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.


2017 national report card on student proficiency shows little progress in D.C.

Today, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores are being released and it appears that District of Columbia students have made little progress compared to when these results were revealed a couple of years ago.  In addition, the achievement gap between rich and poor is basically unchanged.

Let’s get right to the results for D.C. on this examination known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”  In 2015, the proficiency rate for fourth grade white students in math was 85 percent.  Last year it was 80.  For black students the math proficiency rate was 20 percent in 2015 and in 2017 it was 23 percent.  Hispanic students scored 28 percent proficiency in 2017, and that number was 30 percent in 2015.  For students living in poverty, the math proficiency rate was 18 percent in 2015 and two years later it stands at 22 percent.

In reading, white students as a group were 77 percent proficient in the fourth grade for 2017 compared to 81 percent in 2015.  Black students went from 18 percent proficient in 2015 to 11 percent last year.  Hispanic students went down from 22 percent proficient in 2015 to 18 percent proficient in 2017, and those qualifying for free or reduced lunch went from 14 percent proficient in reading in 2015 to 11 percent in 2017.

For the eighth grade the patterns are basically the same.  In math, white proficiency was at 74 percent proficiency in 2015; it went to 77 percent proficiency in 2017.  For black students the math proficiency was basically the same at 12 percent in 2017 and 13 percent in 2015.  Hispanic student results were 19 percent proficient in 2015 and 18 percent in 2017.  Low-income students were 11 percent proficient in 2015 and 10 percent proficient in 2017.

The reading results for eighth grade included white students being 76 percent proficient in 2015 and 77 percent proficient in 2017.  Black students went from 12 percent proficiency in 2015 to 11 percent in 2017.  Hispanic students went down a point from 19 percent proficient in 2015 to 18 percent proficient a couple of years ago.  Low-income students remained almost the same regarding proficiency, going from 10 percent in 2015 to 11 percent in 2017.

If we take a look at trends over time, students in the nation’s capital continue to make exceedingly slow improvements compared to national averages.  The city is eight points below the average score in fourth grade math and seven points away from the mean in reading.  These are the lowest variances ever recorded, but that’s only one point from the previous report card.  In fourth grade math, the difference from the national average is 16 points, again a record low.  But for fourth grade reading, the D.C. average went up from 2015 going to a variance of 19 points in 2017 from 16 percent in 2015.

The Washington D.C. results on the NAEP roughly follow the pattern seen across the U.S.  Writing for the Washington Post, 

“Averages for fourth- and eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, were mostly unchanged between 2015 and 2017. The exception was eighth-grade reading scores, which rose slightly.

But scores for the bottom 25 percent of students dropped slightly in all but eighth-grade reading. Scores for the top quartile rose slightly in eighth-grade reading and math.”

The bottom line of all this data is that if you are an affluent student in the District you are doing quite well academically.  If you are not so fortunate to be born into a well-off family, then the odds of being proficient in math and reading is low.

Nothing has really changed.



Perhaps we should admit that college is not for every child

Yesterday’s New York Times “The Corner Office” column featured an interview by David Gelles with Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of the social networking website Reddit.  It includes this question and answer:

What’s your advice for college grads?

Do you really need to go to college? There is a huge student loan debt problem in this country. I think there’s going to need to be a drastic change in how these universities work. And I also think we’ve lambasted the trades for way too long. You can make six figures as a welder.

Mr. Ohanian’s response reminds me of the conversations my wife and I had recently with Allison Fansler, KIPP DC’s president and chief operating officer; and Susan Schaeffler, the charter school’s founder and CEO.  At this year’s KIPProm, Ms. Fansler related that she was extremely proud of the fact that for her students half of those that are accepted to college obtain a degree, while across the country for the population of students that KIPP serves this number is only nine percent.  She added that KIPP is striving to get this number even higher.

But this still leaves 50 percent of students needing a path toward a career and there are going to be some students who don’t obtain a post-secondary education.  During the 2018 FOCUS Gala we discussed with Ms. Schaeffler her school’s efforts to address both of these populations.

These discussions remind me of the tremendous work being done at IDEA Academy PCS regarding its Academy of Construction and Design.  Michele wrote about this program for The Washington Post in 2016:

“ACAD was established not just to provide training and workers for the construction industry but to give options to D.C. kids and teach them skills they can use for life,” said Shelly Karriem, director of ACAD since 2015. “We wanted to help kids who can’t go to college or don’t want to go to college, as well as those who do go.”

I have to say that my thinking is becoming more aligned with Mr. Ohanian’s opinion on the importance of going to college.  Many kids today graduate with humongous financial debt and no real job skills.  While there is no doubt that over an individual’s lifespan there is tremendous financial value in having a college degree, maybe the curriculum at these institutions needs to be revamped to increase the likelihood of employment.  In addition, there is nothing wrong with young people learning a trade and then going back to school.  They could then tailor their college education to more closely track with their chosen profession.

There is another point to made here.  The cost of college is way too high and it continues to grow seemingly unabated.  If enough individuals decided to focus on a career first it would force universities to lower the price of admission.  We are experiencing rapid changes in the American economy.  It is time for our schools to react in a way that better prepares them for success in life.







Washington Math Science and Technology PCS should not be closed

When we last discussed Washington Math Science and Technology PCS, the DC Public Charter School Board had voted in a strange emergency meeting to begin the revocation process against the school.  The action was taken because WMST has found itself in exceedingly dire financial straits, illustrated by the findings of a forensic accounting firm that were pointed out during the March 12, 2018 session:

  • 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.

I wrote at the time:

“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.”

Well this school, on the verge of being vanished out of existence, and as I’ve witnessed on multiple occasions during my more than twenty years of following the D.C. charter movement movement, in a matter of four weeks has pulled out nothing less than a miracle.  As reported by PCSB executive director Scott Pearson:

  • 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 duringTuesday  the next school year rent-free.
  • WMST has reached an agreement with its mortgage and line-of-credit holders to delay payments of principle 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.

This effort is simply stunning.   Even Mr. Pearson, who is not easily impressed, admitted it was a lot.

But even after this heroic effort by school leaders and its board of directors, the school is not yet out of the woods.  It needs another $500,000 to continue operating, and the charter board must assess the projected budget to make sure that WMST can meet its program commitments, especially in the area of special education.  In addition, there is still concern that the charter may not meet its projected enrollment target of approximately 200 students next year.  It should be noted that the school has received $30,000 from an anonymous donor toward hiring a consulting group to assist the school in reaching this goal.

So here’s what we need.  I see that Building Hope is on board, and it has agreed to provide an additional line-of-credit if needed.  The school is negotiating with Industrial Bank to cover the $500,000.  However, there are a number of fine groups out there that could help this school.  You know who you are.  Please pick up the telephone today and offer your support.

The charter board is scheduled to take a final vote on charter revocation this coming Monday.  Mr. Pearson stated that if the board was convinced that there was a real possibility that WMST could successfully line up all of the needed financing it would move the meeting to Thursday April 12th.  Mr. Stephen Marcus, the attorney representing the charter, has requested a delay of a couple of weeks to allow everything to be worked out, especially since the School Reform Act gives the board 30 days to make a decision.

The final vote by the PCSB should be postponed by 14 days and WMST should be allowed to continue to serve its students.