has agreed to defer the April 6th payroll until the charter receives its fourth quarter annual payment which is due next week.
  • It has sold its building for $6.25 million with a July closing.
  • The charter has negotiated with the purchaser, Douglass Development, to occupy the building during the next school year rent-free.
  • WMST has reached an agreement with its mortgage and line-of-credit holders to delay payments of principal dollars until the purchase of the building has been finalized.
  • The charter has hired Building Hope to provide back-office financial services.
  • Building Hope has completed a financial forecast that shows that the school will have sufficient funds to complete the 2018-to-2019 term.

The forensic accounting firm hired by the PCSB to access the situation, StoneTurn, has concluded that the school still must obtain $500,000 in order to continue operating past June.  At the public hearing held on April 5th, the charter was hopeful that this money would come from Industrial Bank, but an agreement could not be finalized.  There is now a chance that United Bank will provide the needed cash, but that decision will not be made by this institution until today.  Therefore, the PCSB agreed to revoke the charter but will reverse the move if a loan comes through by six p.m. on Tuesday, and an acceptable financial corrective action plan is submitted by the school within the next three days.  The strict timeline is being driven by the fact that families have until May 1st to enroll their children in a public school.

Chair Rick Cruz issued the following statement following the board’s vote:

“Because WMST PCHS is not economically viable, we’re required to revoke its charter. I speak for our entire board when I say how deeply saddened we are that this came to pass. Throughout this difficult process, we have provided the school with all the support and flexibility we were able, but unfortunately the school was not able to close the large financial shortfall facing them. To minimize disruption to the students currently attending the school, we’ll ensure the school can operate through the end of the school year.  And in the coming days, our enrollment specialists will begin to work closely with every student and family to help them find a new school for the upcoming school year.”

The verdict appears reasonable, but I would provide you with a pass if you had tried to watch these proceedings live remotely and had not been successful in this effort.  The PCSB’s referred viewers, as has been the custom, to a Livefeed link in order to observe the session.  However, for some unknown reason, the broadcast was switched to Facebook.  The sound emitted from this social media website was practically unintelligible and the video seemed as if you were witnessing a meeting taking place on the moon.

In other news, the board heard from three charters proposing to open new schools.  There was no word as to why the Friendship PCS plan to expand its on-line campus through the twelfth grade was not included in this cohort.  When I first read the remaining three applications I thought none was strong enough to actually be approved to begin operation during the 2019 to 2020 school year.  But yesterday changed my mind.  Capital Village Academy PCS should definitely be given the green light.  The main representative for the charter did a perfectly eloquent job of making the case for the school.  It appeared that every facet of the application was well thought out and logical.

The M.E.C.C.A Business Learning Institute-D.C. PCS  presentation reflected the lack of clarity contained in its written bid.  Bolt PCS is the brain-child of my friend Seth Andrew, although he is not listed as a member of the founding group.  It would use his Washington Leadership Academy PCS’s curriculum.  The discussion around this school reminded me of the first iteration of WLA with its combination of residential and nonresidential instruction.  As occurred with Washington Leadership, this application should be refined.

Let’s sincerely hope that WMST can pull out another miracle today.

 

 

 

Mayoral control of D.C. public schools is about to be diluted

As was predicted here, Mayor Bowser’s control over D.C. public schools is about to take a hit, as the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reports:

“Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would establish a research arm of the government focused on education data and rebuilding trust in the District’s public schools.

‘We have been getting bad information — some of it just false, some of it misleading, some of it incomplete, and we can’t get a handle on what to do if we don’t know what’s happening,’ Cheh said.”

Pupils receiving high school diplomas that should not have graduated, a Deputy Mayor for Education and head of DCPS that skirted the common lottery to have the Chancellor’s child placed at an academically strong high school with a 600 student wait-list, together with residency fraud has cast doubt that the city’s top executive should have the only say on running the traditional school system.

The Mayor’s response to all of these severe problems has been mostly silence.  She has said that she will wait until after the Democratic primary on June 26th to begin the hunt for a new Chancellor.  Ms Bowser is therefore not exactly moving to set children up for a strong start of the new school term.

Ms. Stein reveals that a majority of D.C. coucilmembers are ready to get behind the plan, and it appears that they are not happy about the current state of public education in the District.  As evidence, they want the research board to audit education data going back 20 years.  The body would apparently also review the track record of D.C. charters, but it is unclear if it would actually have the power to take this step.

The new organization would reside within the Office of the D.C. Auditor, a clear signal that it would be independent of the current DCPS education bureaucracy.

What has become certain is that having the Deputy Mayor for Education, the State Superintendent of Education, and the Chancellor all falling under one person does not offer the checks and balances necessary to produce a high performing traditional public school system.

Instead of creation of a research advisory arm, DCPS could simply be moved under the DC Public Charter School Board.

Shantelle Wright reverses decision; will stay on as CEO of Achievement Prep PCS

The event last night at the AJAX event space located on 4th Street, N.W., was billed as a celebration of the first ten years of operation of Achievement Prep Public Charter School.  But as the crowd was building you could tell that something was unusual about this gathering.   For in the audience were some of the most prominent charter leaders of our city.  The guests included Allison Fansler, president and chief operating officer of KIPP DC PCS; Richard Pohlman, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS; Seth Andrew, co-founder of Washington Leadership Academy PCS; Chris Pencikowski, head of school of Lee Montessori PCS; Mary Shaffner, executive director of District of Columbia International School PCS; Hilary Darilek, CEO of E.L. Haynes PCS; and Patricia Brantley, CEO of Friendship PCS.  Also joining my wife Michele and I were Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board; Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Schools; Anne Herr, director of school quality at FOCUS; and Sekou Biddle, the FOCUS board chair.  I also spotted attorney Stephen Marcus, who has now become the crisis manager of charter schools before the DC PCSB.

But there was no emergency today.  Instead we were presented with a bombshell.  At the conclusion of a formal program that brought tears of joy to the eyes of many present in the room, Ms. Wright took the stage to announce that her work at Achievement Prep was not done.  She informed the stunned attendees that she had changed her mind and will remain the CEO of the school she founded in 2007.  Ms. Wright had written to me on January 5, 2008 to inform me that she was resigning her position.

In her speech, Ms. Wright admitted that mistakes at the school had been made and that most recently it has not been serving the children of Ward 8 according to its mission “to prepare students to excel as high-achieving scholars and leaders in high school, college, and beyond.”  She explained that Achievement Prep had grown too fast, an expansion that has resulted in the school’s Wahler Place elementary, serving pupils in pre-Kindgergarten three to third grade, being ranked Tier 3 school on the DC PCSB’s Performance Management Framework for the last two years. Its Wahler Place Middle school, enrolling grades four through eight, has earned a grade as barely a Tier 2 facility over the same time period.  In 2013 and 2014 this campus’ quality school report placed it at Tier 1.  During the November meeting of the DC PCSB, the elementary school campus was given strict PMF targets it will have to meet in coming years or it will be closed.

Others making remarks included Susie Cannon, the school’s chief academic officer, who has been with Ms. Wright from the beginning of the charter’s existence.  Her passionate words included the revelation that the school’s mission is repeated three times at every staff meeting and professional development session, the final time in unison.  Alumni Tykivis Hunter told the story of his mother holding him back from football practice one day without explanation.  It turned out that the reason for her decision was that Ms. Wright was paying him a visit; he had just been enrolled as a fourth grader at her school.  The young boy did not have the ability to read to the Achievement Prep CEO on that occasion.  He is now attending Virginia State University with all tuition paid following his graduation from Thurgood Marshall Academy.

Prior D.C. Mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray offered kind words of congratulations to Ms. Wright.  Mr. Pearson took to the podium to highlight the tenacious spirit of the Achievement Prep CEO.  In comments that were especially animated for my friend, he related that during the many tense confrontations he has had with her over the years regarding differences of opinion, he has always loved the persona of Ms. Wright.   It was abundantly clear for all of us standing in the audience, the feeling toward this giant of D.C.’s charter school movement is exactly the same.

 

 

 

 

Lack of leadership is forcing families to leave D.C. in search of good schools

The DC Public Charter School Board yesterday released the waitlist data for the schools it oversees and the findings are not good for families living in the city.  The backlog of seats has now grown to 11,317, up from the highly disturbing number last year of 9,703, a growth of 17 percent.  Perhaps more alarming is that the demand is, as the board admits “accelerating,” since the waitlist increase was only one percent in 2016 compared to the prior year, and jumped 12 percent when calculating the variance of this statistic from 2017 to 2016.

For this year, again according to the DC PCSB, the waitlist number “means nearly one out of every eight public school students in DC wishes to enroll in a charter school that has no room.”

The schools with the most number of students trying to get in but cannot reads like an honor role of institutions that charter followers know well.  They are, with the waitlist number in parenthesesElsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS Brookland Campus (1,827); Two Rivers PCS Fourth Street Campus (1,806); Mundo Verde Bilingual PCS (1,702); Creative Minds International PCS, whose founder and executive director I recently interviewed, (1,574); DC Bilingual PCS (1,292); Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS (1,277); Washington Yu Ying PCS (1,088) Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS (1,071); District of Columbia International School PCS (1,042); Washington Latin PCS Middle School Campus (951); and Basis PCS (773).  The names go on with many fine schools with waitlists of hundreds of students.  You can see the entire chart here.

The board points out that about 2,000 new charter school seats are opened per year, but with the number of kids trying to get in as shown above, that will hardly make a dent in the situation.  It also admits that parents are frustrated by the inability to find a charter school for their children.

A co-worker of mine recently entered the My School DC lottery for one of her children.  When her son did not get into the school she wanted she decided to enroll him in a private school.  Next year, she and her husband will move, most likely out of the city, in order to get the kind of education she wants for her offspring.

This example is being repeated over and over and over again in the District.  However, for the overwhelming number of families a private school option or relocation is financially out of the question.

In 2018, 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a family’s zip code is still determining the quality of public education their children receive.

The charter board states that the lack of charter school facilities is harming the ability of good schools to grow and replicate.  Then what is it doing about the problem?  Also, what responsibility does it take when implementing an accountability system that makes school leaders reluctant to expand, combined with an application process for new schools that is itself a deterrent to complete.   What impact does the mantra “Tier 1 on day 1” have on school supply?

Over at DCPS the situation is no better.  The most recent Deputy Mayor for Education and Chancellor resigned in disgrace, and as was revealed, the previous chancellor skirted the rules regarding residency requirements and made discretionary placements for high ranking officials.  The Mayor is essentially silent on the problems of the schools she oversees which appear to continue unabated, preferring instead to cheer-lead her way to re-election.

We are in a public education crisis and city leaders, politicians, public policy experts, and philanthropists go to work everyday like everything is fine.

It is not fine.  When is someone going to do something?

 

Exclusive interview with Dr. Golnar Abedin, founder and executive director of Creative Minds International PCS

I had the great honor of sitting down recently for an interview with Dr. Golnar Abedin, the founder and executive director of Creative Minds International Public Charter School.  I came away thinking that the city could not be more fortunate to have this charter school as part of our community.

Dr. Abedin explained to me that the school was approved in 2011 from around 20 applications that year; only four schools were approved by the DC Public Charter School Board that cycle.  Creative Minds International opened in the fall of 2012.  The story of how the executive director reached this milestone is fascinating.

Dr. Abedin obtained her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in the field of psychology.  As part of her program she was placed to work with children with severe emotional and behavioral challenges.  During the same period, she was assisting with dance therapy for children who had Down’s syndrome.   She found these endeavors especially rewarding.

When she finished college, Dr. Abedin was hired as an assistant teacher at Sawtelle Learning Center, a private school for children with autism.  After about a year and a half, Dr. Abedin decided to pursue her master’s degree in special education.  She attended the prestigious Teacher’s College at Columbia University while being employed full-time at the private Gateway School in Manhattan that served students with learning disabilities.  “This school provided a fantastic opportunity for the students within small class sizes and learning groups,” the Creative Minds executive director related.  “They implemented engaging approaches and differentiated instruction within an exquisite learning environment.  As an assistant teacher, I worked in classrooms that implemented small-group instruction with five to ten students at a time.  They also integrated art and movement therapy. I was inspired and became committed to this intentional, multi-disciplinary approach to special education.”

Gateway offered her a teaching position after finishing at Columbia, but Dr. Abedin was adamant that she wanted to practice her profession in a public school setting.  So she became an instructor at an urban bilingual Spanish middle school, also in New York.  “This was an eye-opening episode that highlighted the systemic trends that lead to inequities of educational opportunities, and heavily fueled my desire to make a difference for public school students. The atmosphere could not have been more opposite of the private school,” Dr. Abedin detailed.  “The teachers yelled at the students all day long.  There was not much instruction in either English or Spanish, leaving the students with serious gaps in learning. One day the principal took one of my students out of the classroom stating that he was not going to learn anything anyway, so he might as well clean the hallway floors.  As a new and idealistic teacher, this incident was traumatic and disillusioning.  Instead of being bilingual, many of these students ended up illiterate in both languages; many were performing five to six years below grade level.  This was right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Law.  These kids were taking grade-level standardized tests when they did not have the skills to approach the content.  The entire situation was extremely sad.  When they offered me tenure I turned it down and left to find explore other implementation models.”

Dr. Abedin’s next stop was at a Greenwich Village magnet middle school that afforded her the opportunity to teach and implement strategies for the inclusion of special education and at-risk students.  “The school was part of the small schools movement in New York City.  I learned a lot alongside my colleagues because we were given autonomy and encouraged to try new things.  I stayed at this school about four to five years and it was a great learning opportunity in teaching and leadership.”

She and her husband then relocated to Washington, D.C. after he had accepted a position at the George Washington University.  Dr. Abedin decided to go back to school to obtain her PhD in Organizational Leadership and Education Policy at the University of Maryland. She augmented her studies with international education and economics courses, and worked in school leadership positions in D.C. charter schools.

It was over the years that she was completing her program that she had a son.  At two and a half years of age he was diagnosed with sensory integration challenges.  Logically, I had to ask her how it felt to have a child like the students she had been caring and advocating for throughout her career. She said her son is “twice exceptional,” a term used to describe students who are gifted in some areas while they experience challenges in others such as attention and executive function. The knowledge and experience she gained raising him further confirmed her belief that all students have individual learning profiles and interests that require creative approaches to education that keep them engaged to maximize their learning potentials.

During her son’s early childhood, Dr. Abedin consulted with Dr. Stanley Greenspan who had a practice in Bethesda, Maryland called the Floortime Center.  He proved to become a tremendous influence in the life of the Creative Minds executive director.  Dr. Abedin reflected, “Dr. Greenspan was an expert in child development with a deep understanding of how individual sensory-processing systems influence learning. He also deeply believed in the importance of children’s emotions in learning.  He would prescribe the number of times I should engage in play with my son that involved following his interests, as if it were doses of medication.  After being exposed to the brilliance of Dr. Greenspan, I believed that that every parent should have access to his approach and his techniques.”

Next came a frustrating phase for Dr. Abedin.  She could not find a good school option for her child.  For employment she did some charter school special education consulting and instructional coaching as well as a short stint at SAIL PCS, when she was approached by other parents having similar difficulties around their children’s education.  A gentleman by the name of Bob LaVallee connected with her about his interest in partnering to start a new charter school and was interested in Dr. Abedin’s inclusive and international education model.  Although the application deadline was fast approaching, the two of them along with a small group of community members assembled the necessary paperwork with Dr. Abedin writing the entire educational plan.  In 2012, Creative Minds International opened on 16th Street, N.W. with 103 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three through second grade, including Dr. Abedin’s own son.  It had a waitlist of over 500 children.

This waitlist is now more than 2,000 students.

Three years ago, Creative Minds International moved to its permanent location at the Sherman Building on the Old Soldiers’ Home campus in Ward 5.  The charter currently teaches 438 pupils in grades pre-Kindergarten three through seventh.  Plans are to add its last grade, eighth, next year and grow to about 510 students.

The mission of Creative Minds International PCS is to offer “early childhood, elementary, and middle school D.C. public school students a highly engaging, rigorous, international and inclusive education plan that provides them with the knowledge and skills required for successful participation in a global society through a project- and arts-based international curriculum that fosters creativity, self-motivation, social/emotional development, and academic excellence.”

Dr. Abedin expounded on the foundation of Creative Minds International, which coincides directly with her life experiences.  She describes the schools pillars as “international, inclusion, and the arts.”  The Creative Minds International executive director is bilingual, studying Spanish in school and through time spent in Madrid and Valencia, Spain. She is proud of the fact that the charter is the first in D.C. to be accredited by the International Primary Curriculum, which emphasizes thematic, interdisciplinary and project-based learning; most subjects are taught around themes and integrated across disciplines.  Creative Mind’s unique model requires highly skilled and specialized lead and inclusion staff.

What gets Dr. Abedin excited about the field of education is to try and figure out how kids learn.  Her doctoral school dissertation investigated the effect of arts-focused education on student engagement in a public charter school inclusion environment.  For this executive director and her team, the key to increasing students’ ability to learn is to raise their engagement in learning which leads to higher levels of academic achievement.  The arts, according to Dr. Abedin, are a powerful way to achieve this outcome in children.

Creative Minds International is a rising Tier 2 school as ranked on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework.  One of the weaknesses of using the PMF when it comes to this charter is that in the testing grades, an average of 40 percent of her pupils are categorized as special education with Individual Education Plans.  But she is proud of the student-centered approach to learning that takes place here, which includes every student receiving instruction in Spanish and Mandarin starting age three, and choosing one of the two languages toward the goal of proficiency beginning in grade four.

“I had no idea that I’d be doing this when I began my education,” Dr. Abedin related.  “But it became vitally important to me that we prove it is possible to successfully meet the needs of all learners in a rich, engaging, public school setting. I couldn’t be more proud of the work of our team of teachers, specialists, and aides at Creative Minds who bring tremendous creativity, experience, and dedication to our students each day, and the support of our Board of Trustees. It’s hard, rewarding work and we are lucky to have a strong school community committed to our model.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education ended charter school enrollment payment reform

Wednesday, the DC Public Charter School Board testified before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee regarding its fiscal 2019 budget.  As part of the discussion Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, pointed out that several months ago the Deputy Mayor for Education, who must have been Jennie Niles at the time, suspended or stopped talks around reforming the way charter schools are paid for enrolled students.

The subject is important due to a few reasons.  For years charters have explained that the methodology for the manner in which they are provided their per pupil revenue for instruction is flawed.  As we know, charters receive money through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula based upon an October count of the number of pupils sitting in classrooms.  There is actually a designated day on which this record is made.  Here are the problems:

The number of pupils attending a public school throughout the school year changes.  For charters, this statistic is more likely to go down, and for the traditional schools the total may increase.  Individuals can see these trends for each school on the Equity Reports.  But as far as reimbursement goes, the cash paid to schools does not vary with enrollment during the school term.  Therefore, in regard to charter schools, the per student payments could be higher than they should actually be receiving.

Mr. Pearson stressed that although charters may be at a disadvantage if the manner in which enrollment is measured is modified, there is a unintended consequence of the count.  Charters, he stated, are reluctant to back-fill slots throughout the year because accepting new students does not bring additional money.  It is his wish that enrollment payment reform would provide charters a financial incentive to take more students after the October report.

There is another concern with these revenue calculations.  DCPS is also paid based upon the number of students in each school, but these number are not derived from a count.  It is instead based upon an estimate made the prior year regarding the number of students that will be attending each site.  The amount of cash is not corrected when this estimate is inaccurate.  This is unfair compared to the way charter payments are determined.

Councilmember Grosso, Education Committee chairman, added that he thought that the goal of the discussions around enrollment payment reform was also to include the use of the My Schools DC lottery to aid in coordinating student transfers between schools and between sectors.  Apparently, this effort has also stalled.  He added that he may use the D.C. Council to reignite these efforts.

Mr. Cruz, the newly confirmed chair of the DC PCSB, opened his organization’s testimony by saying this about the facility issue facing charters in the nation’s capital:

“While there has been some progress, our city needs to have a larger conversation about school facilities and whether it is appropriate for our public charter schools to have to rely on the commercial real estate market. Without a more holistic solution for these facility issues, many of our students will continue to attend school in substandard facilities.”

I sincerely hope that behind the scenes the PCSB is making a much more forceful and frequent argument for the release to charters of more than one million square feet of vacant space in the form of closed and underutilized DCPS buildings.

Walton Foundation attempts to boost charter school facility funding

The Walton Family Foundation announced this week the creation of two new funds that could play a major role in aiding charter schools across this country obtain permanent facilities.  Of course, securing permanent buildings is the greatest, and seemingly most intractable, problem facing these institutions.

The Charter Impact Fund, as described by the foundation’s press release and formed with an initial $200 million investment, is a non-profit that will “provide long-term, fixed-rate loans—similar to a home mortgage—to high-performing charter schools anywhere in the country for up to 100 percent of project costs. The CIF provides charter schools with access to lower transaction costs and quicker loan execution —allowing each school to save several million dollars over the loan term.”

A second financing mechanism, The Facilities Investment Fund, will offer five-year fixed-rate loans to charter schools in order to cover 90 percent of a renovation or new building.  Backed with $100 million, it has been originated through a partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch and overseen by Civic Builders.

Both of these moves seem promising and it will be interesting to see if they provide value to charters here in D.C.  But what if charters do not have the money or cash flow to support loans?  In addition, support of renovation costs does not help if buildings cannot be found.  The District has such a strong commercial real estate market that identifying potential facilities is a puzzle that often cannot be solved.

I have been thinking for sometime now that locally we should adopt the method that Denver uses for adding charters. In that city the school district builds facilities for them.  But at the 2018 FOCUS Gala, Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, pointed out to me that the situation there is actually not working as planned.  For example, he pointed out that the Denver School of Science and Technology, a school I have visited that has essentially been able to close the achievement gap between affluent and poor students, has several charters in the pipeline ready to open but Denver Public Schools has yet to construct their homes.

Perhaps there is no solution to the charter school facility issue.