I read with profound sadness the strikingly undeserving and destructive article by Rachel Cohen appearing last Thursday in the Washington City Paper regarding the work of TenSquare in D.C.’s charter sector. It is an extremely long, uneven piece which makes it exceedingly challenging to refute. So in order to give it a try, I will focus on one portion of her investigation regarding the consulting group’s involvement with Septima Clark PCS.
I was contacted approximately five years ago by Jenny DuFresne, who Ms. Cohen identifies as “Septima Clark’s founder and longtime principal,” during the period that Josh Kern, the founder and managing partner of TenSquare, and James Costan, the school’s board chair, were attempting to close the charter and consolidate it with Achievement Prep PCS. Based upon Ms. DuFresne’s perspective, I wrote multiple intensely passionate stories about the underhanded way in which this resolution was reached and the pure disrespect shown toward her and her staff. At the time my blog was being hosted by Examiner.com and when it shutdown in July, 2016 unfortunately I lost access to my posts. Therefore, you will understand why I cannot link to these commentaries.
Mr. Kern read my columns and was understandably upset. So what action did he take? Did he do what others have done over the years when I write something they don’t like such as threaten to sue me, call me nasty names, or try and coerce me into making a correction? No, Mr. Kern took a different route. He invited me for a cocktail.
At a downtown hotel I joined both Mr. Kern and Mr. Costan. For a couple of hours, they patiently went through their logical and detailed reasoning behind the merger and the framework of their communication strategy. Their approach emanated from the low academic performance of the all male student body at the school combined with severe financial challenges around securing a building in which it could continue to operate. The impression I came away with from this conversation with Mr. Kern and Mr. Costan was their firm belief that it was an enormously difficult decision but one that was being made solely for the benefit of the low-income children attending Septima Clark. The only emotion the two men exhibited toward me was kindness.
It would be a natural assumption due to the length of the City Paper expose to believe that it provides a comprehensive overview of TenSquare’s track record. But one reason for doubting the validity of the author’s assertions is that Ms. Cohen, in support of the slant of her thesis, conveniently leaves out a significant chapter in the company’s history. This involves the saving of Options PCS.
Toward the end of 2013, the DC Public Charter School Board and Scott Pearson, its executive director, desperately sought to close Options in the aftermath of the monetary crimes committed at the school that served the city’s most emotionally and physically disabled pupils. In fact, at one point the PCSB voted in favor of charter revocation. Mr. Kern had been appointed the D.C. Superior Court’s Receiver for the facility. While he was working feverishly to turn it around I was writing ferociously to keep it going. My motivation came after reviewing one of Mr. Kern’s status reports to the judge that contained his team’s implementation plan. The document demonstrated to me in absolute clarity the stellar professional leadership and operations management he was demonstrating to help these kids that no one else could or would teach.
I communicated not infrequently with Mr. Kern while he was overseeing Options, mostly by text message, although there were few details of the case he was allowed to discuss. But at one especially low point, when it appeared that the fate of the school was bound for extinction, we decided to meet one afternoon at a restaurant across from where I am employed. While we discussed the current situation for a few minutes it was clear that Mr. Kern could hardly keep his eyes open because he was so tired from the strain of trying to keep Options PCS alive. Option’s charter was eventually continued under a new administration, and Kingsman Academy PCS is currently in its third school year with an enrollment of approximately 216 scholars. Mr. Kern introduced its dynamic executive director Shannon Hodge to the charter. You can read my interview with Ms. Hodge here.
One of the turnaround schools discussed in the City Paper report is IDEA Academy PCS. When I sat down in 2015 for a conversation with the school’s CEO Justin Rydstrom, he spoke about his charter having received assistance from TenSquare. But what he was absolutely giddy about was the strikingly miraculous academic results his school had been able to post. I underscored those statistics in my recent interview with Mr. Kern. At a celebration for the charter’s accomplishments, Abigail Smith, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education commented, “IDEA is an example of what can happen when dedicated school leaders set a culture of high expectations for both students and staff. Two years ago, IDEA was on the brink of closure. Today it is a school where students feel welcome, supported, and inspired to learn. The IDEA community should be proud of this remarkable achievement.”
I first met Mr. Kern in 2011 when he was executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, the high performing charter he co-founded in Anacostia. He introduced me to his academic director Alexandra Pardo, who thoroughly impressed me with her knowledge and commitment. Ms. Pardo would succeed Mr. Kern as executive director of Thurgood Marshall and eventually joined TenSquare.
Ms. Cohen talks to many people who are critical of Mr. Kern and TenSquare who frankly have not done, or are not doing, a good job for our kids. Here’s the bottom line. No charter school is required to hire TenSquare. But when it comes to the critically important job of educating our children, choices must be made. If you ask me whether I line up on the side of Josh Kern, James Costan, Justin Rydstrom, Shannon Hodge, and Alexandra Pardo, or the naysayers who have utilized TenSquare featured by Ms. Cohen, then I pick Mr. Kern. Every time.