LEARN DC PCS most likely not to be approved by charter board

Last Monday evening the DC Public Charter School Board considered the application of LEARN DC PCS to open a Pre-Kindergarten three to eighth grade school on the grounds of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB). As you recall, this charter management organization was selected by the Parent Operator Selection Team (POST), a group of four military and four Ward 8 parents, through a request for proposal to submit an application to open the new school. As I detailed previously, the POST was aided by an advisory board that included Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) and other community members, and it received financial support from Education Forward. The charter would begin operating during the 2021-to-2022 school year and grow to teach 712 pupils. In addition, the AppleTree Institute would be contracted to manage Pre-Kindergarten three and four.

From the minute the public hearing began, you could tell that the PCSB was skeptical of the bid. I want to be careful here. It was absolutely clear from the testimony of many on this night, especially that of Maya Martin, the founder and executive director of PAVE who would become the school’s board chair, that the POST did some extraordinary work over the past twelve months. It met two to three hours every other Saturday to learn about the educational landscape in the city, and through guest lectures by groups such as the PCSB and EdOps, to understand the national and local charter movement. It was this team that eventually settled on LEARN to open the charter that would offer an admission preference of up to half of its enrollment to military families.

However, here is where the process may not have been ideal. It was revealed at this session that the POST received responses to its RFP from three local charters and two national ones. Through a rubric analysis one local group was eliminated. Then following a SWAT review LEARN became the clear choice. Here we have the POST becoming almost a substitute to the charter board for making a school selection. Perhaps it would have been preferable to ask that all interested parties submit applications to the PCSB and then let this body decide which one gets to open. This is how it was done when a replacement for Options PCS was sought. After all, approving new schools is part of its standard operating procedures.

But I digress. The night began on a high note as representatives of LEARN DC and the LEARN Charter School Network detailed it record of having 95 percent of its students graduate high school and 83 percent admitted to college. The CMO consists of ten campuses in Chicago teaching over 4,200 students. 94 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced priced meals. Two of its schools serve children of military families.

One exciting aspect of this charter that goes up to the eighth grade is that it back fills open slots throughout the academic year and through middle school.

Mr. Gregory White, LEARN president and chief executive officer, provided numerous uplifting anecdotes about the exciting efforts of this CMO on behalf of its students.

Eventually, questions and comments from the board began to demonstrate their concerns around the charter. Saba Bireda, the PCSB’s vice chair, brought up high student suspension rates at LEARN 8, the network’s middle school. Scott Pearson, the PCSB’s executive director, commented that he visited LEARN 6 and a few of the other campuses and stated that he saw some excellent teaching and some that was mediocre. He added that other members of his group had visited all ten schools and reported back that some were better than others. One leader informed Mr. Pearson that his site was a turnaround school.

Mr. Pearson also related that the board has looked at a lot of test results and that the NWEA Map test shows that at almost half of LEARN’s schools most of the results are below average, meaning that fifty percent of students are not meeting their expected growth in math.

Another area of uneasiness with this application revolves around the proposed governance structure of the school. LEARN DC would become part of the LEARN Network, and, according to the LEARN DC application, the network would become the sole member of LEARN DC. Under this arrangement the CMO would have the following powers:

  • To approve material amendments to LEARN DC’s Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws;
  • To appoint and remove directors;
  • To approve the merger, consolidation, or affiliation of the corporation with another corporation, organization or program or the dissolution of the corporation; and
  • To approve the assumption or creation of any indebtedness of the corporation, except in the ordinary course of business of the corporation.

In other words, although the representatives from LEARN stated that the Washington, D.C. board of directors would be responsible for the success of the school, much of the authority would belong to those residing outside of the District of Columbia.

Mr. Cruz, the PCSB chair, concluded the conversation by observing that national charter school networks do not have a great track record here in the nation’s capital. Of course, with the exception of KIPP DC PCS, he is unfortunately absolutely correct. Academic weaknesses have been noted at Democracy Prep PCS, Harmony PCS, and Somerset Prep PCS. Basis PCS has been criticized for its lower-than-expected enrollment of special education and low-income students.

I have to admit that I was intrigued by the information that a couple of our town’s charters had replied to the POST RFP. In my mind, considering the deep complexities of public education in the nation’s capital, it would be best for our community and those residing at JBAB to select one of these schools.

The PCSB will vote on the LEARN DC application at its November meeting.

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