Exclusive Interview with Peter Anderson, head of school Washington Latin PCS

I had a nostalgic day recently as I returned to Washington Latin PCS, the charter where I served on the board of governors for six years. During my time as chair the school secured and renovated the old Rudolph Elementary School as it’s permanent facility.  This was also a fantastic opportunity to have my first extended conversation with Peter Anderson, the head of school who three years ago succeeded Martha Cutts in this role.  The discussion was fascinating.  I first asked Mr. Anderson how he thought Washington Latin was progressing.

“Latin is doing extremely well when you consider various indicators,” Mr. Anderson answered without hesitation.  “We continue to retain more than 80 percent of our teachers and, of those to whom we extend contracts, over 90 percent accept them.  This has been the pattern the last three years.  Of course, retaining the teaching staff is important to the overall success of the school.  One of our sayings over here is that ‘people matter’ and who is in the classroom is more important than books, buildings, or budgets.  Being able to keep our talented instructors provides continuity.  We also have some fairly new teachers who are rising stars, and who are taking on added responsibilities under the tutelage of our amazing principal Diana Smith.   These individuals are incredibly smart and acclimating exceedingly quickly.  We have been intentionally trying to develop a diverse faculty both in race and intellectual experience.  We look for a range of backgrounds.  For example, we enjoy meeting teachers who have lived internationally or traveled extensively and we look for people who have been athletes or coaches since they know what it is like to work on a team.  We have teachers who have taught in private schools and urban public schools and those that have these backgrounds who are from other parts of the country. “

The Latin head of school then spoke about other signs that the school is in a strong position.  “Our students continue to perform well on external measures,” Mr. Anderson related.  “Our students post strong scores on Advanced Placement exams, PARCC, SAT, the National Latin Exam, and the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages.  In addition, both our middle and high schools are ranked Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework”

However, following in the exact mold of former head Martha Cutts, the leader of Washington Latin believes there is more to be done.

“Our goal is to improve the academic performance of our at-risk student population and that of African American males,” Mr. Anderson asserted.

With the recent news that many of the city’s independent schools are eliminating Advanced Placement, I wanted to get Mr. Anderson’s take on the value of these courses.  He responded to my question as if he and his team had already spent hours pondering the same issue.  “We still believe that AP is rigorous yet doesn’t pigeonhole us into having to teach to the test.  The instructional staff makes every attempt to make advanced placement more accessible to a wide variety of students.  We have actually added AP classes and designed some of our own more challenging courses, such as Honors Humanities, The History of Jerusalem, and Advanced Arabic.”

Mr. Anderson added that Washington Latin now offers AP Computer Science Principles that appeals to a diverse group of scholars.  He informed me that a goal is for students to track in AP classes in an earlier age.

“This summer we had approximately 250 out of our 700 students attend summer school,” he said. “Only a small percentage of those are there for remediation.  Summer school allows pupils to work in small groups to prepare for more rigorous classes in the future.  For example, we offered a bridge class to Algebra 2.  Now more students are taking geometry in middle school.  One class that was particularly interesting was Underwater Robotics.”

Mr. Anderson then returned to some of the other positive trends currently being experienced at Latin.

“Depending upon the grade level, Mr. Anderson explained, “we retain about 95 percent of our students year after year.  Some grades retain 100 percent of their class.  Our internal surveys of parents and students indicate high levels of satisfaction with the school.  We were recently re-accredited for five years by AdvancED and we solicited intensive feedback from our parents, students and teachers as part of this process.”

When asked about college performance, Mr. Anderson indicated that “in regard to our matriculating seniors, we brought in a record $10.5 million in merit-based scholarships in 2017; this year a smaller graduating class realized $6.6 million.   In addition, the list of colleges and universities that our students are attending grows each term.  This year, there is a student attending New York University in Shanghai.  Another will be studying in Rome.  Past graduating seniors have enrolled in community college, small liberal arts colleges, Ivy League schools, large research universities, and HBCU’s in all parts of the country. Note that fit is of the utmost importance to us.  As such, we are always looking for post-secondary options that can meet the needs of our graduates, whether it is a larger institution like the University of Vermont, a smaller college like Eckerd, the military, or culinary school.”

I next wanted to know from Mr. Anderson what he is enjoying most about his time at Latin.  “There are a number of things I love here,” the head of school asserted.  “I would have to start with the team that leads this school.  Over the course of my 21-year career I have often gone into leadership roles in which I’ve had to restructure and bring in new people.  That is just not my experience here.  This is the best leadership group with whom I’ve ever worked.  It makes my job so much easier and allows me to think strategically instead of having to be in the weeds.  As you can see I really appreciate them.”

Mr. Anderson continued, “I also truly enjoy the community here.  The people who work here are genuinely interested in the lives of their colleagues.  The level of compassion and empathy toward each other is so rewarding to see and there is a really positive relationship between the teachers and students.  Please allow me to tell you a story about this topic.  When I was a student teacher at NYU I was assigned to work at a Title 1 school in Chinatown.  The second school at which I trained was in Tribeca, which was a highly progressive institution of non-Title 1 children.  One day when I walked into the teachers’ lounge of the first school I heard the instructors bashing the kids.  Now, I knew these pupils were good kids and were compliant, which is a proxy for what many teachers consider to be respectful.  I never walked into that room again.  Here at Latin, the teachers’ lounge is right next to my office.  When you enter this space, you hear philosophical discussions amongst the staff.  You see co-workers in deep conversations about how best to help particular students or engaged in collaborative planning.  It is inspiring.  Being with the faculty demonstrates that they believe in, and constantly reinforce, our motto that “words matter.”

Mr. Anderson also stated that he really enjoys being in Washington, D.C. where it is so charter school friendly.

“When I worked in New York I got involved in charter advocacy,” he recalled. “I would go up to Albany and lobby where I would see Seth Andrews, the creator of Democracy Prep PCS, and Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy PCS.  They received most of the attention.  But my career afforded me a unique prospective because the first charter I led in Harlem, a Kindergarten to eighth grade school, was a conversion from a traditional school.  Therefore, it was unionized.  So, I was able to talk to state representatives from this angle.”

Here in D.C., Mr. Anderson is excited that Washington Latin has now joined the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools.  The Latin Head of Schools explained that the group is an association of charters that are not part of charter management organizations.  He detailed that the newly established national group is set up to share best practices, advocate for favorable local, state, and federal policies, and pursue funding and other resources. Latin is also of course a party to the FOCUS-engineered lawsuit brought against the city for equitable charter school funding compared to DCPS.  Mr. Anderson is proud that the initial judgment siding with the traditional schools is being appealed and that Latin is a part of this effort.

An area we briefly touched on, but perhaps the one that speaks volumes about the success of this school, is the student demand to be admitted.  This term there were 2,300 applications for approximately 100 open slots.  As the final part of the school’s five-year strategic plan adopted in 2016 the charter will eventually expand.  With Mr. Anderson’s experience as a teacher, administrator, and school leader in traditional, parochial, and charter schools, together with his high performing leadership team, this appears just the right group to bring Washington Latin to the next level.

U.S. Education Secretary DeVos pays visit to Friendship Public Charter School

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein details today that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited three traditional public schools yesterday to congratulate them on their recent PARCC results.  The DCPS elementary schools, Amidon-Bowen, Hendley, and Simon, each scored greater than the 2.8 city-wide average increase in English and the 2.5 improvement in math over the previous year and each serves primarily low income children.  She delivered cookies and a congratulatory note at each stop.  The appearances were a surprise to the schools.

What Ms. Stein failed to mention is that Ms. Devos also went to Friendship PCS.  Chief Executive Officer Patricia Brantley in her Facebook post does not mention the name of the campus where Ms. DeVos posed for a picture with some of the students but I bet it was Technology Preparatory High School, the same location that was featured by Ms. Stein in a story the other day.  As the DC Public Charter School Board highlighted last week, Tech Prep had the greatest increase in standardized test scores of all charters compared to 2017 rising 22.3 percent in English and 13.6 percent in math.

Ms. DeVos’s show of support is exactly the right move by someone in her position.  As people in leadership know, everything  you do and say is going to be watched and scrutinized by those around you so it is critically important to be intentional in all of your actions.

The Education Secretary’s choice stands in sharp contrast to the decision of D.C. Mayor Bowser as to where to start her Monday morning on the beginning of the new school year.  She went to Excel Academy, the closed all-girl charter school that has converted to be part of DCPS.  One reason that has been offered for the institution’s decision to become a regular school instead of being taken over by KIPP DC PCS or Friendship was that it wanted to avoid the strict accountability that it experienced under the PCSB.  Bringing attention to a school that was shuttered for low academic performance is not exactly the message of high expectations that you want to send to each of our public school families and students.

Ms. Bowser sent a similar communication when she stated that she could wait until after her Democratic primary contest was concluded to begin the search for a new Chancellor.  Antwan Wilson, the previous person in this position, resigned on February 20, 2018.  The primary was on June 29th, four months later.  Ms. Bowser had no real opponent.  The decision just shouts loud and clear that education is not a priority.

I am convinced that it is intentionality that separates the charters that succeed from those that do not. I have heard the term consistently emphasized by the school leaders that are in charge of some of the most respected schools in our city.   It is one of most prominent characteristics I see in the heads of organizations that I respect and admire.  Perhaps if we really want to see PARCC scores go up dramatically in this town we all need to adopt a strictly intentional attitude around learning.



D.C.’s Friendship Tech Prep perfectly illustrates problem with charter board’s grading system

Today, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, who is doing some excellent reporting, tells the story of Lakia Mines, a 12 year old homeless young woman who yesterday started seventh grade at Friendship PCS Technology Preparatory Academy High School in Anacostia. Please visit the Post’s website so you can see a picture of this beautiful child.

If you have never seen the Friendship Tech building you are missing something special. The school spent $14 million to build the state-of-the-art facility, and in 2014 my wife and I had the distinct pleasure of touring it right before it opened. But I digress. Please pay close attention to the words of Ms. Stein that brought tears to my eyes early this morning:

“A year ago, Lakia, who has special-education needs, entered sixth grade at Friendship Tech reading at kindergarten level. School officials say she made significant progress last year and starts the seventh grade reading at the fourth-grade level — a feat that has rendered her more confident and her mother proud.

‘She just did a 180 last year and turned around,’ Malonda Mines, her mother, said. ‘I’m so happy she’s doing well. It’s amazing to me.’

At Friendship, Lakia meets with social and mental-health workers regularly. The school provided her family with free uniforms. And she has intensive and personalized academic assistance so she can attend mainstream classes while an aide helps tailor the lessons to her level.

She has a longer commute than most of her classmates, so the school coordinates transportation, which allows her to participate in the dance team’s evening practices.

Because of all of this, Lakia’s first day of school Monday played out like that of any other student.”

Let me repeat. Lakia started Friendship Tech Prep last year in sixth grade at the Kindergarten level academically. She is now in the seventh grade and reading at the fourth grade level. She advanced four grades in one term. For being able to perform this miracle, Friendship Prep received a 54.5 percent score on the DC Public Charter School Board’s Performance Management Framework, which makes it a middle to high Tier 2 institution. Last year, the charter earned a 50.1 percent, still in the Tier 2 category.

The charter board is extremely proud of its record of steering families to enroll their children in Tier 1 schools. So what does this ranking communicate to parents living in poverty whose sons or daughters cannot read, write, or perform basic mathematics? To me, it says don’t go to Friendship Tech Prep, you’d better find a “better” school. Give up the free school uniforms, social and mental health assistance, and transportation. And those Tier one schools that you may be interest in having your children attend? Many have wait-lists of hundreds of kids.

I think something has to change. The work being done at Friendship and at other schools that educate populations in which every pupil is economically disadvantaged needs to be celebrated. Ms. Perry states:

“By the time the bus arrived at 7 a.m., Lakia was ready — and slightly nervous — to travel across town from the District’s Fort Totten neighborhood to Friendship Tech Prep Academy, a charter school in Congress Heights that greeted students with exuberant songs, chants and dances.”

We should be greeting the staff of Friendship Tech Prep PCS every day with songs, chants, and dances for the truly amazing work they are doing.

The mystery of lethargic D.C. charter academic performance

The report card came in on Thursday afternoon in the way of the 2018 PARCC assessment scores and the findings were frankly anemic.  It was actually a sad day.  As the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported:

“D.C. Public Schools outperformed charter schools on the 2018 PARCC test. Overall, the traditional school system showed greater improvement over 2017 and had a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the tests.”

How in the world could DCPS, dysfunctional from the loss of its most recent Chancellor, embroiled in a high school graduation controversy, and reeling from accusations of residency fraud at one of its most prominent institutions, top the collective standardized test scores of D.C.’s charter schools?  After all these are the entities that are free from the constraints of the regular schools to hire their own staff, set many of their own operating rules, design the curriculum, and establish their own goals.  They are provided freedom to innovate in return for being accountable for their results to the DC Public Charter School Board.  In order to reach kids that traditional schools have not, almost all of them have longer school days, smaller class sizes, and describe themselves as extremely tight-knit communities.  Charters are recognized as paying particular close attention to the needs of their students and families because their revenue stream is dependent upon how many children are sitting in its classrooms each October.  With an ecosystem like this in place for over 20 years, and with the exception of one campus a lack of teacher union representation, these nonprofits should be soaring way above the clouds academically compared to the bureaucratic DCPS.  What is going on?

Well I think I know the answer.  We have a problem with the way we are conducting our local movement. Here are the issues.

First, the charter school facility problem is proving to be intractable.  We are so fortunate to have Building Hope and other like-minded groups here and banks that now actually have some understanding of charter school finance.  However, it is still, after two decades, much too difficult for a charter to obtain a permanent home.  In fact, the task is almost impossible.  The hunt for a building is a tremendous distraction from educating our scholars, and is restricting the replication of high performing schools that could help more kids.  I do not accept that with so many smart people invested in this cause that a solution to this issue cannot be found.

Second, we desperately have to rethink the PCSB mantra that charters must be “Tier 1 on day 1.”  The pressure to be atop the Performance Management Framework rankings is driving schools to what Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform calls “isomorphism.”  Ms. Allen defines isomorphism as “the process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others who face similar environmental conditions.”  The phenomenon is resulting in charters looking more and more like the traditional schools already failing our children, and is causing them to shy away from true innovation.

The PCSB must be a true partner in reversing this trend.  Some crucially important steps are needed such as:

  • Holding off PMF tiering a new school for two years instead of one,
  • Giving CMOs that replicate a one-year hiatus for the entire system and not just the new campus,
  • Significantly reducing the reporting requirements of the schools it oversees,
  • Simplifying the new school application process, and
  • Redesigning the PMF to emphasize student growth over absolute test scores.

Charters enroll some of the most difficult to teach pupils.  Forty-eight percent of the kids in these schools are classified as at-risk.  Many live in poverty.  Almost all enter these schools years behind their age-appropriate grade level.  Yet, with all of these mighty challenges, some leaders are stating that it appears that the PCSB is running their schools in place of themselves.

Charters are really at a critical juncture.  As evidence for my conclusion consider that just last week, Democracy Prep PCS, which is located in Ward 8 and enrolls 656 students with a wait-list of 111, announced it was abandoning the District rather than face a five-year charter review.  This is exactly the opposite of what our city needs.  We desperately want high performing charter networks moving into the nation’s capital, not the other way around.  But they don’t want to come.  It is too difficult to find a place in which to operate and the regulation is overbearing.

There is no time to waste.  The times call for exceedingly bold actions.




D.C. schools standardized test scores go up for fourth consecutive year, results disappointing

The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education yesterday released the PARCC assessment results for 2018 and there are a few clear takeaways.  For the third year in a row the percentage of students scoring in the four and five range, which measures career and college readiness, went up.  In English Language Arts for traditional and charter schools combined, the proficiency rate is now at 33.3 percent, an improvement of 2.8 points compared to last year.  In math the percentages of those ranking four and five also increased, this time by 2.5 percent, to reach 29.4 percent.  What I also liked seeing is that the proportion of students scoring in the categories of one and two, did not meet expectations and partially met expectations, respectively, decreased with level one going down by 3.4 percent to 21.2 percent and level two dropping by 4.0 points to 23.9 percent.  Quoting directly from OSSE’s findings:

  • Scores are up across almost all grades and subjects.
  • There is especially strong improvement in middle grades in both ELA and mathematics.
  • All major groups of students improved.
  • We are proud of our educators and students for the improvements we’ve made since 2015, however, results remain lower than we need, and we continue to see persistent gaps between groups of students.

This is the fourth year that public school students in the nation’s capital have taken the PARCC assessment.  It is especially encouraging to see participation rates in the exam hovering around the 98 percent to 99 percent range depending on sector and whether it is the math or ELA portion of the test.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein makes the point that DCPS scored better than charters.  This is true for overall students.  In ELA, DCPS had 35.1 percent of students coming in at the four and five range while charters had 31.5 percent of students in this category.  In the subject of math, DCPS had 30.5 percent of students scoring in the four and five category and charters had 28.4 percent.  DCPS also showed the greatest improvement from 2017 with a 3.2 percent increase in ELA compared to charters 2.7 percent growth.  In math, DCPS went up by 3.1 percent compared to last year while charters increased by 1.8 percent.

These results are almost certainly due to DCPS having a greater proportion of generally more affluent white students compared to charters.  For example, for black students charters scored higher in English with 26.6 percent of students in the four or higher category and for DCPS this statistic was 22.9 percent.  For math, charters were at 24.4 percent proficient and DCPS was at 17.0 percent.  However, for Hispanics charters post results slightly higher than DCPS in English at 32.3 percent proficient versus 32.0 percent, but are behind DCPS in math with 23.9 percent proficient for charters compared to 30.5 percent for DCPS.  For those students designated as at-risk, charters scored better than DCPS in English and math, and for English as a Second Language learners DCPS did better in both subjects.  However, proficiency rates are extremely low coming in at about 20 percent.

Finally, the achievement gap is alive and well for all to see.  For a student living in Ward 3 the ELA proficiency rate is 72 percent compared to a 17 percent proficiency rate for a kid in Ward 8.  For math, the pattern continues with a Ward 3 proficiency rate of 64.4 percent.  For Ward 8 residents this number is 14.9 percent.  These results are depressing.

There are some charter schools that posted some impressive scores.  In English, besides Basis DC PCS and Washington Latin PCS showing strong results, Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS came in at 59.7 percent of students at the four or five level.  Washington Yu Ying PCS had 58 percent of students in this category, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS had 57.6 percent and the District of Columbia International School PCS had 57.0 percent proficiency.  In math, KIPP DC – Promise Academy PCS had 73.5 percent proficiency, KIPP DC – Lead Academy PCS had 69.7 percent of students at four and above, KIPP DC – Heights Academy PCS was at 67.3 percent, and KIPP DC – Spring Academy PCS was at 61.1 percent.

Lastly, the DC Public Charter School Board highlighted schools that increased scores in ELA and math more than twice as high as the overall state improvements.  These include Harmony DC PCS, Friendship PCS – Woodridge International Elementary, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS, KIPP DC – Lead Academy PCS, KIPP DC – Will Academy PCS, Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy – Chavez Prep, Friendship PCS – Technology Preparatory High School, and Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.

You have to wonder whether, even with all the union distractions, Ten Square Consulting is having a positive impact at Cesar Chavez PCs.

Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss on Arne Duncan

President Obama’s first education secretary Arne Duncan has written a book entitled How Schools Work, and last Sunday he talked about his work at Politics and Prose. My wife and I would have liked to be there but my grandson Oliver turned five years old and we were instead grateful to be at his ice skating birthday party watching his one year old brother Emmett.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss was in attendance, and as would be expected had much to complain about concerning his remarks. She was never a fan of Mr. Duncan because he advocated policies when he was in office with which she strenuously disagrees such as the expansion of the number of charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and use of the Common Core curriculum. But there was one paragraph in her article about his work as United States Education Secretary that really caught my attention.

“What he didn’t do, which some in the education world argue is the most important thing he could have attacked, is this: attempt to change the way the United States funds its public schools. School districts rely in large part on property taxes, which guarantees that poor communities have schools with fewer resources. Federal funding aimed at closing the gap doesn’t come close, and, so, in this country, standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives, making reforms that place high stakes on the scores nonsensical.”

It is tragically true that in 2018 for far too many students standardized test scores tell us only where a child lives. But a policy that dramatically changes this equation, private school vouchers, is attacked at every opportunity by Ms. Strauss and Mr. Duncan. When he served in Mr. Obama’s cabinet, Mr. Duncan took every step at his disposal to shutdown D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan created by Congress for kids living in poverty. He so restricted the number of families that could participate that instead of continuing to administer the awards, Joseph E. Robert, Jr. closed the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization he had founded to provide private school tuition for low-income scholars. Here is the letter Mr. Robert sent to Mr. Duncan in 2009 about his decision.

This is what I would have asked him about if I could have attended the book forum. I would have wanted to know how he could sleep at night knowing that while his children received a high quality education, be personally blocked hundreds of young people without means from the same chance.

D.C.’s local charter school movement needs to learn from Democracy Prep

In nearly a decade of writing about charters in the nation’s capital, I have never seen a decision by a school like the one revealed by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein last week.  Here is Democracy Prep PCS, a stellar charter network with facilities in six cities, deciding before the new school year had even begun that it would shutter its classrooms here in Washington, D.C. at the end of the term.  It has announced it will find another operator for the site.  Here’s how the school’s website describes its track record:

“Founded in 2005 and opening our first school in 2006, Democracy Prep set out to prove what is possible for public education in America. Our flagship school, Democracy Prep Charter Middle School, first opened its doors in August 2006. By 2009, DPCS became the highest performing school in Central Harlem and was ranked the number one public middle school in New York City.

Democracy Prep Public Schools currently operates 22 high-performing schools and one program in New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Baton Rouge, and Las Vegas educating 6,500 citizen-scholars. The incredible growth of the scholars is possible through the tireless and dedicated work of the educators who make up our DREAM Team.

By proving that students, regardless of what ZIP code they are born into, can perform at high academic levels, we seek to transform not only the lives of the students at Democracy Prep but also the expectation of what public schools can achieve.”

I guess there is an exemption for closing the achievement gap if the zip code is in Washington, D.C.  But this is absurd.  This is not the way charter schools operate.

What has happened to the can-do, beat-the-odds no matter what is thrown at us, attitude that has characterized this movement since its inception more than twenty years ago?  It was perfectly captured this year in the efforts of Washington Math Science and Technology PCS that fought with all its might to stay open despite intractable financial difficulties.  It is the fortitude that is found in any of the city’s charters that has been successful in securing a permanent facility.  It is the guts and bravery of the heroic individuals who believe they can start a school from nothing and hire the staff, design the curriculum, recruit the families, and balance a budget as part of the start-up business that a charter school represents.

So if Democracy Prep is really going to throw in the towel, we really have to understand the reason.  We need to know because we cannot let it spread to other institutions.  We need to stamp it out like we would a racial slur or the words of someone who defends the status quo in public education as the best that we can do.  We cannot let it infect people who believe with every cell in their bodies that today is going to be a better day than the one before it.

I only ask one thing of Democracy Prep.  Please don’t let the entire school school year go by before you select another operator.  Make that choice immediately so we don’t have to be tortured watching the slow demise of a school with a proud and distinguished history.  Get out of town now.  Its bad enough you are going to abandon over 650 children living in poverty, but I urge you not to let this tragedy linger in our minds like some plague that has been foisted upon the citizens of our city.

Am I upset?  You bet I am.  The move by Democracy Prep is a direct shot at the bright optimism of all of us that fight around the clock to improve the lives of others who in the past have been told in no uncertain terms that they are not important.  At the end of the day, it is often only the optimism that we have left.


Washington Latin should take over Democracy Prep

Extremely interesting news came last Friday from the Washington Post’s Perry Stein that Democracy Prep PCS has decided that following the coming 2018-to-2019 school year it will close its D.C. campus and turn the school over to another operator.

The decision speaks to the power of the high stakes reviews being conducted by the DC Public Charter School Board.  Democracy Prep opened during the 2014-to-2015 term and therefore was about to face its five year review.  The problem is that academic performance at the charter is on the decline with Democracy Prep scoring as a low Tier 2 facility on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework a couple of years ago and during 2017-to-2018 fell to a Tier 3.  The charter educates approximately 658 students in Ward 8 and, as Ms. Stein points out, even though it is poor performing, it has a wait list of 111 pupils.  Almost all of its scholars qualify for free or reduced priced meals.  Ms. Stein quotes Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC PCSB, as commenting on the situation at the charter, “Performance at the school needs to improve, and it’s important that Democracy Prep is now taking the step to find a quality operator for the school,”

It seems like only yesterday that I attended the charter board meeting during which the application for Democracy Prep was considered.  It was held at Carlos Rosario’s International PCS’s Harvard Street campus and there was a sea of children in the audience all wearing Democracy Prep tee shirts.  The charter came from New York City, where it has a strong reputation for closing the academic achievement gap between affluent and poor children.  Here in the nation’s capital it took over Imagine Southeast PCS after that school struggled to produce good classroom results.  The Post reporter reveals that an email to parents from Democracy Prep national chief executive Katie Duffy and local board chair Jennifer Wider, stated “Four years ago, we promised Ward 8 a school in which scholars would thrive academically and socio-emotionally. . . Ultimately, we have not been able to deliver on that promise.”

I am confident that the usual well-regarded charter management organizations will be in the mix to take over the school, such as DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, and KIPP DC.  But how about something different this time?

During the six years I served on the Washington Latin PCS board of directors, strengthening student diversity was always on the mind of the governors and the staff, although it is one of the most racially inclusive charters in the city.  I remember the occasional suggestions I made as chair to long-time head Martha Cutts during which I kicked around ideas for replication of this Tier 1 middle and high school.  These were extremely preliminary suggestions that were never acted upon.  One particularly fascinating and exciting concept I thought about was the notion of bringing the success of this school to Anacostia.  Since Latin begins at the fifth grade, I even considered the possibility of opening a pre-Kindergarten-three to fourth grade campus there that would become a feeder school to the Northwest location.  If I remember correctly, the current leader of Washington Latin, Peter Anderson, has a background leading a school with a large population of students from low-income households.

Perhaps Washington Latin expanding to include the current Democracy Prep campus is an idea whose time has come.




Excel as traditonal school highlights financial differences of charter sector

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein reports today that in a couple of weeks Excel Academy Public School will reopen as part of DCPS after the decision was made last January by the DC Public Charter School Board to close the school this past June.  Remember that both KIPP DC and Friendship PCS were interested in taking over this institution but the leadership of Excel decided that it would rather have it join the traditional school system.

During the 2017-to-2018 school year the all-girls Excel enrolled approximately 643 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three to eight.  So far about 300 students have signed up to attend the new school, which represents a decline of 53 percent.  It will apparently stay in the building that housed Excel as a charter.   Ms. Stein writes:

“The first day of school is in two weeks, and the staff at Excel Academy in Southeast Washington needs to make sure everything is just right. Teachers crammed preschool classrooms with colorful books, plush seating and games. Maintenance workers tidied the school garden, pruning the sunflowers and picking the ripe vegetables.”

According to PCSB records, last term Excel had total occupancy expenses of $2,125,421 that included $2,061,316 in rent.  It used a facility allotment of $2,234,910 to cover the lease, providing the school with about a $110,000 surplus in this cost category.

The bottom line is that with enrollment dropping by more than half, a charter school would never be able to afford to stay in the same facility.  The only choice a charter would have would be to subsidize the lease with the per pupil dollars provided to administer the school, which in this case would be so large a number that this would prove impossible.  Teacher and other staff salaries could never be met under this scenario.  As a matter of fact, with this much of a reduction in the size of the student body, I’m sure that the per pupil dollars for instruction under DCPS do not cover personnel costs.  Therefore, the only option that this school would have is to close.

The reason that all of this financial analysis is critically important is that market forces have been relied upon for more than 20 years in the nation’s capital to drive improvement in public education.  Since the first charter opened here money has followed the child.  It was the mass exodus of families from DCPS that finally put sufficient fiscal pressure on the system to improve.  Now, with the incorporation of Excel into DCPS with simultaneous subsidy of the rent expense, we are seeing a distortion of the market which will end up harming our kids.

Excel was an extremely low academically performing school when it was a charter.  That’s why it was shuttered by the PCSB.  Allowing this school to continue to operate while running a substantial financial deficit works directly against the concept of school choice created by economist Milton Friedman.  He stated that when revenue became linked to enrollment good schools would prosper and grow while poor ones would run out of dollars and close.  With the acceptance of Excel as a regular school, DCPS is harming the cause.


Donald Hense guest commentary: Creating a College-Ready, Career-Success Culture

The following is a guest commentary by Donald Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School.

This summer, while I watched the latest graduates of Friendship Public Charter School’s two high schools, Collegiate Academy and Technology Preparatory Academy, take the stage to receive their diplomas, I reflected on how far the public charter school I founded has come.

It is worth remembering that, prior to the subsequent challenging and rewarding years, Friendship’s first two campuses opened their doors at a bleak time for the District of Columbia’s traditional public school system. More than half the students dropped out of a system that had effectively abandoned the children of its most disadvantaged neighborhoods to the many economic and social ills that plagued them. Students endured substandard schooling in unsafe environments and often dilapidated buildings, with devastating consequences that could last a lifetime.

Into this public policy disaster, which took such a toll on individuals and whole communities, Friendship arrived as a pioneer among the public charter schools that now educate nearly half of all D.C. public school students. The D.C. School Reform Act allowed charter schools to apply to provide tuition-free public education to District-resident students on a first-come, first-served basis. Publicly funded but operated independently of D.C. Public Schools, charters could design and develop their own educational programs while being accountable for improved student performance, unlike the then status-quo.

Friendship Collegiate Academy, which welcomed its first students at the turn of the new century, had a 90.3 percent on-time—within four years—graduation rate from 2012 to 2017. To place this in context, the D.C. charter high school rate is 73 percent, and 42 percent of DCPS students are currently deemed “on track” to graduate on time.
Collegiate also has 100 percent college-acceptance, accepted to colleges and universities such as Columbia, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Morehouse, Spelman, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Maryland at College Park, University of Chicago, University of Virginia, The College of William and Mary, Emory, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, The George Washington University, Howard, Bucknell University, Lafayette College, University of Rochester, University of Wisconsin at Madison, UC Davis, Northeastern, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, University of Michigan and others.

The Friendship flagship charter high school graduated one-fifth of all D.C. public charter school students between 2012 and 2017; and in D.C.’s Ward Seven, where the campus is located, the school accounted for nearly 40 percent of all DCPS and charter high school graduates.

This success is the product of a college-going culture that prepares children for the rigors of a college education, providing high standards in a caring and supportive environment. Key to this is the value added by Advanced Placement courses. The 17 AP courses that are authorized by the College Board at Collegiate Academy require much more academic rigor than citywide standardized tests while providing students with experience of college-level work and the opportunity to earn college credits in high school.

Ten years ago, Collegiate Academy was one of three high schools nationwide to be awarded the AP Inspiration Award by the College Board in recognition of its strong college readiness programs. In addition, Collegiate Academy was the first District of Columbia public high school to offer an Early College program in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Since then, more than 4,500 students have taken AP and college courses, with nearly 5,000 transferable college credits earned.

To further increase student success in AP and college courses, the College Board recently selected Friendship Collegiate Academy as the only DC high school, and one of 100 schools nationwide, to offer the pre-AP Program. This upcoming fall, all ninth-grade students will take four pre-AP courses in English, math, science and social studies, in addition to pre-AP in visual arts, dance and music.

Similar college-ready opportunities are available at Friendship’s Technology Preparatory Academy, located in D.C.’s Ward Eight, in a state-of-the-art $19 million multi-resourced, LEED-designated facility opened four years ago. Tech Prep had its first graduating class three years ago and provides multiple opportunities for students to develop the STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—skills required for success in tomorrow’s global, green economy.

Obviously, college preparation is of little value if students lack the financial and emotional supports to take advantage of this opportunity. Friendship has stepped up to the plate with mentoring for college applications; summer internships for college students; “posse” cohorts of students attending the same colleges; summer college experience for high school students; and socio-emotional care from pre-Kindergarten onward.

Since 2012, Collegiate and Tech Prep have competed for the highly-prized D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education Scholars Program and attended summer college programs at Barnard, Brown, Boston University, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Emory, Harvard, Smith College, Stanford and Syracuse. These selective summer college programs at top-ranked universities across the country provide early exposure to college-level academics, the skill of navigating a college environment, and often the opportunity to earn college credit.

This early experience of college life combined with taking AP and college-level courses have helped students earn highly-competitive scholarships such as Posse, Gates Millennium, Trachtenberg, Presidential Scholarships, Milken, Torch, and numerous other merit-based grants and scholarships.

Friendship students also have been extraordinarily successful at securing D.C. Achievers Scholarships, which fund up to $50,000 toward college costs. From 2007 to 2017, Collegiate Academy students were awarded 36 percent of all such scholarships in the District, receiving nearly $45 million in total scholarship funds. This College Success Foundation program, led by Herb Tillery and funded by the Gates Foundation, awards scholarships that are a mix of college readiness, mentoring and support, and provide financial aid for scholars from low-income families, which are three in four families of D.C. students.

College preparation also is enhanced by the partnerships that Friendship has established with the University of Maryland at College Park, Arizona State University, Granite State College in New Hampshire and others. Here again, the preparation provided by AP and college courses prove their worth as students study close to 10 hours each week at college-level, thereby increasing college readiness and jump-starting college and their career by earning college credits on college campuses and online.

While data confirms the academic accomplishments of Friendship students and the opportunities that await future generations, perhaps the most rewarding aspect is to observe the achievements of individual students who are now alumni of this college-going culture.

In this regard, I think of Percee Goings, a Columbia University graduate, now working with a technology company in New York City; Daniel Spruill, Princeton Class of 2018 who is contemplating many job offers and a tech start-up opportunity; Kianna Murphy, who is studying for her PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania and will begin teaching there in the fall; and Jay Cammon, who is a University of Pennsylvania student. I think of their fellow alumni, Posse scholars and college graduates Kirk Murphy and Brandon Irack-Edelin, who have established a scholarship program for upcoming Friendship students.

In all of this, I am reminded of the lifeline that creating a culture where students graduate college-ready provides, profoundly benefiting them and all of us.