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.



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